Mark Siegel: The First Second to Come

Mark Siegel: First Second 2009

We talked with First Second’s Mark Siegel last year about the his company becoming a success story among start-up comics publishers. With seemingly nothing off-limits, First Second has carved out a niche of professional, intelligent and beautifully illustrated graphic novels for readers of all ages.

Well, it’s not easy to find time in his schedule, but we caught up with Mark again for a brief remembrance of 2008 and a peek ahead to 2009’s offerings.

Newsarama Note: This interview was conducted prior to the announcement of the Scott McCloud/First Second book deal announced here.

Newsarama: With 2008 in the books, Mark, what are your thoughts on First Second’s last year?

Mark Siegel: Let’s see, I’ve had my head stuck in 2012! I need to pull back and think for a second about 2008…. Oh yeah, that was quite a year. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard was my favorite Eddie Campbell ever. Slow Storm and Alan’s War garnered some of the best reviews we’ve had. The Lost Colony’s third book is one I’ll always cherish. And lots more. Three Shadows and the textbook Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden are two runaway successes. Oh wait, I’m going to list the whole catalog if I don’t stop now. I feel proud of First Second’s 2008. Some big and high-profile and some sleepers, just as it should be. And we published Gus & His Gang by Christophe Blain, which keeps popping up in Best Of 2008 lists everywhere. First Second continues to establish itself and 2008 was a strengthening, maturing year for us.

NRAMA: You announced on your site recently (here) that your parent company Roaring Brook was absorbed into Macmillan’s (their parent company) Children’s Group. How has this restructuring affected First Second?

MS: It’s not affecting First Second especially. Even though we’ve always been an imprint of Roaring Brook Press (a noted children’s publisher), that has never defined First Second, nor its editorial goals. Roughly a third of First Second’s list is for young readers, and roughly a third is really aimed at adults. But the beauty of the graphic novel is that it escapes conventional publishing categories, and is its own thing. The publishing houses that try to work graphic novels strictly inside children’s or adult markets are missing the best opportunities. And I’m pleased to say First Second continues to get real support from Macmillan—support to be what it has always set out to be.

NRAMA: Are there any specific positives or negatives that you’ve encountered getting everyone on board with the new corporate system? I think about the benefits of Macmillan’s distribution and marketing muscle, but then I think about First Second being grouped into the “children’s group” and wonder if people might question the presence of something like The Photographer in your line.

MS: The Photographer is not an anomaly. It’s part of our continuing line of adult projects, fiction and nonfiction. There’s no way Eddie Campbell’s work could be called teen or YA, it’s adult. And we had his Fate of the Artist in our very first season. Alan’s War or Slow Storm can only be called adult. Blain’s Gus & His Gang would be totally inappropriate for young readers, brimming as it is with sex and affairs and more sex. And there’s lots more, including in 2009 Stuffed by Glenn Eichler and Nick Bertozzi, and the dark, dark, very adult Ball Peen Hammer by Adam Rapp, with art by George O’Connor. And the list keeps going. First Second is, has been, and will remain dedicated to making graphic novels—across all age categories.

NRAMA: I’m sure many readers are relieved to hear that. Has there been any impact on your creators or the shaping of First Second’s line of titles?

MS: None.

NRAMA: Reflecting back on 2008, Prince of Persia seems to be the stand-out, in profile if nothing else. Did the reaction – mostly very positive from what I’ve seen – match your expectations?

MS: Yes, Prince of Persia was certainly our high-profile entry. Higher profile had the movie stayed on 2009, but that should make good in 2010. The shooting is done and from every account, it should be a dazzling summer movie. Now First Second’s Prince of Persia isn’t directly a tie-in with either the game or the movie. That was our gambit: to make something uniquely its own. And I think A.B. Sina delivered a strange, marvelous and poetic script, and LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland put their hearts into a visually personal comic. The risk of course was to lose the gamers and get ignored by serious reviewers. But that didn’t happen. Magically enough, Prince of Persia got several star reviews and glowing words from XBOX Magazine.

