Since it first launched in 2006, First Second Books has become a major player in comics publishing — due to imported foreign titles such as Lewis Trondheim’s “A.L.I.E.E.E.N.” and Joann Sfar’s “Vampire Loves,” books like “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang and 2011’s runaway hits “Anya’s Ghost” by Vera Brogsol and “Feynman” by Leland Myrick and Jim Ottaviani. First Second draws from a wide pool of creative talent including some of Eddie Campbell’s finest books, titles from Nick Abadzis, Aaron Renier and Richard Sala. The publisher has nurtured cartoonists like Danica Novgorodoff, Nick Bertozzi, George O’Connor, and Sara Varon. It’s even published one of the great textbooks on making comics “Drawing Words and Writing Pictures” by Jessica Abel & Matt Madden.
Distributed by Macmillan Books with a diverse catalog of titles, First Second continues to grow as a comics publisher — and the publisher is looking ahead toward the future. CBR News spoke with “Sailor Twain” creator and Editorial Director Mark Siegel and the newly promoted Senior Editor Calista Brill to talk about what readers can expect in 2012 with an exclusive look at some of this year’s titles from First Second’s upcoming catalog.
CBR News: Calista, congratulations on your recent promotion to Senior Editor. What does this mean for you and for the imprint?
Calista Brill: Thank you! It’s a lovely way to start the New Year. As Senior Editor, I’ll still be editing and acquiring my own titles, but now also I’ll be focusing more on production schedules and in-house processes for the entire imprint — getting books to the printer on time and working with our awesome colleagues in sales, production, marketing, publicity, distribution, finance, etc. at Macmillan. It’s not likely that things will look very different from the outside and honestly a lot of this is stuff I was already doing on an informal basis. It boils down to: now I’m an official pain in everyone’s rear, instead of an unofficial one.
Looking back on the past few years, what do you feel has been particularly successful and what are your long-term goals for the future of the imprint?
Brill: I can’t think of anything that has really surprised me with success, because we generally publish books we expect to be successful. The unpleasant surprise is usually when a book fails to prosper. When it does well, we all just smile smugly and say, “I told you so” to each other. That said, some notable successes include this year’s “Feynman” (11 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and counting), “Anya’s Ghost,” “Nursery Rhyme Comics,” and “Zahra’s Paradise,” which I’ll let Mark speak to. As for what I’m hoping for in the years to come: I’d really like to make our youngest list for readers 3-6 much more robust — and I’d love to publish more heavy-hitting adult fiction and nonfiction.
Mark Siegel: Some books from our first lists keep winning new readers. Nick Abadzis’ “Laika,” Sara Varon’s “Robot Dreams” and “Adventures in Cartooning” by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost are but three examples of books of real merit that keep going and going. This past year was the first one in which we broke through in all three age categories. In the past, it seemed we would get a hit in children’s or in teen or in adult — but this time, all three at once. That’s very gratifying, because that’s how First Second was always meant to be.
“Zahra’s Paradise” was history making in a number of ways: we serialized it online for free and before the third chapter was up we had sold rights in a dozen languages. That was a first. It also felt like a vital entry in our collection of big human issues titles. I’m hoping our coming years can keep such a balance and breadth. I too am eager for young projects that can join the canon of great children’s literature. And I believe the great frontier for comics today is in ambitious adult fiction.
Calista, you mentioned how you’d like to make the 3-6 year old catalog stronger in years to come. What’s the challenge of finding books for that age group? Are there any particular projects in this realm you can tease?
Brill: Obviously Toon Books is doing terrific things in this realm, as is Blue Apple. I love both of their programs. We really like publishing in a format where you get a good bang for your buck (where for “bang” read “lots of story”). We’re trying a couple of experiments with collections of related stories so the book is still at least 60 pages, but the individual stories are of a length to be friendly to the youngest readers. We’re not necessarily looking to go the “Little Golden Book” format route, so failing that, the challenge to put it plainly is to figure out how to publish a graphic novel that a) has a spine and b) is still readable by someone in kindergarten or first grade.
