First Second's Mark Siegel Talks Publishing Original Graphic Novels

Mon, March 14th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

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As we've seen numerous new traditional comics publishers enter the comics market in recent months, so too has the original graphic novel market seen a number of new entrants. Publisher's Scholastic, Penguin and Hyperion have all started up graphic novel lines of some sort, hoping to capitalize on the growing popularity of the format.

Last January, children's publisher Roaring Brook Press announced its new graphic novel imprint, First Second. The announced publishing line-up featured an impressive list of established creators like Jessica Abel, Warren Pleece, Eddie Campbell, as well as some well-known names new to graphic novels. First Second is guided by Editorial Director Mark Siegel, who we caught up with to learn more about the publisher's plan.

With a Mother who's French and a Father who's American, Siegel spent much of his youth growing up in France where the comics market isn't dominated by super heroes and is generally looked upon with more respect. As a result, his early exposure to French comics publishing helped inform his perspective. "I was kind of pickled in a certain kind of comics and came later to American comics," Siegel told CBR News.

Siegel's an author and artist himself, having published a number of children's books through Simon and Schuster like "Sea Dogs" and the recently released "Long Night Moon." Previously, Siegel worked for Simon and Schuster in the Books for Young Readers division, until Roaring Brook Press approached him to launch First Second. "They took a gamble on someone who's both a creator and someone who's coming with a vision for what I think is possible in America," said Siegel.

Siegel explained that First Second is a new attempt at putting graphic novels into American readers hands. "There have been many over the years and right now there's an opening because of certain books having broken some ground," said Siegel. "What it is really focusing on, I kind of hesitate to say it, but the kind of more literate graphic novels. That may sound more highfalutin than it really is, but it's basically creating graphic novels, not just product or merchandising material or fodder for Hollywood, necessarily, but really as the works of authors and individual voices. First Second is really a home for authors who work in this medium."

Siegel said that within that framework, the company will be publishing work that's as wide-ranging as possible, in the sense that it's going to be very international. "We'll have authors from the U.S., Europe, Asia. We have books that are ranging from, well, the youngest titles are really middle-grade ages, all the way through teens and adults. Within genres and the kind of content we're exploring, we have everything from any kind of fiction that's out there to non-fiction, so that includes historical projects. For example Catherine Clinton, who is really a novelist with credentials. There's another project in the works with Greg Cook, who's known to Indy comic fans, but he's also a journalist and he's doing a piece about Iraq and a soldiers life in Iraq. So, with that we have comics journalism.

"We're also bringing in some playwrights. Adam Rapp, who's a top playwright, kind of a hot, young American playwright who also has a movie coming out this spring called 'Winter Passing' with Ed Harris and, I believe, Will Farrel's first dramatic role. It sounds like an amazing piece. That's just an example of people who are in fields who are not normally connected to graphic novels, whether it's the theater, journalism and historical writers or in other cases novelists (and I'll have more news on that in coming weeks). There's a young novelist named Chun Yu, a Chinese novelist, who's doing some work with us. We're trying to go 360 degrees and open up every possible avenue. That's the vision of First Second."

Earlier this year Siegel made a trip to the International Comics Festival in Angouleme, France, a massive comics convention that easily eclipses even the largest comics conventions in the United States. At the show, Siegel spent some time exploring the international market for, as he said, "two-way" traffic -- to publish foreign editions in the United States as well as to find homes for original material created here to be published outside the American market. One of the international creator's you'll be seeing work from is Malaysian author Lat, whose "Kampung Boy" has made him something of a superstar in his own country. "[Lat] literally walks down the street and has people stop him for autographs and, in fact, his characters are on the planes for their national airline," explained Siegel. "He's unknown here, but he's starting to appear in France and I read a French edition of 'Kampung Boy' and it's incredible. Kampung is a Malaysian village and this is the story of a young Muslim boy. It's his life as a young Muslim boy growing up in rural Malaysia. It's the kind of lifestyle that hardly exists any more in Malaysia. He's very excited we're doing this."

To add some perspective, Lat is a cultural icon in Malaysia, having met with many Heads of State and Prime Ministers. While his fame may be mainly centered in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the best comparison that could be made to an American author would be "Peanuts" creator Charles Schulz. First Second has the world English rights to "Kampung Boy" except for the previously mentioned regions.

"Creatively I'm very interested in making bridges to the rest of the world," continued Siegel. "There's another project that's coming up most likely in our first year by this guy called Stassen and it's a book about Rwanda. It's fiction, but very well researched and takes place just before and just after the genocide in Rwanda. So you have this kind of world side to things, but then we have some really, really awesome homegrown talents, which we're then placing with these foreign publishers. So, we're basically setting up a network where we'll have a pool of talent and creativity that spans the globe.

"From the comics scene in America we have people like Jessica Abel and Brian Ralph, who's working in tandem with a playwright named J.T. Petty. Actually, I was working on a novel of J.T. Petty's at Simon and Schuster before I started this job. Very talented playwright and I think we're going to be hearing a lot about him in years to come. Brian Ralph is one of my favorites in America working today. A real kind of poet in comics form. So, the two of them are together working on this book called 'The Third Horsemen,' which is going to be a very amazing story in a ghost town in North Dakota in the 1870s. Some very straight storytelling fiction."

