Comics and graphic novels for children have enjoyed an explosion of attention from publishers and readers alike in recent years, and Mark Siegel, editorial director at Roaring Brook’s First Second imprint, hopes that resurrecting a series by French comic book creator Joann Sfar can help the author find the same popularity here that he does abroad. This April, the imprint will release Little Vampire, a compilation of three graphic novels by Sfar, the first two of which had been published individually by Simon & Schuster five years ago.
Siegel, who acquired the first two books in the series in 2001 when he was at S&S, recalls that the publishing industry was just beginning to pay close attention to comics at that time. “Back then it was still on the horizon,” he says, referring to the current comics boom. Though he was a senior designer at S&S, not an editor, Siegel was able to “dip into editorial” to explore, in his words, his interest in “experimenting within the picture book world with some real quality comics without commissioning a new project, [instead using] something with a proven track record.”
Siegel, who grew up in France, had kept tabs on the comics scene there, and felt that Sfar’s Little Vampire books, which have sold 200,000 copies in that country alone and have been translated into 12 languages, would be a good candidate, even though the creator was not well known in the U.S at the time. The series, which Siegel and his brother Alexis translated into English, centers on the title character and an orphaned boy, Michael, whom Little Vampire befriends after doing the boy’s homework at night. The pair, as well as a varied cast of monsters, embarks on adventures that include learning martial arts to combat a bully and rescuing dogs being used for cosmetics tests.
The stories do not shy away from serious topics such as death or religion—in one scene in Little Vampire Goes to School, Michael says that he doesn’t owe God anything, if He even exists, because his parents had died. “Joann is very much in tune with his own childhood, and it’s not a rose-colored glasses view,” Siegel says. “He is very deliberately trying to have a kind of release for some of the dark things that children need to cope with as they grow up.”
Siegel’s intuition about the series’ potential for U.S. success seemed to be confirmed when S&S published the books in 2003. “It took off really quickly,” he says. “Little Vampire Goes to School hit the New York Times list, and we followed with the second book [Little Vampire Does Kung Fu!].”
But soon after, Siegel accepted an offer to head up his own imprint at Roaring Brook Press, and First Second launched in 2006, giving Siegel an opportunity to break Sfar out to a wider audience. “By then I was encouraged that Joann had the potential to become a star in America, in the way he’s a media darling in Western Europe,” he says.
In 2006, First Second published the first two books in Sfar’s Sardine in Outer Space series; Vampire Loves, a quasi-prequel to Little Vampire in which the character is an adult vampire; and Klezmer: Tales of the Wild East. And last year, the imprint followed with Sfar’s The Professor’s Daughter,with Emmanuel Guibert, and two additional Sardine in Outer Space titles. Sfar’s graphic novels have also been published in the U.S. by Pantheon (The Rabbi’s Cat) and NBM Publishing (the Dungeon series with Lewis Trondheim).
First Second bought paperback rights for the first two Little Vampire stories from S&S, and repackaged them into a compilation with Little Vampire and the Canine Defenders Club (which had not yet been published in the U.S.) in a 7 1/2” x 10” format, slightly larger than most of the house’s titles. “It’s just a little bit smaller than the European format and a bit bigger than our standard graphic novel format,” Siegel says. “As a way of distinguishing our younger list, a lot of younger titles will be in that format. He adds that the house’s traditional format might have made the books seem “too dense” for younger readers.
First Second will launch the Little Vampire compilation with a 25,000-copy first printing, and will include it in a seasonally inappropriate—and intentionally so—“vampire month” promotion this May, along with the adult vampire comic Life Sucks by Jessica Abel, Gabe Soria and Warren Pleece. The promotion will include a vampire “blog tour,” and the imprint will offer vampire calendars for bookstores and comic book stores. “It’s funny for me because when I started, I told a few people—probably on record—that I wasn’t going to do any vampire books, and I think this is our third one,” Siegel says of the Sfar compilation.
Additional three-story volumes are planned for Little Vampire; Siegel hopes to publish one per year. While he notes that this series may have crossover appeal for adults, he believes Little Vampire is squarely planted in the children’s category. “Some [readers] will graduate to Vampire Loves or Klezmer, which kind of explore the same themes,” he says. “People really do get hooked on Sfar’s universe.”
Little Vampire by Joann Sfar. Roaring Brook/First Second, $13.95 paper 978-1-59643-233-8 ages 9-up