Looking Back on the First Decade of FIRST SECOND

First Second
Credit: First Second
Credit: Gene Luen Yang

From American Born Chinese to Battling Boy, Friends with Boys, Zita the Spacegirl, Last Man, The Wrenchies, The Unsinkable Walker Bean and many more, First Second Books (or, as it’s stylized, 01:First Second) has become one of the most important forces in mainstream all-ages graphic novels, both publishing and reprinting a diverse range of stories for diverse, general audiences - and reaching new comic books readers through libraries and bookstores.

As the Macmillan imprint ends its first decade, founder Mark Siegel and Senior Editor Calista Brill made the imprint's tenth year big with The Nameless City, Demon, and Tetris. With 2017 and many new major announcements on the horizon, Newsarama spoke with Brill about the first decade of First Second – and what lies ahead.

Newsarama: Calista, first, the obvious question - how does it feel to have made it to 10 years of First Second?

Calista Brill: Pretty great! We're all so proud of what we've built - a house that nurtures and grows authors, a house that publishes books that make the world a better place, a house that's a ton of fun to work at!

Nrama: How did the imprint first come together?

Brill: Mark Siegel, our Editorial and Creative Director (and the founder of the imprint) had a vision for a graphic novel imprint that would bring the graphic novel out from the rarified indie sphere and into the mainstream, and Macmillan turned out to be the perfect home for that adventure!

Nrama: What was the biggest challenge you faced in terms of the marketplace and putting together projects? What do you feel you were able to offer creators that they could not find elsewhere?

Brill: In a time when the graphic novel was mostly an indie publishing category, there was a strong cultural repudiation of the editor as an interfering, corporate influence.

First Second set out to remind the comics world that editors can serve as partners, defenders, and creative lenses for authors... and we succeeded!

Credit: First Second

Nrama: Looking back, what do you feel were the biggest mistakes you made initially - things you learned from, or might have done differently now?

Brill: In the endless dance of art vs. commerce, there are some times when we let commerce rule us to the detriment of art, and other times (many more) that we let art rule us to the detriment of commerce.

It's a delicate balancing act, but it's one we've gotten better at.

Nrama: What books are you personally most proud of from First Second? Also, any projects that got away that you wish you'd published?

Brill: The Photographer is the book I'm personally the most proud of, I think, followed by Ben Hatke's lovely Little Robot.

The one that got away: Nimona.

Credit: First Second

Nrama: This might overlap with the previous question, but which of your projects were not as successful as you had hoped, or have not received the attention you feel they deserve, and why?

Brill: Maybe the best book I've published in my career is Jay Hosler's Last of the Sandwalkers. That book deserved to be the smash hit of the decade, but it had a relatively quiet reception.

I'm not sure why... if I had to guess, I'd say maybe the fact that it's a middle-grade graphic novel in black and white hurt it. Mostly middle-grade graphic novels are full color.

Anyway, if you're looking for a fantastic science fiction (with an emphasis on the science part) adventure story about a dauntless gang of bugs investigating the natural world and unraveling a sinister conspiracy, please buy and read this book. It's so funny, so fun, and so full of awesome bug facts.

Credit: First Second

Nrama: Major outlets for your books include libraries and bookstores - what were some of the things you did to establish those relationships, and in getting your books to readers who might not otherwise pick up a comic?

Brill: Librarians are the unsung heroes of our time. In addition to being dauntless defenders of civil liberties they're also consistently early adopters of new technologies and new formats.

We made a big effort to befriend and recruit the librarian community to the cause of the graphic novel, but we found that many of them were there ahead of us, evangelizing for First Second and for the graphic novel format in general.

Nrama: Other than “still going,” where do you want to see First Second ten years from now? In terms of expansion, formats, etc.

Brill: More series, more books, more staff, more authors, more awards, more readers. More readers!

The United States is full of readers but lots of them don't know they love reading graphic novels... yet! We're still working to convert a bigger and bigger readership to the format.

Nrama: Tell us about some of your books you're most excited about for 2017, and why.

Credit: First Second

Brill: Penelope Bagieu's California Dreamin’ is a fascinating and humanizing portrait of the indomitable Mama Cass. Nonfiction fans and music fans will love it.

Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland's Spill Zone is the first volume of a spooky new YA series in the spirit of Lost.

And we're partnering with Tonko House – an up-and-coming animation studio – to create a graphic novel series called The Dam Keeper, for middle-grade readers.

Nrama: And what other plans do you have for your tenth anniversary that you can talk about here?

Brill: We're going to be making some big announcements in December... keep an eye out!

Nrama: What are some other comics and creators you've enjoyed over the past year, older and newer?

Brill: I love Katie O'Neill's Princess Princess Ever After from Oni – it's everything I love about comics in one adorable package. And of course I'm obsessed with Check, Please! just like all right-thinking people should be.

Nrama: What is the biggest thing you feel you've learned from 10 years at First Second?

Brill: That you can never take people for granted. Being an editor is like being someone's spouse - It's a relationship based on trust and enthusiasm... and remembering to communicate that trust and enthusiasm frequently.

Credit: First Second

Nrama: What do you hope other companies can learn from what First Second has accomplished?

Brill: That there's more than one way to skin a graphic novel. We publish all kinds of books into all kinds of markets for all kinds of readers - and that's something that shouldn't be a revolutionary idea, but kind of is!

Nrama: Anyone you'd like to shout out for this anniversary?

Brill: My mom.

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Brill: How grateful we are to the readers, artists, writers, booksellers, librarians, and fans who have supported us every step of the way. The comics community is a beautiful place and we're so grateful to be a part of it. 

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