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By Tim Leong
SIEGEL’S ON FIRST
First Second books is on the clock. The new graphic novel imprint from children’s publisher Roaring Brook Press debuts this month with much of the comics industry watching. In an already crowded graphic novel market, First Second is trying to carve a niche with its strategy of global content for all ages. Spearheaded by Editorial Director Mark Siegel, First Second is already on a roll with its first season of books, which includes marquee names from the international scene. Siegel spoke with Comic Foundry about the firsts and seconds of the new imprint.
Tell us about the FIRST time you thought about launching a graphic novel line.
Before this I was at Simon & Schuster and started out as a lowly designer. I was art directing by the time I left. At that point I had two experiments in publishing that allowed me to escape the confines of my designer job. One was I illustrated “Sea Dogs,” which was a picture book in comic format for kids. I’m actually going to Texas for it next week to get this award for it, which is great. It’s the Blue Bonnet award, which is one of my favorite awards because it’s given by kids – actual readers. It’s very exciting, and it’s an indication that young readers actually want to read in that way, which a lot of publishers have lots of doubts about where the picture book set is concerned.
That was one experiment, and the other was, at the time, I nudged my way into the editorial side of Simon & Schuster books for young readers and I acquired “Little Vampire Goes to School” by Joann Sfar. My brother (Alexis) translated it, and we kinda got that as a test, as an experiment. And we even got it on the New York Times Bestseller List. But it was so far outside of what Simon & Schuster was about that they didn’t really give it any support. Normally, even a small independent could’ve done so much and made hay after appearing on the list. Being in the Top 10 is such a killer thing, but nothing happened and it was a bit of a sleeper and it kept on selling.
So what happened is when I was at S&S I started thinking very hard about the American market and was doing research on that side of the business. But also, I’d had a longstanding craving for a certain kind of literary, but not stiff and stodgy, graphic novel production. With high production values and really personal authors and there were signs of it happening in some ways, but I started thinking about what was possible in America that hadn’t happened yet at the time. I started fleshing that out and was trying to run some thoughts past some people. Then I got started talking to some other people at other companies that I knew. The next thing I knew I was meeting up with some people here, at the Holtzbrinck companies, and I’d worked out this vision, at this point, laid out on paper – about 3-4 pages of graphics and stuff about how I’d approach a high quality line to go really boldly into the American marketplace and not to jump on the bandwagon. Graphic novels were starting to become a story at that point and now they really are. It was also how to shape the market and raise the bar so America can take its place at the center, creatively, at a very highly exciting field. I’d worked some of this out and had stuff to show and talk about. The next thing I knew they said, “We’d like to offer you an imprint.” So I went for it and a lot of the business side of it is Simon Bouton, who is the publisher of Roaring Brook Press, our parent company. And he handles a lot of that. I’m involved, but I try to stay in the creative end of it.
After you got the green light, was the FIRST thing you did to set up the line?
I had a tiny office before we moved into the Flatiron building, where we are now, and I basically went berserk hoarding and chasing my favorite authors and artists around the world. Honestly, except for maybe two or three, they’re all signed on board. I had a lot that I’ve discovered since. There was actually a really important step that I missed in the beginning of First Second. I had a very important meeting with Jessica Abel and Matt Madden while I was still at Simon & Schuster. They actually are very important in the story of First Second’s appearance. It was one of those magical meetings at the right time for both of us. We signed a number of projects with them now and more to come. But Jessica introduced me to a number of indie American comics talents who I didn’t know but are now very important in our upcoming lists. People like Sarah Varon, Brian Ralph, Paul Pope. And a number of others … Greg Cook, people who have some very exciting projects coming up. We owe her a lot. She was very instrumental, like in that (Malcolm) Gladwell book, she’s a connector. She’s at the hub of the comics scene in America.
Who was the FIRST person you went after?
