H&W's 9/11 Report goes graphic.
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In the latest sign that comics have found a home at traditional book publishers, Hill & Wang, a nonfiction imprint at the distinguished literary house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, will publish a series of nonfiction comics works this fall, led by a comics adaptation of The 9/11 Commission Report as well as biographies of Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan. The line of books will be called Novel Graphics, an intentional reference to the awkward term graphic novel, which is sometimes used to refer to even nonfiction works.

Former DC Comics editor Andy Helfer has written the Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan biographies with research assistance from Jessica Marshall, a Ph.D. in history and a former editor of the Harvard Lampoon. Artist Randy DuBurke will illustrate Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography and Steve Buccellato will do the art for Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography. The script of The 9/11 Report has been created by longtime comics pro Sid Jacobson, an editor and writer at Harvey Comics and Marvel Comics, and veteran comics artist Ernie Colon will illustrate the book.

And there's more to come, says Hill & Wang publisher Thomas LeBien, the creator of the series. In 2007, LeBien's got plans for a graphical book on the history of the SDS, to be written by Paul Buhle, a Brown University professor and editor of The Wobblies: A Graphic History of the Industrial Workers of the World, published last year by Verso. In addition Helfer will edit graphic biographies of Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover and Isadora Duncan that will be published in 2007.

"I've been chewing on this for years. I have a deep sympathy for classic American comics," says LeBien. "These books will appeal to consumers and to educators for course adoptions. Graphics can do things that no other medium can." Before joining FSG four years ago, LeBien was an editor of serious nonfiction at Oxford University Press, specializing in history, political science and law. He became publisher of Hill & Wang two years ago. "I continue to edit in addition to my administrative duties," says LeBien, "and it has really been a rejuvenation for me to be able to work on graphic projects."

"To do a graphic work on The 9/11 Commission Report, in particular," he says. "I was always aware of comics but I'm doing this because it really seemed like smart publishing." LeBien explains, "A lot of book publishing these days is not going where the readers are. These books still have to be smart, credible and different. It was just too interesting not to pursue." LeBien says he put together a "a stack of support materials—a lot of PW's articles on comics," before approaching FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi about launching Novel Graphics. "Editors get a lot wiggle room here and I knew that if you have a passion for a book project, Jonathan will say, 'Go do it. Prove to me that it'll work.' "

The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, edited by Sid Jacobson, will be 150 pages, while the biographies will run about 120 pages each. For the 9/11 adaptation, LeBien said he chose Colon because he wanted "a classic American comics drawing style." That's exactly what he got, and LeBien described working with Jacobson and Colon, two veteran comics professionals, as "being straight out of [Michael Chabon's] Kavalier and Klay."

The 9/11 Report adaptation, he says, will "tell a complex story with greater clarity. Not enough Americans have read the original report." The adaptation LeBien explains, will "visually walk you through the FAA and the Department of Defense. It will show who is talking to who; offer a time line of the attacks; information on Islamic fundamentalism; the transition from the Clinton administration to Bush. Everything that's in the report, and it's all studiously apolitical, just like the original report." The Malcolm X biography, LeBien says, is informed by The Autobiography of Malcolm X and other references, and Helfer's text incorporates disputed events and the many academic questions that surround Malcolm X's life. The Reagan graphic biography, LeBien says, "will try to explain his revered political status to those people who still don't get it."

The launch of Novel Graphics marks FSG and its parent company, the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group, a German media conglomerate that also owns St. Martin's Press, as a significant player in the comics market among traditional book publishers. Only Disney's Hyperion Publishing and Random House, with regular comics publishing at its Pantheon, Del Rey and Crown Books units, has as much serious comics publishing. FSG distributes Drawn & Quarterly, a small comics house that could be described as the FSG of the comics world. Holtzbrink also distributes NBM's Papercutz line, which includes Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and Zorro graphic novels. In addition, Henry Holt, another Holtzbrinck company, will be involved in what is likely to be one of the biggest comics publishing stories of 2006—the launch of First Second, a comics publishing imprint that will release its debut titles in the spring. And Metropolitan Books, another Holt imprint, will publish comics journalist Joe Sacco's next book.

Indeed, LeBien points to all of this when explaining how FSG and the Holtzbrinck sales, marketing, promotional and distribution support staff plan to sell a category not usually associated with traditional book publishing. "Our reps have had a couple of seasons with D&Q and now they're working on First Second and Papercutz," says LeBien. "They're getting knowledge and familiarity with the category that I can capitalize on."