Mark, in terms of adult fiction and nonfiction, will we see more topical books with political elements like “Zahra’s Paradise” and “The Photographer?”
Siegel: The quick answer: YES. From the start, First Second has always had a dedicated avenue for world affairs and big human race issues-mostly in non-fiction, but not always (recall “Deogratias” about the Rwandan genocide.) In coming seasons, you’ll see more ambitious projects in memoir, biography and historical fiction.
Ben Hatke has a sequel to last year’s “Zita the Spacegirl” coming out soon and with books like the upcoming “Giants Beware!” First Second books have some very strong female heroines for young readers — was this an intentional push?
Siegel: We just like great female heroines for young readers! Again, great children’s graphic novels represent another of the avenues we want to keep paving. “Zita” has garnered a following already, and the next one, “Legends of Zita,” really takes the series to a whole new level of storytelling and artistry — and should further establish Ben Hatke as a major voice in the field. As for “Giants Beware!” there’s a new heroine in town, an irresistible tomboy called Claudette, who dreams of killing giants — she’s as spunky and small as this new series is big and destined to conquer the hearts of young readers everywhere.
Brill: Adding my two cents here: it’s important to all of us that our books reflect the diversity of our readership. That said, we haven’t had to expend a ton of effort seeking awesome girl heroes for our younger titles. [It] seems like they’re crawling out of the woodwork! Zita, Claudette, Sardine, even Birdie (from the tragically underrated “Lost Colony” series) –they came to us as terrific projects that happened to also have female protagonists. So you can thank the zeitgeist for that one, I think!
First Second has done a great job of distinguishing its own identity in the marketplace, partially due to regular creators like George O’Connor, Faith Erin Hicks, Joe Infurnari and Derek Kirk Kim. How do you feel this regular staple of creators continues to help refine that identity?
Siegel: First Second is an attempt to create a good home for great talent. George O’Connor has made a prodigious journey with us. He came from picture books, gave us a non-fiction history for young readers (“Journey into Mohawk Country”) then a terrifying dystopia on a script by Adam Rapp (“Ballpeen Hammer”), and now here comes the fourth volume in one of O’Connor’s lifelong dreams: The Olympians. “Hades” is the latest, following on “Zeus,” “Athena,” and “Hera.” His mastery of the comics form is dazzling — couple that with bona fide exacting mythological research and you can see why this is addictive for young readers and teachers both. Faith Erin Hicks, Joe Infurnari, Derek Kirk Kim and many more all make First Second what it is becoming. Each of them is a voice, a unique wellspring of inspiration. With many of them I’m not only interested in their current project, but what their greater body of work might reveal.
First Second is also known for its European import books, such as Arne Bellstorf’s “Baby’s in Black,” hitting stores in May. Considering this rich history, can readers plan on seeing more work from creators like Emmanuel Guibert?
Brill: While we make a point of having a strong international presence on our list, we aren’t especially programmatic about it. “Baby’s In Black” is our first German book, I think. Basically, we publish books that we love when we think we can make them succeed in the US market. That goes for domestic titles as well as imports. But since you ask: we’ve got a new project from Emmanuel Guibert in the works for publication in a few years.
Speaking of “Baby’s in Black,” could you talk a little about the book and its core concept?
Brill: Good luck getting me to shut up about it! I first read “Baby’s In Black” last winter and I have this vivid memory of finishing reading the print-out the publisher had sent me (an English translation) on the train from Paris to Angouleme (the location of this gargantuan comics festival in Southern France) in late January. I was weeping like the vulgar American I am as the train slid through Poitiers, which appears to be a very lovely place, though my view of it at the time was sort of blurry. A day later I met Arne (the author) and his publishers and told him I was going to do everything I could to publish his book in the US.
The book is the story of Astrid Kirchherr, the modernist photographer who met and fell in love with Stuart Sutcliffe, the “fifth Beatle,” when The Beatles were just launching their career in Hamburg, Germany. All the guys are in it (except for Ringo, and with added Pete Best) and Arne’s likenesses of their sweet young, familiar faces make me go all tender and wobbly. If you have ever had a moment of passing fondness for The Beatles, seeing them in this context — not much older than children, and sort of unleashed on unsuspecting Hamburg – is such a charming and moving experience. I honestly can’t wait to see what it does to the really truly devoted Beatles fans out there.