NRAMA: Jessica Abel and Matt Madden’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures was a pretty cool effort, a textbook on creating comics. Although it’s been out less than a year, I’m very curious if you’ve heard from school or libraries that have been able bring the book into a curriculum setting yet?

MS: Last I heard there were some ninety course adoptions around the country already, and it’s only just begun. Matt and Jessica have such cred as creators and as teachers, and for this ambitious project they distilled their years of experience into a true course. I like to think this is First Second investing in the future of the form. Now Matt and Jessica are hard at work on the next one, which will continue to deepen the curriculum.

NRAMA: Along similar lines, coming up this spring you have James Sturm’s Adventures in Cartooning (April), which is a how-to-make-comics for kids. What’s the expectation for this book, and how do you plan to market it to its intended audience?

MS: Similar in one sense, but very different from Drawing WordsAdventures in Cartooning would have been my favorite book when I was seven. It’s a story, and an engaging, goofy, hilarious one at that, but then it also teaches precepts of cartooning. The advance copies just arrived, and I’m sooo pleased with the result. I think it’s totally irresistible. Our marketing is manifold for Adventures in Cartooning—with a big push into the school and library markets, promotion at the past NCTE and ALA where it was a huge hit. It’s going to be featured in Nickelodeon Magazine soon, and lots more to come.

NRAMA: Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of… trilogy (The Color of Earth, …of Water, and …of Heaven) looks amazing (April, June, September respectively). You’ve worked with several European authors, but this is your first Korean title. How did these books wind up with First Second, and was there much of a new learning curve working with a new language?

MS: First Second did publish Lat, from Malaysia. But yes, this is a first.

I initially read Casterman’s edition of the trilogy, in French. Nadia Gibert is a brilliant editor there I always pay attention to any of her suggestions. In this case, she handed me the trilogy at Angoulême’s Comics Festival last year and said she could not believe it was a man who’d made this book—it spoke to the feminine experience so subtly and truthfully.

I read it on the train ride to Paris and before arriving, decided First Second had to publish it. Kim Dong Hwa has a wide following in Korea, and I knew we needed to proceed very respectfully with our translation and design. We took care to work on this with people experienced in manga and manhwa at every step, but I think you’ll see it very much feels like a First Second book—another author we believe in.

NRAMA: I thought your best book in 2008 was Emmanuel Guibert’s Alan’s War. Guibert has another astonishing book this year, The Photographer (May) with Didier Lefèvre. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a very emotionally heavy and politically astute book, and really unlike anything you’ve published before. Plus it uses photography as much as illustration. It seems like nothing’s off limits for you. Can you give us some teases about what else is coming up later in 2009 and beyond?

MS: So glad to hear you say that about Guibert. The Photographer is unlike anything we’ve done before. And had you asked me before I saw it, I would have told you I normally hate mixing photos with comics. Except for Eddie Campbell, I’ve never seen it done successfully.

In the case of The Photographer, you’re in a comic getting to know this photographer (the late Didier Lefèvre) in his own words, taking you on foot into Afghanistan with a team of Doctors Without Borders. And you see these humanitarian heroes, true heroes in our times, and the victims of war they work to heal—and then suddenly you see a contact strip with their actual faces. And the interaction of comic panels and photos builds and builds with such emotional power . . . I think this book will do something. It could very well inspire a new generation of humanitarian heroes.

But 2009 and beyond … I’m scanning this chart on my wall … so many things coming. Look out for the new book by Danica Novgorodoff, called Refresh, Refresh. I expect Danica is about to be widely recognized as a major world-class talent. And Nick Bertozzi turned in wonderful work on Glenn Eichler’s dark comedy Stuffed, which should be a delight for many people out there. It’s printing now, with a nice endorsement blurb from Stephen Colbert who said “This book reminds me a little of myself, in that I love it.”

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