FIRST SECOND Helps Keep Comics Alive @ Big Publishing Houses

FIRST SECOND Looks to Grow in 2010

Prince of Persia

We’ve been making it something of an annual tradition to check in with First Second and editorial director Mark Siegel every spring to talk about the publisher’s role in the industry and offer a preview of their coming year’s line. 2010 has a monstrous number of major titles on tap: Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess , the second book of George O’Connor’s Olympians series; the World War II drama Resistance: Book 1 , by Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis; Booth , by C.C. Colbert and Tanitoc, a biography of the presidential assassin; Jane Yolen and Mike Cavallaro’s coming-of-age romantic fantasy Foiled; the adventure romp City of Spies , by Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan, and Pascal Dizin; Solomon’s Thieves: Book 1 , by the Prince of Persia team Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham, and Alex Puvilland; and Gene Yang’s Prime Baby .

This year, Mark invited editor and right-hand woman Calista Brill to the proceedings, giving us an entirely new vantage point into First Second’s operations. First of all, we now know that Mark Siegel is the straight man. Secondly, somebody in the office knows her Chuck Norris jokes.

Without further ado, Mark Siegel and Calista Brill.

Newsarama: Mark and Calista, First Second’s fifth year is rolling out. Does the satisfaction change as First Second continues to endure, when so many other start-up comic publishers have stumbled?

Mark Siegel: Everybody stumbles. I think with First Second, there was never just a short-term view. And we’ve been lucky that Macmillan isn’t some evil corporation looking to strip mine the creative field—it really isn’t, and has been a consistent support for our long-term dream. And yes, I suppose there are new satisfactions knowing some of the dreams are now a reality. And of course there’s so much that has yet to happen.

Calista Brill: Yeah, I mean, the thing we want most (after getting an office cotton candy machine, which, btw, Macmillan won’t buy us so maybe they are some evil corporation after all?) Wait, where was I?

The thing we want most is for everyone to be reading great comics! That’s why we exist, pretty much. And we can’t do it alone—so, as some of the other big six publishing houses are becoming more conservative about their comics publishing, it’s a pang. We need their help spreading the good news of comics throughout the land like an evangelistic bacterial infection. I’m not really selling this, am I?

Nrama: Is it weird if I think you are selling it? Now that you’ve established your presence in the market, what are the biggest challenges facing First Second? Preventing people from pigeonholing you or taking you for granted? Trying to continue to reach new audiences? Pushing yourselves to find that next creative voice?

Siegel: The pigeonholing thing was a bigger worry when we started. In fact at first I overcompensated in making every season as eclectic as possible, so First Second wouldn’t easily fit into a groove. Ironically, what does the pigeonholing worst of all is a success. Our first breakthroughs were in teen and then in children’s books. And that’s what we were seen to be. But all along there were books like Deogratias, about the genocide in Rwanda, or Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist, a highly adult work. The Photographer helped establish that First Second isn’t trapped in an age category, that we publish works for every age. We’ve also gotten better at publishing each book differently, for these different ages. I think you’ll see us distinguish these different ‘streams’ more now, by format, and by pricing.

The challenges facing us are plenty and that’s great, since it means we’re not dead yet.

Brill: Are you even allowed to say that?!? Hush your mouth!

Siegel: We need to stay true. But we need to broadcast much, much wider. There’s so much talent spilling over from every coming season, there’s the challenge of editing and publishing each book in the way that best serves it, that best champions it into the world. There’s the challenge of changing and never changing.

What do you think, Calista? What’s our biggest challenge ahead?

Brill: Getting that cotton candy machine! Well, there’s also finding ways to make our books profitable while supporting our cartoonists in the style to which they have become accustomed. But mostly it’s cotton candy.

Nrama: The spring line-up has, among many other titles, the reunited team from Prince of Persia , Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, joining forces again for Solomon’s Thieves , the first book of a trilogy. After the success of Prince (and the movie about to drop), how do you capitalize on Solomon’s Thieves , and how do you keep not just one, but three books on track with all of Jordan’s other scheduling conflicts?

Siegel: The beauty of working with the Solomon’s Thieves team is they’re consummate professionals, as well as truly inspired humans. And the chemistry between Jordan, LeUyen and Alex, which was first showcased in Prince of Persia , has matured in this swashbuckling wonder. Jordan wears many hats in many worlds, but he is deeply committed as an author, and a true believer in the graphic novel. He’s not someone from the gaming world, or from Hollywood, who sees comics as a stepping-stone to the big league—that always smells. He’s a storyteller at heart, and it really shows in Solomon’s Thieves , this breathless adventure in the days of the Knights Templar.

Brill: What he said.

Nrama: George O’Connor’s Olympians might be your most ambitious project ever, at least in terms of publishing scope. Twelve books, what about George’s pitch gave you the faith in it?

Siegel: George has been priming for this all his life. His love and deep research of Greek mythology makes this a one-of-a-kind series. It’s the real thing, for myth geeks and for comics’ lovers. George has a touch of Kirby and Mignola, but above all this unique voice, which he brings to bear on this authentic and thorough journey to the heart of Western civilization.

Brill: Also, it’s such an obviously great idea—solidly researched Greek myths with a nod to the modern superhero pantheon, for middle-grade readers? How is it possible someone hasn’t done this before? I’ll tell you how: George O’Connor and only George O’Connor was born to do it.

Nrama: Gene Yang’s new book, Prime Baby , was first published in the New York Times Magazine. Do you need to revise a project like that to make it fit a book form, or is it a case of Gene wanting to put the project out as a book and having a good working relationship with him?