I think on the foreign side it was Joann Sfar because I was already working with him. I knew Pantheon had snagged The Rabbi’s Cat, which is one of my all-time favorites. There were different firsts. One of the firsts Americans was Jessica and the second was probably Sarah Varon. The foreigners … I think Joann was the first and Lewis Trondheim was the second. As far as the original discoveries, Grady Klein was the first. I was just, just starting out and I was making calls and sending e-mails like a madman to all the people that I was inspired by, basically. Some editor from Hill and Wang, which is part of FSG, called Thomas LeBien, came over and said, “Oh, I’ve got this friend of mine who’s working on this project. He’s been working on it for a while. He’s out of animation, I don’t know, what do you think of this? He just showed me these six black and white pages. At first glance it looked a little odd and I picked it up. And by the time I was on page six I was getting goose bumps and getting the sense it was something to define us by. That was definitely a first.
How did you go about finding FIRST-timers like Grady Klein and Will Davis?
That one was lucky. Some of them are first-timers in graphic novels but I knew through their work in picture books. So Will Davis is a very accomplished illustrator who did some work with JT Petty in his young chapter books called Clemency Pogue. And JT Petty went on to write an incredible script that Brian Ralph is working on called The Third Horseman. And he’s one of the most talented writers of his generation. He’s a screenwriter as well and has written videogames. I think of the things I learned from a very wise editor by the name of Dick Jackson, who’s a legend in children’s publishing. He told me as a piece of advice when I started that, “Whenever you sign anybody on, there’s always two or three talented people connected to them, so listen to their suggestions.”
You mentioned you were previously a designer how does that SECOND skill set come in handy?
It’s actually a fascinating thing because I’ve been learning very, very intensively about being an editor. What’s fascinating about graphic novels is that an editor needs to be an art director and an art director needs to be an editor. You can’t separate them. The storytelling is going to switch arcs between the two ends of expression between the words and the pictures. In some cases I hire a freelance editor, who has been doing some amazing work as an editor on the text. When I do that I work as the art director. If I want to focus on the editing of a project I tend to bring in an art director on the side. So we have this team and if we work as a team we need to be very close. I feel like my training as a designer, which I was fortunate to work with some very, very good mentors and art directors from picture books who taught me a love of the care that can go into a type treatment, into a title, basically go in and not just apply some gimmicky, Photoshop effect and get the standard drop shadow. A lot of the stuff you see in bookstores today is this nonthinking design. But it’s this love of the craft of designing which is something I want to infuses into First Second very much. But then there’s the same thing on the editorial side in that there’s been an interesting evolution away from editors and back toward editors lately. I think that’s one area that can be the next leap forward for graphic novels. If graphic novels can have the same kind of editorial care that the best novelists expect. In other words, somebody that can ask the tough questions, look at character development, look at relationship arcs, back stories, the architecture of a plot. And it depends on the artist, the person, the project, on how much you can be involved as an editor. I feel like we have a number of projects now and in the coming seasons that a good editor can bring the very, very best out of a creator. If it’s not meddling and it’s coaching and joining them inside their vision. Like a good art director does on the visual side, having that kind of care editorially. Then of course on the production end, which is solving problems and headaches and of course I have my one or two glitches with in the first season which I’ll forever be wincing at every time I see them. But we’re working on it. We’re on an improving, refining curve that we’re working to get the kind of books I dream of.
When the books come out, what do you think the FIRST thing people will see that sets your line apart from other graphic novel companies?
