Welcome to FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK, CBR’s annual interview series focusing on the minds behind the desks at the biggest, most important publishers in the comics industry. This year, the CBR News team is setting its sights outside the superhero mainstream for a look at all the hottest graphic novels, indie comics and alternative titles on the market today. And what better company to start with than First Second Books?
Started in 2006, First Second remains one of the few publishers within the framework of a large publishing house (in this case Macmillan) that is dedicated solely to the creation of comics and graphic novels. In their four years of existence, the First Second team has earned the impressive feather in their cap of a National Book Award for Gene Yang’s “American Born Chinese” and saw many titles gain the national spotlight including last year’s Emmanuel Guibert-led effort “The Photographer.”
In 2010, First Second will expand its efforts out in many new directions. From the already launched “Olympians” series by George O’Connor to “Solomon’s Thieves” – a new series written by “Prince of Persia” creator Jordan Mechner – the spring season has its share of more adventurous comic offerings, and the First Second core of art comics and young reader titles continues with a collection of Yang’s New York Times-serialized “Prime Baby” as well as the WW2-focues “Resistance” by teen author Carla Jablonski and artist Leland Purvis amongst other titles. To top it off, the publisher also recently stepped into the world of web comics with the Iranian-themed “Zahra’s Paradise” to Editorial Director Mark Siegel’s own “Sailor Twain, Or The Mermaid On The Hudson.” CBR chatted up both Siegel and editor Calista Brill about the entire First Second Spring catalogue, whose books will be hitting in April and beyond.
CBR News: Before we get into the nitty gritty of some of the specific books on the Spring slate, I wanted to kind of check in on “the state of First Second” for a moment. 2009 certainly seemed to a be a big year for you guys with “The Photographer” alone, but I also get the feeling that each new season changes regardless of what’s been getting the buzz of late. What does 2010 feel like for you guys in terms of First Second’s continual evolution? Is there a certain area you feel you’re trying to bolster in the catalog or a kind of creator you’re trying to incorporate into the line folks haven’t seen before?
Mark Siegel: Yes, 2009 was quite an important juncture for First Second, during a time of great stress and testing for publishing generally. “The Photographer” and “Adventures In Cartooning” bolted out the door and continue to perform. But there were many successes, and each season does have a unique flavor. 2010 Spring has a youthful quality, it’s mostly high-adventure, high-octane reading pleasure!
Calista Brill: What he said! 2010 is going to be a great year for First Second readers, I think – and one thing to look for is a higher-than-usual ratio of homegrown American projects, with a beautiful French import – the Zabime Sisters – representing the international end of our list.
Books! So many of them! I think it may be easiest to take some of these in groups, and one obvious thing that stands out about this new season is that it is anchored to a certain extent by creator’s who at this point have become First Second regulars – George O’ Connor. Gene Yang. Jordan Mechner. How does having a handful of creators with a built-in audience affect the line as a whole?
Siegel: Books! Yes! We love ’em! It’s true this season has a few pillars of the First Second temple…I love the idea that First Second is building a stable of world class talent, and develops many of its books and its authors over time, giving them a chance to grow and blossom. And this crop sure is turning out some fine blooms!
Brill: It’s down-home days here at First Second Farm. In all seriousness, though, it’s definitely a great thing to create a home for authors within one imprint the way we have.
Of course, with each of these books you’re also trying out some new territory. With O’Connor’s “Olympians,” we’re seeing a different, more aggressive kind of serialization than you’ve done in the past with multiple volumes each year. Do you think there’s a different kind of appeal for what George is doing here than there has been for some of his past work based on both the material and the release schedule?
Siegel: “The Olympians” is George’s dream project. He’s been preparing for this his whole life. He’s been researching Greek myths since he could pronounce “Persephone.” He has honed his comics skill and has now decided to tackle his herculean tasks: 12 books, about each of the major Greek gods. It had to be a series, and yes, the appeal is undeniable. I’ve been reading Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson” books with real pleasure (I hear the movie was disappointing), and I have no doubt that for the new generation Riordan introduces to Greek mythology, O’Connor’s “Olympians” is *THE* source material – pure gold! And George, besides giving a bravura performance as an artist, also reveals himself to be a brilliant writer. These will be favorites in many a bedroom, a must in every school and library. I think these “Olympians” will be around forever.
