First Second Editorial Director Mark Siegel on Nurturing the “New Mainstream” of Comic Books

Comics Features Mark Siegel
First Second Editorial Director Mark Siegel on Nurturing the “New Mainstream” of Comic Books

In 2006, First Second Books launched as an imprint of Roaring Brook Press. The new label set a tone of all-age ambition and global diversity that would define its output—releases from the legendary Eddie Campbell (The Black Diamond Detective Agency) and books by European luminaries like Joann Sfar (Sardine in Outer Space) and Lewis Trondheim (Kaput and Zosky) punctuated the publisher’s early output. By the end of its first year, First Second released Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese. The book—an enchanting dive into cultural identity, immigration and myth—became a hit on the library circuit, and went on to be the first comic book nominated for the National Book Award.

Since then, First Second has gone on to publish authors including Faith Erin Hicks, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Jason Shiga and Paul Pope, carving out a highly regarded space for themselves. That embrace of genre-expanding adult fare (see Dalrymple’s post-apocalyptic fantasy The Wrenchies, The Divine by Boaz Lavie, Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka) and subversively sophisticated kids and teen comics (Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol, This One Summer by Jillian and Mariko Tamaki) has confirmed First Second as one of the most future-forward comic publishers in the medium.

To commemorate its first decade, First Second’s Editorial and Creative Director Mark Siegel sat down with Paste to discuss the imprint’s history, the changing comics market and why more publishers should pay attention to libraries.

Paste: To start off: you’re the editorial director of First Second. Tell me a little bit about what that job entails.

Mark Siegel: My official title is “Editorial and Creative Director,” and that kind of reflects what it’s like to be in the comic business. The art director and the editor obviously need to be close—and sometimes they’re the same person in picture books or other kinds of publishing—but in graphic novels, those two need to be airtight with each other. So basically a way of describing my job is to say that I keep a foot in each: one foot in editing, one foot in design, and then also shaping and curating a publishing list. In the case of First Second, there are some unique issues with our imprint, because our mission from the start was to publish all three different age categories, which is unusual in America, where the publishing for children, for teens and for adults tends to be compartmentalized. They go to different reviewers, different parts of bookstores and libraries, and different markets altogether. But we decided from the start that we were going to play in all three, so there’s a bit of that steering the ship of the publishing house by the choices we make.

Paste: And you’re a cartoonist as well. Do you think that work has an effect on how you do your job and the decisions that you make?

Siegel: Oh, absolutely. I think that it has shaped what First Second is and why First Second has such a unique relationship with many of its authors. I understand some of what it’s like on both sides of the table, and a publishing house has its imperatives and creators have an artistic journey to fulfill. And even though the needs of both sides overlap, they’re not the same. They’re like two different languages—between art and commerce is this uncomfortable dance, and I think a good editor is in the middle, is in the kind of most uncomfortable part, trying to mediate between these two worlds.

Mark Siegel Self Portrait

Paste: First Second is an imprint of a traditional book publisher; where did the decision to enter the direct market come from?

Siegel: So just like I was talking about with the three age categories? Just to complicate things even further for ourselves, it was a conscious decision from the start that we were going to play in these different fields. We were going to play in, as you say, the direct market, which is the comic book world—it’s mainly Diamond distribution, and it’s the comic shops.

And then we’re playing in the institutional world, which is the libraries and academia. And then the trade—so regular bookstores, Amazon, all this. These are three totally different games. They have different timings, different approaches and you’ll find that in most cases the big publishing houses tend to be good at two out of those three. Often they neglect or don’t understand the direct market. Or you get the indie houses, and they tend to have figured out how to play the direct market game, but they’re sometimes weak on the trade side.

We’re doing legit comics. You know what I mean? When we’re at [San Diego] Comic-Con, it’s not like the suits showing up trying to get a piece of market share. We’re there meeting our people, and our friends. And we’re in that world—as legitimate as the great indies, or the DC and Marvel people. But we’re also in this literary space. We’ve positioned our authors as authors, and they’re going into these media that belong to the literary world, and the awards that go with the literary world. And, in many cases, we’ve gotten awards that no comic has ever gotten. We’re not alone in this, but I do think we’re in a unique position as a bridge between these different worlds. So sometimes we’ll bring someone who is a star from the comics world—a Paul Pope—and really introduce them to a whole new audience in the library world and in the book trade. Or, in other cases, we’ll have people working the other way; we have Scott Westerfeld with Spill Zone, and he’s a big YA author.

So I think for us, the interest was to not get pigeonholed. So a lot of these decisions were about how to keep great freedom of movement, but also be the house where new kinds of graphic novels are being discovered. And I do believe that we have quite a strong list of graphic novels that are really unique—a really unique voice, a unique drawing style, but all marked under the sign of quality.

Spill Zone Cover Art by Alex Puvilland

Paste: Looking back on your first couple years, I was struck by the authors you were publishing—Joann Sfar, Gipi, Lewis Trondheim—a lot of European cartoonists. What’s changed in how you acquire titles and how you acquire authors?

Siegel: In the beginning, I basically had to fill out the publishing list really quickly, and those were ready to go, basically. You just translate them and, within a couple months, you can have a book ready to go to press. So that was partly a practical decision.