I would really like it if people, regardless of whether they’re into comics or not. … My wife is a really good measure – she’s really not into comics but there are some that have really, deeply touched her, like the Rabbi’s Cat, Persepolis, some of our books. That’s a really good measure for me. But as far as the first response, I’d like our books to have a special pollen – an irresistible attractiveness. That you want to hold them, you want to have them and sit with them quietly and read them in an intimate way. And as we get better at these and upgrading the editorial, the art direction and the production, we are working with these really talented people, the creators themselves, it’s going to happen. It’s happening already. We have people that are new to the graphic novel form but they go, “Ooh, this is attractive.” I think the way that can set us apart in some ways is that on one hand, I love that avant garde, experimental things that push the form itself – the formal experiments, but that’s not what we’re about. We’re about author-driven, into the mainstream in a broad way, but at a high standard. So with quality. With challenging stuff. All in all, in trying to make our overall package reach out toward the reader rather than being elitist and difficult to access. I find a lot of people not into graphic novels to begin with, they pick them up and find them a little daunting. They flip through them and say, “Ough, this is going to be difficult.” It’s very dense, it’s very dark, it’s very this, it’s very that. And then those who make an effort - if it’s a good one, they’ll be taken and drawn up into it. I’d like our books to distinguish themselves by being appetizing and then being really rewarding for those who follow that scent.
How is having a SECOND language and growing up in France made it easier for you to build a global portfolio?
Right from the start we had an international vision of what was possible here. I had an interest and obviously I grew up with the stuff. I knew that, for example, the Western European French, Belgian, Italian, Spanish scenes, creatively speaking, have a lot to offer America, and America has a lot to offer them. And Asia has a lot to offer both and learn from both. And now, these three major currents are colliding with each other in a really fascinating way. I think if you live in Europe or anyone who spends a couple of months in Europe, you feel the rest of the world much more. And when we’re here in America, America becomes the world, a bit. It’s harder. That’s why it’s very important that we’re doing Deogratias: A the tale of Rwanda, about the genocide and then in the fall we’re doing Kampung Boy, about Lat, who is this superstar cartoonist in Malaysia but no one has heard of him here. It’s about growing up as a Muslim boy in rural Malaysia. These are windows into the world. I think in some ways the model of the early European comics like Tin Tin…I was just speaking to my grandmother, who just turned 102, and she’s amazing. She’s got all her wit, she lives by herself, she walks a mile to get her groceries. She’s just this incredible character. She was telling me about how she lived in Vietnam when it was Indochina and it was a French colony. And she’d get these shipments from the continents of Tin Tin books in the early ’30s. She had some of the first Tin Tin books and then my mother was reading them later in the ’50s and I read them later in the ’70s. That says a lot right there about the power of comics. You have this world of Tin Tin, which is a little limited now when compared to how the form has evolved, but it’s still an amazing thing to look into. And what it was for a lot of people was a window to places like Tibet. A window to China, to America. However full of stereotypes and unfortunate colonial views, for them it was a way of actually opening up to the world. And I think part of the manga phenomena in America is partly a Japanese fad, which is huge Japanese pop culture. But there’s something else happening. Maybe since 9-11, maybe since just the shifts that’s happened in America, but I think younger readers are much more turned toward the rest of the world and that Tin Tin effect of having windows to other parts of the human experience is something I think means something to young readers who are Internet savvy that the older generations didn’t necessarily have in America where there wasn’t that much interest. Foreign imports were always a problem.
One of the FIRST things I noticed about your books was the color. How does that play into your strategy?
That really plays into the idea of making things appetizing and appealing and not overly difficult. I think there are certain types of artwork that must be in black and white, and that’s one thing. But for us the majority of our books are in color. In some cases I’m working with some colorists that I know who are very talented. One in particular is Hilary Sycamore. I’ve known her for a number of years and she’s studied color theory and color therapy and she’s taught color in London where she grew up. She is really working in this really narrative color, which is very different than incidental color, instead of the primaries, which is the stupid, redundant color, I think. Instead of green grass, blue sky, pink flesh or whatever, you get this color that’s designed to almost be a musical score in a movie. It’s going to heighten the emotion in a scene or in some cases just clarify the planes – the foreground, middle ground, background. It tends to be a more limited palette and tends to be more thought-through – that palette is designed according to each project. If I team her up with an artist, the artist is very much designing and art directing her. So she’s coming inside of that vision. In a way it’s taking color seriously as a mature thing. That is, it’s a vital aspect to the atmosphere you’re taking your reader into. It’s like going back to the question before when you first look at the book. You get this really rich experience. Some of it might be more subdued and more neutral. Some of it might be more loud and colorful, but overall it’s a very important aspect. I know some publishers think more color makes it more childlike and I don’t agree. I think it depends on the intelligence that goes into the color.