Brill: Committing to publish a series is a scary thing, as anyone in publishing will tell you. When it works, it WORKS, but when it doesn’t…well, it can be a financial disaster. At First Second, we have an additional incentive to avoid series, which is that we want to keep our lists fairly small, because we don’t want anything going out there that hasn’t had all the love and care it needed. So theoretically the odds were sort of stacked against us signing up a series on this scale…But one look at “Zeus” (and “Athena’s” almost out, too!) and you’ll see why we couldn’t possibly walk away.
With “Prime Baby,” I think it’s funny how sometimes people forget Gene Yang teaches math along with his cartooning work. How do the left brain interests at play here interact with the mix of humor and family/personal issues we’re used to seeing from Gene’s other work? And does having had an audience for the story in the Times help prep the reading public for the new ideas Gene has at play in this volume?
Siegel: Gene has this uncanny talent for working a theme or a concept into a story, or a story into an idea, while keeping an emotional core to his characters. He’ll take a mad conceit, like a new sibling whose baby babble follows a mathematical pattern, and take you to unlikely far flung places and back (not always back)- with endearing, quirky dialog, and the confidence of a true storyteller. It’s so very exciting working with Gene. His sincerity and talent have changed the landscape of the graphic novel. And what’s great is that he’s just getting started.
Brill: Agreed! I think if you heard the basic premise of “Prime Baby” you might wonder if it was going to have a “teachy” quality, like, “I’m going to trick you into learning about prime numbers with this fake story!” But Gene, though he may be a teach-ER, is never teach-Y.
“Solomon’s Thieves” reunites the team from your “Prince of Persia” OGN (conveniently resolicited now that it’s movie time!). How did this project get rolling, especially considering how much Jordan Mechner has had on his plate of late? And what can fans of his previous work be expecting with what is in many ways his first adventures story franchise since “PoP”?
Siegel: Jordan Mechner has many tricks up his sleeve. On the set of the “Prince of Persia” movie, the artists there saw him sketching and doodling and realized his journals could feed their “making of” book for the movie. Jordan also happens to be a first rate storyteller and writer. So “Solomon’s Thieves” is his first graphic novel, as a full author. It’s the first of a trilogy, set in 1407 Paris, in the last days of the Templar order. It’s breathless swashbuckling, and a fantastic, historical heist story – the Three Musketeers with a touch of “Ocean’s 11.” And LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, whose first full length graphic novel had been “Prince of Persia,” are now in top form, and turning in some of the most exciting comics I know of. Each of them is an astonishing talent, but put together, they’re miracle workers.
When I head word of “Foiled” by Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro, I’ve got to say my first thought was surprise that Yolen hadn’t written any comics before this point. Was this story something she’d specifically planned as a graphic novel, or did you guys approach her and pick up the ball from there?
Siegel: Quite a team, isn’t it? Mike Cavallaro already dazzled everyone with his “Parade With Fireworks,” and brought his consumate skill to Jane Yolen’s story. Jane first presented me with a half dozen ideas, all of them most appetizing, but it was the magical fencing one that jumped out at me.
Brill: It is surprising that Jane hadn’t written comics before! But you won’t be surprised to hear that she took to it like a fish in a comic about water. (ouch.) What a gift to have her on the list-and look out for the sequel to Foiled, which she’s writing right now!
Yolen’s work has always found creative and unexpected ways to merge fantasy with YA. In what ways do those fantastic ripples work their way into the story of Aliera’s sword-crossing romance?
Siegel: In “Foiled,” Aliera’s monochromatic world shifts into full color when the faery element enters it. So yes, Jane Yolen’s unbridled fantasy mind weaves in and out of “Foiled” and is inseparable from the high school romance.
Brill: Something else I love about this book is how big a character the prosaic, dirty, ordinary, yet still GRAND and MYSTERIOUS city of New York is. Both “Foiled” and “City Of Spies” are sort of secret love-letters to the big apple. In my humble etc.
The rest of the new books slated to hit in Spring all revolve around historical fictional tales or at the very least dramatic presentations of actual events. For each of these, I was wondering in what ways you worked with your creators to make these stories stand out in a field rife with other books rich with history. “Booth,” for example, seems to line up well with a surge of interest in Lincoln’s life connected with the most recent election. Is that just lucky timing on your part, or did C.C. Colbert and Tanitoc start to see some of those threads tie together as they worked?
Siegel: The parallels from “Booth” to our present day America kept appearing as the project unfolded. It had begun long before anyone could imagine Barack Obama becoming our president, but by the time the project came to fruit, its relevance was startling.