It’s a sad story, because it’s a true story, and Stuart Sutcliffe died not long after he and Astrid Kirchherr became engaged. The story ends with his death, more or less, and there’s this wrenching sequence where Astrid hears the news on the phone (she’s at work) and the next five or six pages are completely without text: people speak to her, and there are empty speech balloons. Her face is nearly placid, as it is throughout most of the book, but you watch her wandering through these silent tableaux as people try to talk to her and she doesn’t hear a word… and you know exactly what it’s like on the inside of her. Just writing about it makes me sort of choked up.
Stuart Sutcliffe was this totally amazing guy: a fantastically talented painter as well as a bass player. This book is a lovely tribute to a beautiful, fascinating person who died much too soon. Astrid Kirchherr is a wonderful surprise as well: a cutting-edge existentialist and brilliant photographer. She also invented the Beatles’ signature mop-top haircuts, and, I believe, was the sole executer of said haircuts for a while.
Uh, sorry, that was not brief.
In addition to Arne Bellstorf, are there any newcomers to comics fans should keep an eye on for First Second’s 2012 schedule?
Siegel: I sure hope First Second can keep giving newcomers their first shot. Yes, one to keep your eye on for sure is a young heroine called Claudette, in the first book of her series: “Giants Beware!” by Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado. This is utter delight, delicious to look at, and I think it’s heading for great things. [There’s] lots more coming, including some writers who aren’t newbies in other fields, but launching into graphic novels — like playwright and film director Boaz Yakin, who penned two brilliant scripts: “Marathon” (Spring 2012; art by Joe Infurnari) and “Jerusalem” (Winter 2013; art by Nick Bertozzi.)
First Second also publishes textbooks, like “Drawing Words & Writing Pictures” by Jessica Abel & Matt Madden. What are First Second’s current plans for further books on cartoon studies?
Siegel: “Drawing Words & Writing Pictures” and its new follow-up “Mastering Comics” are immense and authoritative courses in making comics; the “Adventures in Cartooning” series is joyful, contagious passion for young artists. The latter is fruit from the Center for Cartoon Studies, the former two are by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden — great cartoonists and teachers. For First Second, this is an investment in the coming generations, the future of the medium itself.
One of your recent endeavors is serializing First Second’s graphic novels online. What are the criteria for online serialization and have you found it helps to sell the print version and/or provide a sales pitch to sell foreign language editions?
Brill: We chose books that are structured in a way where a reader won’t go nuts just looking at one page at a time. Some books lend themselves to this treatment; others definitely do not. We also chose books whose expected audience are the kinds of people who’d read webcomics. So: not the very young books. We’ve only had a couple of books publish so far after being serialized online, so the data isn’t really that useful yet, but we do know for sure that these books get more advance attention/PR opportunities and certainly with “Zahra’s Paradise,” the foreign sales component was huge.
Which books from First Second’s summer and fall 2012 catalog are you most looking forward to?
Siegel: Derek Kirk Kim’s “Tune” series will launch this Fall! The man already has groupies! Rabid fans! And their ranks are about to swell.
Brill: Thien Pham’s “Sumo”- the most poetic story about sumo wrestling you’ll ever read. And Zack Giallongo’s “Broxo,” which is a classic high-fantasy adventure story.
Also, some guy named Mark Siegel made a book about mermaids in the Hudson River.
One of the most anticipated books in First Second’s future catalog is Paul Pope’s “Battling Boy, Book 1.” What’s the most current status report on the book?
Siegel: Worth the wait. The last pages of “Battling Boy, Book 1” are coming in, and they are sublime.
Does “Battling Boy” have a release date, however tentative, so the poorer among us can start saving our pennies?
Siegel: Maybe on the fifth chance to announce its release date I won’t make that mistake again? It’s coming, and it may be soon, and that’s all I can say!