Since the release of First Second’s first list of books in 2006, Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint has published a series of authors and book-format comics that have helped establish the graphic novel category in the book trade. Most notable among the books published on that initial list was Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, which has sold more than 475,000 copies to date and was the first graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award.
At a meeting two years before the launch, Mark Siegel, a comics artist, illustrator, and designer, and highly regarded children’s book author, presented detailed plans for a graphic novel imprint, aimed at children, teens, and adults, to a group that included Macmillan CEO John Sargent; John Sterling, who was Henry Holt’s publisher at the time; and Roaring Brook Press publisher Simon Boughton. “Mark walked in with a clear and passionate vision about what a [trade book] graphic novel line could be,” Boughton said. “We had somebody who could turn an idea into something concrete.”
First Second was founded as an imprint under Roaring Brook and released 12 titles in 2006. To mark its 10th anniversary, this year First Second will publish 24 titles and plans to publish as many as 40 titles in 2017, according to Siegel. Over the past 10 years, the imprint has published about 160 graphic titles of all kinds, including Vera Brosgol’s teen supernatural graphic fiction Anya’s Ghosts (which has sold more than 110,000 copies); George O’Connor’s the Olympians, a seven-book series on the Greek Gods (which has sold more than 450,000 copies total); and Alan’s War by French comics artist Emmanuel Gilbert, a graphic memoir of an American GI in WWII.
The First Second list has also been known for innovation. Earlier this year the imprint launched the nonfiction line Science Comics, aimed at young readers. First Second recruited playwright Adam Rapp and children’s book author Jane Yolan to write graphic novels for the first time, as well as YA, fantasy, and science fiction prose authors such as Rainbow Rowell, Sharon Shinn, and Scott Westerfeld. The house also has been imaginative in using webcomics—such as Zahra’s Paradise by Amir and Tamil, Tune by Derek Kirk Kim, and Sailor Twain, Siegel’s own critically acclaimed graphic novel—to serialize books online and build a sizable audience for the titles in advance of print publication.
Although Del Rey Manga was founded in 2004, and Graphix (Scholastic’s children’s and YA graphic novel imprint) started in 2005, it was still the early days for a graphic novels imprint at the big trade houses in 2006. Boughton credited two factors with convincing him the time was right for the imprint: “There was lots of interest in graphic novels and in manga’s success in the trade [in those days], but without a clear sense of what it meant.” The other factor was Siegel: “Mark had a compelling vision,” Boughton said.
An American raised in France, Siegel grew up immersed in the French culture’s pervasive and unabashed love of all kinds of comics. Driven by Siegel’s vision of a full-service publishing line devoted to book format comics, First Second went on to assemble a lineup of critically acclaimed and commercially successful artists that now define the imprint. Unlike U.S. comics, French comics have always been a book-format category. And from the very beginning Siegel went after all three book market segments, children’s, YA, and adult.
When First Second launched, Siegel said, “I want to bring up a new generation of comics readers. We have books for young readers and for more mature readers. But I also want to push the medium to new forms—visual essays, works for girls.” Siegel also embraced the international market and its array of comics styles. There are three great schools of international comics styles, he explained: superheroes in the U.S., manga in Asia, and European graphic novels. “The U.S. market was isolated from the others in the past. Now it is not. First Second brings a global slate of comics artists to the market,” Siegel said.
The imprint’s artists include Yang, who has been nominated twice for a National Book Award (the second nomination was in 2013 for Boxers & Saints, a graphic novel set during China’s Boxer Rebellion), and the creative team of artist Jillian and writer Mariko Tamaki (who are cousins), whose This One Summer (2014), the coming-of-age story of a preteen, has won multiple literary prizes, including being the first graphic novel awarded a Caldecott Honor.
In 2015 the house published acclaimed comics theoretician Scott McCloud, whose bestselling work The Sculptor is an adult graphic novel focused on the power of art, love, and the inevitability of death, his first work of fiction in many years. There’s also Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl trilogy (more than 251,000 copies sold), a trio of bestselling kids graphic novels begun in 2011. Siegel said that artist Paul Pope (Battling Boy), who has worked for DC Comics and indie houses such as Dark Horse, “helped us bridge the comics shop and book marketplace.”
Although both Siegel and Boughton declined to characterize First Second’s profitability, both pointed to 2013 as a key year that established the line’s stability. “Over the last three years growth has accelerated, the backlist is accumulating, and the business is solid,” Boughton said. Siegel added that “2013 was a big year; we were squeaking by with awards and great reviews, but then we took off and really matured as a business.”
Looking ahead, Siegel is bullish on the newly launched Science Comics line, which is commissioned and designed by First Second editors, rather than being built through books acquired in finished form via agents. “We launched in March with four titles, and the response has been incredible,” Siegel said. “We got big foreign-rights offers within a week of the launch—even from France, which is saturated in the category.” First Second has signed 18 Science Comics titles and will release two a season. In addition, there’s a live-action film in development based on Paul Pope’s 2013 YA graphic novel, Battling Boy (Pope is also working on a sequel, Battling Boy II), and Siegel, this time as a cartoonist, is working on “a couple of new books,” though he declined to offer more details.
“We planted a seed [when we launched First Second], and the market came to us,” Boughton said. “You have to be patient, and we work at a company that is patient. We’re realistic, but pragmatic.”
First Second’s success has also had an “effect on the traditional publishing side” at Roaring Brook, Boughton added. First Second authors, he said, are now doing picture books for other Macmillan units. “There’s a cross-pollination between other imprints, an exchange of storytelling ideas,” he said. Boughton gave a hint to the possibility of future incarnations of First Second titles. “We hope that First Second characters will eventually end up in other media. That will really have an impact.”