Ever since I started reading comics from First Second Books (a comics imprint of Macmillan), I’ve been consistently impressed with the quality of the books. Maybe the writing doesn’t always fall into the category of Serious Literature, but it’s nearly always Serious Fun (and typically free of glaring errors). Many of their books are kid-friendly while being accessible to all readers, and some of my favorites include Adventures in Cartooning, The Unsinkable Walker Bean and Zita the Spacegirl (though it’s hard to pick just three). But they also have a wide range of books which cover more serious subject matter; in my campaign to get comics considered as real literature, First Second’s selections are an excellent body of evidence.
This year, First Second turns five — I interviewed editorial director Mark Siegel a few questions about the history of the imprint and his favorite books.
GeekDad: How did First Second get started?
Mark Siegel: It seems I was in the right place at the right time! Back in 2004, all the big publishing houses were looking at dizzying sales figures in the graphic novel category (mainly owing to Manga) and trying to position themselves with regards to it. I was watching all this with great interest at the time, because I felt that America was ripe for a comics renaissance. It happened in Japan, and it happened in France and Western Europe in the ’70s — when suddenly books in comics format spoke to every kind of reader — when they entered the ‘reading mainstream.’
Macmillan gave me a golden chance to run at my own imprint, with a long term aim at building something big. Other ventures had come and gone, mostly owing to short-sighted backing from their parent companies. With Macmillan, I was given editorial freedom and support for a very broad, inclusive approach that caters to every age category. Then in 2006, our slow-building strategy came to a sudden breakthrough, when American Born Chinese by Gene Yang won a National Book Award nomination, and got the gold with the librarians’ prestigious Printz Award—both awards which had never been given to comics before. And that was a watershed not just for us, but for this creative explosion we’re all witnessing in the American graphic novel today.
GD: Where do you find all these great cartoonists?
MS: There is an extraordinary comics community in America, and around the world. Almost every time I’ve signed up anyone, the next thing they did was tell me about their most talented friends. Unlike some other creative arenas, in comics I find little backstabbing, and mostly an incredibly inter-supportive community of creators. Was it Gore Vidal who said “Every time a friend succeeds a part of me dies”? That’s not the way with graphic novels, fortunately. Other than referrals and more referrals, we get an avalanche of submissions from around the world, plus we don’t miss a Comic Con, a MoCCA, a TCAF, or all these great indie shows, which are over-spilling with brilliant cartoonists and authors.
GD: What are some of your favorites that you’ve published in the past five years, and what are you most excited about for the future of First Second?
MS: The impossible question!
I’m very excited about The Olympians series by George O’Connor. Any Percy Jackson fans who want the bona fide source material on Greek myths, look no further: O’Connor’s research is meticulous, and yet it’s comics in the grand Kirby tradition all the same. I’ve seen middle-graders go rabid about these. The first four volumes are Zeus, Athena, Hera and Hades. More of them coming, too.
Also right now on the shelves, two books as superb as anything we’ve yet produced: Lewis & Clark by Nick Bertozzi, and Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke. Bertozzi is one of the major American comics authors alive today. His passion is the great explorers and this is the first in that series—a totally smart and outstanding telling of Lewis and Clark’s story, in a way that only a graphic novel could do. And Zita, on the other end of the age spectrum, is an incredibly zany and sweet space opera for the pre-Star Wars readers. And their older siblings get sucked in alongside them, too.
I could follow this with a dozen titles, right away! For older readers, teen and up, if you haven’t seen Vera Brosgol’s Anya’s Ghost, you are in for such a treat. Brosgol’s fans have waited for this, and are richly rewarded. She’s known to many for her sexy and super expressive illustration and her work in animation. I’m very proud that First Second is launching her work as an author to be reckoned with.
These are just a quick pick of titles I’m particularly proud of. And seriously: ANYTHING from First Second in 2011 is a keeper. And the future? The future for First Second will make your jaw drop. New Gene Yang, Scott McCloud, Sara Varon, Paul Pope, Jessica Abel, Jen Wang, Derek Kirk Kim and Farel Dalrymple projects — just to name a very small few! Seriously, it’s giving me vertigo.
GD: Thanks again, Mark, for answering a few questions about First Second and giving some great comics artists a place to showcase their work! I’m looking forward to seeing more of what’s to come!