Brill: Any well-told story about human people (or, you know, animals) will find relevance and resonance with its audience. “Booth,” “City Of Spies,” “Resistance,” “Solomon’s Thieves” – these are all titles that will transport their readers into different eras simply by being themselves: wonderful stories. On the more practical side, we do include extra material in many of these books for readers who want to learn more about the time, or more about the making of the book. And the books for young readers are certainly classroom-friendly – they just also happen to be terrific for pleasure reading.
“City of Spies” feels like a book very much made with young comics fans in mind. In what ways do New Yorkers Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan and Pascal Dizin play a lot of real New York, spy and comic history into the story at hand that people might not immediately anticipate?
Brill: This story originated with a funny family story of both of the authors, so there’s definitely a personal connection – and an interest in the real circumstances of the time. As I said earlier, “City Of Spies” is a bit of a love-letter to NYC, both in terms of how big a character the city is in the story, and in the way Pascal, with his amazing ligne-claire line, illustrated it.
“Resistance” by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis feels like the perfect example of a book that proves that children’s literature doesn’t always have to be sanitized or hide from big issues and ideas. Still, telling stories about war and (at least tangentially) the Holocaust for a younger audience is always a very tricky road to travel. How have the authors met that challenge in this first volume?
Brill: In my opinion, they have – and with flying colors. Something I love about “Resistance” is that while it doesn’t shy away from these scary themes, it always couches them in the most relatable contexts. These kids are not the distant hero-martyrs of a long-ago war – they’re as fragile, and hopeful, and silly, and flawed, as anyone.
Mark, you’ve made news of late yourself with your web comic – “Sailor Twain, or the Mermaid on the Hudson.” I know a big deal was made of you “publishing yourself” with the eventual print edition, but I was more intrigued by the idea that you’ve been working on this story on your own for a long time without thinking about putting it out there just. Can you give me a little background on how this whole thing developed and what caused you to move forward with online serialization?
Siegel: Yes it’s been going on for a few years, as part of my daily routine. When I was first offered the chance to work with Macmillan, it was with a clear understanding that I have my own projects ongoing. And I think for many of the creators of First Second, that was always part of our creative dialog in some way. So that’s been my early morning time, mostly, in the studio before leaving for work. It was nice letting the project build its own steam without telling anyone about it. It layered and deepened without deadlines or external pressures. I do worry sometimes with authors in today’s publishing world-it’s very hard for them to allow a project to ripen slowly if it needs that. Anyway, having a day job allowed me to develop it thoroughly before showing it to anyone. The serializing was part of coming out of the hermit’s cave in a sense, and wanting to share it more immediately. Plus it taps into the serials tradition, which featured in a big way in the 1880s, and seemed to fit with the structure of Sailor Twain.
Brill: I just want to say I’ve been reading this story on the web just like the rest of you, but I know where Mark lives. So if someone breaks into his studio to read advance pages, uh, it wasn’t me?
Obviously, people will get to see the ins and outs of your story as it begins to roll out, but one thing that strikes me as really interesting about telling a tale of two men and the mermaid they follow is how it draws together both an element of actualy NYC history that doesn’t get revisited much and the kind of mythic New York of folk talkes. Is there something you find particularly engaging about that period in the city’s history that brought all these ideas together?
Siegel: 1887 is at an incredible crossroad for America, the industrial revolution, the modern world. New York city and the Hudson valley also have an amazing mystique at that time, and although NY is often used for its might and power, I’m more interested in its romantic nature, and its intrigue and supernatural mysteries. Washington Irving gave the Hudson and Sleepy Hollow a new folklore, and that’s another rich American tradition that hints of unseen, magical things.
It seems like the only thing anyone talks about in terms of the publishing business anymore is the digital frontier and e-readers and Kindles and iPhones and on and on and one. The Mermaid on the Hudson is not the first book that’s started out as a web comic, but pushing that connection back through the mill, so to speak…what do you see as the digital future for :01 titles in terms of making them available for emerging reader technologies?
Siegel: The New Year 2010 had an acute effect on me. More than other years, I felt like it really did turn a page, and suddenly the world seemed a bit different. Almost as though on December 31st 2009 the digital thing was on the distant horizon, and then suddenly the next day it was just here and now. The quality of a digital reading experience is what opens the door. First Second is about great stories, great authors, and the constant throughout the ages and media is that they will reach out and touch other minds and heart as reliably as lightning will connect-any way they can.
Come back to CBR in the weeks ahead for more installments of FROM THE EDITOR’S DESK from across the comics and graphic novel industry!