The FIRST season’s about to ship - what’ve you learned thus far from the FIRST season that has really helped you with the SECOND season?
A part of it is having every technical nightmare. On the first season we basically we were very lucky to have our production team from Holt that Jennifer Van Dalsen is the head of. She’s First Second’s guardian angel. We basically started out in this form of books with technical challenges that are way beyond picture books and novels. And she solved so many problems in that first season. You know, at the very last minute she knew something would go wrong. We had different freelancers using different formats and applications. So a lot of that, in the course of that first season, every headache that came out way, we made an entry into our designer’s bible. On the technical side, it’s publishing, so there’s always some kind of nightmare going on with typos or design problems or a spine that doesn’t align, God knows what. So on that side it’s been the steepest curve. On the art direction side, I think other than that we’re in a kind of continuum with first, second and third seasons. I do like the idea with First Second, depending where I am and who I’m talking to I explain the name in very different ways. But one way that I really like is that First Second is the beginning of a sequence. It’s something getting triggered. It begins but it doesn’t stop – it keeps going. That’s what I think about our seasons.
In the launch, did you have a lot of people in-house SECOND-guessing you at the time, and how did you battle it?
Well, in-house, knock on wood, we’ve had tremendous support. The whole thing started out with these two breakfasts: One with John Sterling, the head of Holt, and one with Simon Bouton, the head of Roaring Brook. The first breakfast was pretty much my laying out this vision of mine and they went off and cooked on it. The second breakfast was them starting off and saying we’d like to offer you an imprint.
At a lecture hosted at McSweeney’s last fall, Art Spiegelman theorized about the bottom dropping out of the graphic novel industry due to overcrowding and other variables. I’m guessing that’s an idea you wouldn’t SECOND?
Right. Definitely not. I think it’s like everything. If you look at movies and music and any other kind of publishing, whether it’s novels or picture books, there’s always a large amount of crap, and then there’s good stuff. The good stuff has a funny way of staying. The true, the sincere, the artful, stands the test of time. It’s not that I’m naive and idealistic totally. But at the same time I do try to keep a bit naïve and idealistic. Sometimes I think the naïve and idealistic changes the world. The whole thing with the marketplace and the current hype about graphic novels is bound to pass. I don’t think it’s peaked yet quite, in spite of what a lot of people say. But I think it’ll pass and I’m looking forward to it passing because right now in the mainstream press, we’re just at the point of the graphic novel as a new form and all this and that. It really isn’t and I’m more interested in when we come back around and the discussion is more about authors and work – the actual work and the substance in it. I think what’s interesting about books like Persepolis and The Rabbi’s Cat is that they’re touching people. They couldn’t be anything but graphic novels and they’re touching people not because they’re some hot new trend, but because they touch some deep universal human things. In a way that’s where my focus is. I put in the Fall catalog, I put in my introduction that fads come and go but good authors stay forever. I believe that. It’s one of the pillars of what we’re doing. Right now it doesn’t hurt. There’s some good buzz about it all. It helps our sales reps. It helps establish something. It’ll be much more of an interesting discussion when there’s some people who are just household names because people follow their work.
And winding down, in this whole process have you had any SECOND thoughts?
I think one of the things that I’ve learned, is that an editor has to trust their instinct. There’s a lot of intelligence in that first instinct. Sometimes second-guessing myself or trying to reason myself into a project because you know it makes good commercial sense, those are the times that I thought, “OK, maybe these are the things that are moving away from what we’re really about.” And it’s fine because there’s a place for that, but I definitely don’t want the line to go in that direction. I want the projects to be born out of passion. I believe it’s not something that can be calculated. That’s something for me to keep close to my heart.