If you pick up the first volume of Flight, a groundbreaking color comics anthology edited by Kazu Kibuishi and originally published by Image Comics in 2004, and glance at the list of contributors, many names will seem familiar: Derek Kirk Kim, Hope Larson, Vera Brosgol, Dylan Meconis, Erica Moen. Now after much critical acclaim for the Flight anthology series, Kibuishi has organized a new anthology called Explorer: The Mystery Boxes, that was published in the spring by Abrams’ Amulet Books.
The contributors to those original Flight anthologies are now well known names in comics circles, but they were just starting out when artist Kazu Kibuishi put together the first Flight anthology as a place for his friends to publish their work. The combination of their talent, Kibuishi's editing skills, and high production values made Flight 1, and the seven more Flight and one Flight Explorer anthologies that followed, some of the most praised books of the 2000s.
Explorer: The Mystery Boxes is Kibuishi's latest anthology, and the first one to have a unifying theme. Published by Abrams under their Amulet Books imprint, it is targeted at young adult readers but has much to offer adults as well. It seemed like an opportune moment to ask Kibuishi to reflect on eight years of editing anthologies and what makes this one different from all the rest.
PWCW: How did you come up with the idea of the mystery box as a unifying theme for this anthology?
Kazu Kibuishi: Ever since I decided that the "mystery box" would be the central concept for the stories in the book, many people pointed me to J.J. Abrams's TED talk about mystery boxes and storytelling. While this isn't what spurred the concept, I do agree that the idea of a mysterious box is a nice analogy for effective storytelling. With a box, you can get a sense of what you might find inside by understanding its size and shape, but not knowing exactly what's inside draws you towards discovering the contents. Similarly, the act of setting up expectations and playing with them to convey an emotion or an idea is central to great storytelling. A mysterious box works as a great, simple device to set up this framework very quickly.
PWCW: When you edited the first Flight anthology, you were young and all the creators were young. How is the experience of editing this anthology different from that?
KK: As I've grown older, my motivations for drawing comics have changed. I'm now a lot more focused on delivering content for the readers and not just for other creators. Flight was created because we, the creators on the book, didn't have a place to put the kind of work we loved to create, and we felt many others would share our sensibilities. The new Explorer series was created because younger readers didn't have many places to find new comics made for them. The introduction of up-and-coming creators became secondary to filling a void left by the lack of quality all-ages comics.
Even though I write for everyone, including people my age and beyond, I do have to remember that I fell in love with comics as a kid, and I want to help make sure this continues to happen for young readers growing up today. It's almost as if our generation decided to take our toys with us, instead of sharing. Kids really want—and in many cases, need—comics. Comics can be especially helpful in getting kids interested in literature, and in the exchange of ideas.
The biggest difference from a creative standpoint is that this book is more carefully edited, thanks to Sheila Keenan at Abrams. Sheila [editor Sheila Keenen] worked with me on the first two volumes of Amulet, so we already had a good working relationship.
PWCW:This anthology has an explicit theme, but did the earlier anthologies have an unstated theme or a particular tone you were striving for?
KK: No. This is the first anthology we've created that has a theme.In the first Flight anthology, many creators decided to tackle the concept of flight, but this was not necessarily encouraged. That book was simply supposed to be a home for people's personal projects.
PWCW:How do you find the creators for these comics?
KK: Most of the creators are friends I have known from Flight. Aside from the requisite writing and drawing skills, they are chosen for their professionalism.
PWCW:How did you explain the theme to them?
KK: Very easily! I just told them to write a story that involves a mysterious box.
PWCW:How involved are you as an editor—do you suggest changes in story and art?
KK: I select the creators, the theme, draw a story, and design the cover. Aside from that, I'm actually very hands-off during the creative process, and that's where Sheila Keenan, our editor at Abrams, comes in. She does a great job of helping the creators clearly communicate their stories to younger readers and keeps them on track to deliver their stories on time. Every now and then I will offer some words of encouragement and suggestions.
PWCW:How do you strike a balance of different types of stories?
KK: We know the work of each creator when they are asked to come aboard, so we already have a good idea of what to expect. We don't ask anyone to change their style or tone to suit the book, but only to consider what the others are doing.
PWCW:People often talk about anthologies as being a "mixed bag"; there are always some stories the reader likes better than others. Why do you think this is a good format for comics?
KK: It's a good format for two reasons. First, comics are great at distilling big ideas into small spaces, so they are a natural fit for shorter narratives. The second reason is that most artists have a hard time drawing lengthier comics, so anthologies provide a good platform for creators to develop their stories without too much pressure placed on their success.
PWCW:How has editing the work of others affected your own work?
KK: It has naturally been very helpful. Being able to articulate how and why something works has been especially great for teaching. And as I teach others, I continue to learn. Sometimes my assumptions are proved wrong by a creator, which is a wonderful thing. Seeing the many perspectives on storytelling and production greatly informs my own work methods.