In addition to those mentioned above, Siegel noted readers will be seeing work from the likes of Sarah Varion, who'll be doing a wordless book called "Robot Dreams," author Joseph Bruchac, as well as French author's Louis Trondheim and Jean Favre.

2006 will be a very busy year for First Second. "We're aiming to make noise," admitted Siegel. "There are two focuses for me - this international aspect, but with a very strong American contingent and also to have an emphasis on quality in production, editorially and art direction."

You might wonder how the efforts of First Second differ from publishers like Top Shelf or Drawn & Quarterly. "I think our approach is a little different. In some ways there's a little overlap and in some ways I'm really pleased for that because I believe creative competition can be a very good thing overall, basically driving the form onward in to its future. We're going to be doing most of our books, with a few exceptions, in full color. That's an important distinction. We'll be exploring color, quality color, not just your basic primary screaming colors. There are certain colorists in Europe who have pushed narrative color into some interesting places. So that's one part of it, in that they're going to look and feel a bit different. Also, thematically we're going to be opening up avenues that you don't necessarily find elsewhere. We're also going to be building bridges with other fields and disciplines very deliberately. Playwrights, novelists, historians and journalists. It is a gamble and I'm trying to stack the odds in our favor by teaming some of those people with some very seasoned artists who know graphic novels and understand the form and its possibilities."

Siegel also pointed out that First Second wasn't going to be a publisher like Humanoids, a company headquartered in France with work mostly from European authors who republish much of their work in the States (the upcoming "Olympus" by Geoff Johns and Butch Guice a notable exception). About a third of First Second's opening list will be imports, mostly because Siegel feels its important to introduce these international authors to American readers. "At the same time, this is not going to be a European imprint," said Siegel. "It will have a very markedly American flavor running through it, with openings and open doors to the rest of the world."

The process of bringing these international creators together has taken about half a year to develop so far. "It's been six or seven months since I started the job and I knew right away that I wanted to go pretty aggressively after ones I feel are, to my sensibility, the most exciting work being done today," said Siegel. "What I was very surprised to find was I thought I'd have to sell a new imprint to people since it's just a dream, a promise, to begin with. There's nothing there to show for it yet. I was surprised to find that the conversation was contagious and the creators were very willing. I think there are several reasons for that. For one, we treat our authors like authors. I mean that practically with our advances and the way we work with creators. We're working from a model based more on the novel world than the comics world.

"There's also the company I'm with. Roaring Brook is right now the really hot, young readers imprint. They've won two Caldecott Award's in a row, their first two years in the public eye, so to speak, and I don't think anyone has done that for something like 30+ years. They're also known for integrity and quality and are part of a group of publishers which includes Holt, FSG, Tor, Pickador, St. Martin's Press, and these are all companies that haven't been buckled by corporate pressure. They're known for producing really quality books and getting all the prizes to show for it. It's a place known for its editorial freedom and for holding a high standard for the books they produce. Basically, championing authors over the long term, unlike some of the bigger, corporate empires who are so driven by the pressures to out do their last quarter, so what you get are these blockbusters that have no lasting life in them."

As we mentioned in our opening, the graphic novel market is now becoming a bit crowded, with a number of major publishers entering the sector. Siegel isn't too worried that First Second will have any troubles making a name for themselves. "My sense is we're taking quite different approaches," said Siegel. "Obviously Schoolastic has the means and clout to push something through in a big way. So does Hyperion. Their focus is going to be a little younger. I'm not that concerned, really. Part of that may be my optimistic nature, but I tend to think that if it's the real stuff and stuff that lasts, it'll all shake out in the end.

"I'm looking forward to the hype dying down a little bit about graphic novels because right now the hype tends to be about the form of graphic novels. When you see these high profile articles in the New York Times Magazine, there's a lot of attention given to the form and the technical aspects of it, but what is really interesting to me is the authors and voices and people who are actually moved from inside to do something. So, from that sense, you can look at the landscape of novels today and its saturated and overwhelming, but within all that there is a way for something really good to find its way to the top and make room for itself and I trust that."

As the public is seeing more reviews and stories about graphic novels, Siegel has noticed a shift in the reporting style as both readers and reporters are becoming more educated about the form. "I think that's going to open up a more mature debate because we're going to be talking about depth instead of outer form. And you're starting to see that with some of the books that have come out from Patheon. 'Epileptic' is astonishing."

What about that name, First Second? It's an unusual name and Siegel says there are a few different explanations for its origin. "It's the start, basically. The very first second is the freshest, primest moment. It's also first, second, third, fourth, fifth, etc., the beginning of a sequence and is, by essence, a sequential art form. I kind of like the intercontradiction of it, too. First of all, it was a graphic, that :01, which then found its name. So, in that sense, what it does is what graphic novels do -- it's a picture and it's words."

 
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