Siegel: There was a bit of reformatting and a very few copyedits, but otherwise, Prime Baby was delivered as it appeared in the NY Times Magazine. As for our working relationship with Gene Yang, it’s simply dreadful. He complains, he harasses everyone with his moods, fires his assistants for no good reason. A nightmare. Actually, anyone who has ever worked with Gene can tell you he’s salt of the earth, and one of the kindest, most generous people in the business—aside from having won major literary awards and being hard at a work at a couple of magnificent, ambitious projects.

Prime Baby

Brill: Gene Yang can slam a revolving door. Gene Yang doesn’t wear a watch: he decides what time it is. When Gene Yang does a pushup, he isn’t pushing himself up—he’s pushing the world down. Gene Yang has counted to infinity. Twice.

Nrama: Calista, you and Mark are the editors at First Second. How closely do you work together on your books and in shaping each season’s line-up?

Brill: It varies, but at the very least we always read each other’s books once or twice during the editing process. With some projects, like Adventures in Cartooning (and its sequel/activity book) we work together quite closely, and share the editing duties fairly evenly. We make sure that each list is nicely balanced in terms of tone, content, and age-range – though themes certainly do emerge. Spring 2010 is a season of historical fiction, for the most part. Winter 11 will be a season of explorers. Etc.

Nrama: You’ve worked with creators with all ranges of comics experience, from Adam Rapp being an established playwright but never having written comics to proven comics professionals like Eddie Campbell and Paul Pope, who’ve published their own work in addition to their writing and drawing. More so than most other publishers, I think your editorial approach really has to be flexible for each project; do you find that to be true?

Brill: Great good golly, yes it does. Have to be flexible, I mean. It’s one of the things that makes this job so much fun, actually: no project is remotely like another!

Siegel: Each author needs us to be a different editor. Some hands off, some hands on, some cheering from the sidelines. On some projects, we have big, broad discussions about the overall project, and then the creators are off and running. In some cases, there’s a fair amount of technical detail, at some stage or other.

Nrama: Along that line of questioning, bringing an established author like Jane Yolen to comics, with her new book Foiled, must’ve been an interesting challenge. She clearly has strong storytelling instincts, but do you need to be hands-on in developing a script for comics? How large a role does the artist Mike Cavallaro take in translating Ms. Yolen’s script to comics and what part do you play?

Brill: Mike and Jane partnered closely on Mike’s adaptation of her script, as is often the case. It’s a frequent pleasure around these parts to see an artist who’s also a skilled storyteller working with a writer who also has a strong visual sense: the alchemy of those conversations can lead to some unexpected breakthroughs!

Siegel: It’s wonderful when people with such strong ‘solo’ talent enter into a full-hearted collaboration. I think it’s wise for comics’ creators to alternate between solo projects and team ones. They invariably return to their own individual work enriched. In comics, the artist performs, directs and stages the script, at the very least. So the chemistry had better be good!

Nrama: You have two books with strong historical themes: Carla Jablonski & Leland Purvis’s World War II drama Resistance and C.C. Cobert and Tanitoc’s presidential assassin biography Booth . Is it a challenge for you to keep up with the authors when they have such a deep understanding of the material?

Brill: A challenge, and a pleasure! Resistance and Booth were both lovely projects from an editorial point of view for that reason. I’ve also had the honor of working with Jim Ottaviani on our upcoming biography of the great physicist Richard Feynman. It’s a perfectly accessible work for the layman, but I wanted to really be able to engage with Feynman’s story—the better to edit it, my dear—so I read up on Feynman. I also watched a bunch of videos online of him teaching, and I read—and, miraculously, understood—his book on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED). Granted, Feynman wrote it for liberal arts majors like me, but it was still a great opportunity to expand my horizons a little.

Nrama: How do you promote historical projects in the fantasy-intense fiction market? It’s not only comics, but novel series like Harry Potter and Twilight dominate the sales charts.

Brill: I think we have an edge because we’re not especially interested in jumping on trends. We publish stories that we think are strong, and important, and entertaining—not because we think they’re the next hot thing. And I know that readers respond to that.

Siegel: What she said.

Nrama: Finally, City of Spies looks like a charming, Tintin-like adventure series. How did the creative team, Susan Kim, Laurence Klavan & Pascal Dizin, end up at First Second, and what made this book grab your attention?

Siegel: Susan and Laurence came to First Second with two juicy script proposals. This is the first, and the next is Brain Camp, with art by Faith Erin Hicks. City of Spies is a delicious caper in the 1940s, at the height of the German spy scare, and has a comic-within-a-comic. It’s a pitch-perfect middle-grade treat. Then along came Pascal Dizin, who had barely graduated from SVA (LINK), fresh from classes with David Mazzucchelli, Jason Little, and Jessica Abel—and it struck me that he was channeling Hergé! That approach was just too good to pass for the script, and this was another happy case of matchmaking. And Pascal has some good surprises in store in his next project.

Nrama: Finally, Mark, what’s coming up in the latter portion of 2010 from First Second?

Siegel: This Fall we—

Brill: I’m going to rudely horn in here because I’m so excited for Fall 2010 that my manners just go out the window.

Siegel: Okay, but—

Brill: We’ve got an incredible list!

Siegel: Yes, like Jen W—

Brill: Jen Wang’s debut graphic novel, Koko Be Good!

Siegel: And—

Brill: Spooky ‘tween summer-camp thriller The Fielding Course by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan, with art by the astonishing Faith Erin Hicks!

Siegel: Hey, Newsarama, you sure you want to do this email interview with both of us at once?

Nrama: Well, I’m committed to it at this point.

Brill: Also Aaron Renier’s Walker Bean, The Adventures In Cartooning Activity Book, Joe Bruchac & Will Davis’s Dawn Land, and the late great Aristophane’s The Zabime Sisters Translated by Matt Madden! Whew! I win!

First Second is on the Internets at

[Art below from Solomon’s Thieves]


Twitter activity