It’s hard to believe it’s been half a decade since First Second Books debuted in the spring of 2006, but the calendar doesn’t lie. In those five years, First Second (:01) established itself as one of the comic book industry’s most versatile, forward-thinking and critically acclaimed houses in memory.
Nothing’s been off-limits to First Second. Translations of some of the world’s best cartoonists, such as Joann Sfar and Kim Dong Hwa; all-ages adventures like City of Spies or Kaput & Zosky; award-winning books by Gene Luen Yang and Emmanuel Guibert; histories such as Booth and Lewis & Clark; black humor; mythology; autobiography; and singular voices like Eddie Campbell’s have all found a home at First Second.
To commemorate their fifth anniversary, we sat down with Editorial Director Mark Siegel and Editor Calista Brill to discuss five years of First Second, and what the next five may bring. As always, their overwhelming enthusiasm for their work underscores their dynamic and exciting line-up of comics.
Newsarama: First of all, Mark, congratulations on five years (plus many, many months before your first book appeared in stores, I’m sure!). Do you have any big plans to mark the occasion?
Mark Siegel: Thanks! Five years since the first First Second book appeared in stores. We have plans, yes, a few special promotions, that sort of thing. Lots of friends to toast with.
Five years for a child and you leave the toddler years behind. Five years for a venture like First Second, and you just feel like you’re ready to step up your game. If you’re like I am, you start something like a new imprint full of naïve idealism. After five years, and a few hard knocks, a few breakthroughs, a thousand big and small decisions later, a few mistakes, a few accolades, and the idealism doesn’t go away, it just isn’t naïve anymore. If you don’t go bitter, the idealism seems stronger, more effective. If this was our infancy, just wait till you see how First Second’s childhood blossoms.
Nrama: I’m sure that First Second has been a continual learning experience – what stand out at some of the biggest lessons of the past half-decade?
Siegel: Yes, it is a learning experience. We try to harvest intelligence about our successes and failures. Each passing season, I feel we better understand how to champion our books in different markets—the direct market, the trade market, the libraries and schools, online and in various media. Biggest lessons learned? “Hits” come from sincere, passionate works, not calculated formulae. Life is too short for toxic dealings. Good editors need to shape-shift into the right editor for each of their authors. And a constant confirmation every working week: we are in one of the most extraordinary times to be in comics, creatively speaking.
Nrama: How has First Second’s line of books evolved over this time?
Siegel: At first we had a perception problem—we seemed to be all over the map in terms of genres and styles. For the first couple of seasons, it must have looked like our list was eclectic to a fault. Now, some sixty titles later, it’s clear there’s an overall collection taking shape, with broad strands running through it, from world affairs non-fiction to adult drama, to teen, to very young fiction. And then of course, every year has a unique nature, the shocks and flavors of the time.
Nrama: I’m sure the first few years were a little stressful, starting up a new comic book publishing imprint when so many have failed. After five years, do you feel – I don’t want to say secure – but do you feel you’ve proven that your model and your editorial eye have been justified?
Siegel: Yes, feeling secure would be premature, and also a sign that it’s probably over! As for feeling vindicated, sometimes yes, sometimes no… We’ve had a couple of commercial duds I would publish all over again—perhaps I’d edit or package them differently. But our publishing model is always in flux, evolving, finding the way to crack America open for this kind of comics we love. But yes, we tend to trust our own instincts more, as we go.
Nrama: You’ve worked with a steady team to keep First Second going – Calista, Gina, Colleen, I’m sure you can’t articulate how much their help has meant, but I’ll give you space to try!
Siegel: It is an extraordinary team. The passion and care they pour into First Second daily, there is no substitute for. Calista, Colleen, Gina and I each have different strengths, and I feel that together—with others from Managing Ed to Production, Marketing and Sales at Macmillan—we’re moving mountains, and championing our authors in all kinds of ways.
Nrama: With all that you’ve learned from First Second so far, I’m sure you have some exciting projects coming up in 2011. Tell us about a few of them.
Siegel: 2011 is our strongest overall year so far—it’s a dazzling list, and First Second is flexing its young muscles in new ways. There really are extraordinary things coming this year, from a Nursery Rhymes book (featuring 50 leading lights of comics like Jaime Hernandez, Roz Chast, Mike Mignola, Craig Thomson, Richard Thompson, Sara Varon, and so many more) to Zahra’s Paradise, an Iranian dissidence project that is already making history online and in the media; to the bloody epic fantasy Orcs; to book banning in America with Americus; Vera Brosgol’s long awaited first graphic novel (Anya’s Ghost); and a bona-fide Richard Feynman biography. Makes your head spin, right? And that’s not even all this year. And just out in stores for each end of the age categories: the maestro Nick Bertozzi’s Lewis & Clark, and Ben Hatke’s Zita Spacegirl—both of them books for all time.
Nrama: Whew. Anything else?
Siegel: Just came back from Minneapolis—which is rising to take its place as one of America’s major “book towns.” Now it’s also poised to become a major comics scene. The great Sarah Morean (The Daily Cross Hatch blog) runs MIX, the Minnesota Indie Expo. I gave several workshops and presentations to packed halls of students, teachers, librarians and booksellers. In the publishing business, as long as I’ve seen there’s been hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing, but I think you get out in the real world America—and the Twin Cities is as good a litmus test as any—and you’ll see the next Graphic Novel explosion is brewing. We had a big exhale around 2006 and 2007, then it’s normal we had a bit of an in-breath in the following years. Now, another wave is building, and my hope is that it will sweep in a great many more readers to graphic novels. I think the next couple years you’ll see us get into nearly every reading household in America.
Editor Calista Brill added:
Nrama: Calista, what can you tell us about three years working at First Second?
Calista Brill: It’s been a delight! It’s so satisfying to spend your time on something you really believe in – and in the company of people who share your passion. And the books that I first acquired when I arrived in 2008 have just started coming out (the first, I think, was Jen Wang’s Koko Be Good, this fall). So that’s tremendously satisfying, too. Plus, I get to work in the Flatiron building, which—interesting fact!—sings when the wind hits the façade at the right angle. I’m not even kidding. It makes cute little melodies like the world’s biggest, most cumbersome pipe organ.
Nrama: How has the company and the process evolved for you during that time?
Brill: Well, the economics of publishing graphic novels has changed a lot in the last couple of years: the downturn in the economy hit publishing pretty hard in general, and we weren’t immune to that. We have to be even more discriminating about the projects we take on, which might be a blessing in disguise, but generally it’s also a little more nail-bitey. That bit of gloominess aside, though, it’s generally been a march in the direction of ever-increasing awesomeness. With each year that goes by, our list of titles gets bigger, more diverse, more sophisticated. And we get better and better at publishing them.
Nrama: With First Second’s brand established, do you find it easier to approach cartoonists you’re interested in working with?
Brill: Well, by the time I came on (in 2008), the brand was very well established—First Second really made a splash its first couple of years. But I’m finding that my brand is becoming better established now, as well, and that’s nice. People have started knowing who I am and what my tastes are. It’s a nice thing when your reputation precedes you.
Nrama: While I’m sure it’s very exciting to make the five-year mark (for the company, and three-year for yourself), I’m also sure that you’re working hard to make sure the coming years are even more successful. What projects do you have on tap for the coming year?
Brill: Two projects that are near and dear to my heart are this spring’s biography of the great, great physicist Richard Feynman (titled Feynman), and this fall’s collection of Nursery Rhymes, Nursery Rhyme Comics. This is the first book I’ve ever worked on that has, from start to finish, only induced happy emotions in me. It’s bizarre. It’s like serotonin in book form.