I always knew I wanted First Second to do, in some ways, a very American thing: something that’s true to the American voices of today, with a very strong “world” component. What’s interesting now is that it used to be three great schools of comics—the American school, the European and then the Japanese school—each of which, obviously, is many schools. But the fact that now they’re speaking to each other and blending into each other, and we have things like Last Man or Faith Erin Hicks, someone who grew up reading manga, who is now a bestselling author. We’re in a different place. I think creatively people are in a different place. Now the masters of manga, the masters of Europe, the masters of America—people are drawing from all these in new and interesting ways. And you also have this situation where graphic novels are also speaking to other kinds of literature, and you have the whole range of genres, from the quiet, introspective fiction to high-fantasy and sci-fi. So the interesting thing to see is, What story will we tell about this time period that we’re in? I’m sure that we’re going to look back on this as a renaissance, as a Golden Age for a new kind of graphic novel that escaped the constraints of earlier comics.

Paste: What kind of things do you think constrained earlier comics?

Siegel: Comics have been constrained, in theme and in style, for a long time, but now they’re exploding out of super-hero and memoir, blending all kinds of art styles and narrative approaches, to explore every aspect of fiction and non-fiction, from cooking to physics, from mystical fantasy to a history of the game Tetris.

Paste: Going back a little bit to when you were talking about the three big markets in book publishing—First Second has a pretty big presence in libraries, and a couple other publishers have started to make big pushes into libraries. But for a lot of people reading comics, the market is just the comic book stores and the bookstores, so hearing that libraries are such an important space may be a surprise. Tell me about the benefits of First Second having such a sizable presence there.

Siegel: In America, the public library is kind of the Carnegie Library, and what it has evolved into is unique in the world—and there’s, I think, 119,000 of them in the country.

It’s funny, because American Born Chinese was nominated for a National Book Award. No comic had ever gotten that before. And we thought that was the pinnacle; we were at the National Book Award ceremony, with a comic book, in our tuxes, mixing with all these huge authors. And then a month or two later, Gene Yang, [author of] American Born Chinese, won the Printz Award. This time he got the gold; he went all the way. And a lot of people, definitely in comics, had never even heard of the Printz Award, but that was what made that book’s fortunes. Every two years, that book is being ordered—pretty much forever, around the country, in big numbers. Those big awards that are announced at ALA [American Library Association], they can make a book, sometimes more than the awards we’ve all heard of—definitely more than the Eisner’s. In many cases, more than the National Book Award, more than the Newbery even.

In America, especially the teen librarians—the children librarians operate a little differently, and the adult librarians are not as influential as the teen librarians are—the teen librarians, oftentimes, are working with committees of teenagers, and they are directly involved in their communities, with anime clubs and cosplay clubs and stuff that are happening parts of a teenager’s social life. I always wanted First Second to be in the library space, but in the first year, I think we became their darling a little bit. It’s not a ploy; our missions are simpatico. But they’re friends, and it’s like we have an army of friends out there.

Paste: As other publishers have recognized the importance of diversifying their markets, you’ve seen subtle effects on the comic book industry. Is this a trend you see continuing? You talked a little about the European market, where there’s something for everyone; do you see the American market slowly coming to share that quality?

Siegel: We’re definitely heading into that. Just think of a Raina Telgemeier. If you look at her dominating the bestseller list, you look at these young readers—I know from my own children and the children in town—these are their stars. They’re not going to the direct market. They’re going other places, and they’re getting the books that matter most to them. These are some of tomorrow’s creators, and they’re some of tomorrow’s adult readers who are going to be hungry for a different kind of comic. And you can see already some of the big breakouts; early on when things were starting to crack for this kind of comic, you could see a lot of memoirs and stuff like that for adults. And that opened a door for a lot of people. But now you’re seeing a lot of memoir and fiction and other kinds of non-fiction, and I think these are trends that are just going to be snowballing into the next several decades. It’s creating new appetites, and new kinds of literacy, even.

When we were graduating from our first ten years, we felt like we were ready to approach some of the many dreams we had. One of them was to have this line of science comics—bonafide, hard, solid science, but also genuinely good comics by people who know and love comics. And we cautiously started off with four titles, but the pre-orders were so incredible that we now have 18 in the works.

California Dreamin’ Cover Art by Pénélope Bagieu

Paste: On that note, what can readers look forward to from First Second in their second decade?

Siegel: [Laughs] There’s a lot. Some of the authors that we’ve been nurturing and supporting are really coming into their own and exploding—the Ben Hatkes and the Faith Erin Hicks, and definitely Gene Yang is not done surprising the world. But in 2017… I mentioned Spill Zone, which is Scott Westerfeld and, and it’s going to be a major book. From France, Pénélope Bagieu did California Dreamin’, which is a biography of Cass Elliot from The Mamas & the Papas. There’s a lot more works for younger readers…

I actually feel like 2017 is the year we’ve been running up to from day one. First of all, we’re growing a lot, to about 40 titles, and we have the whole range of ages and styles. We have this book called The Hunting Accident by David Carlson and Landis Blair, which is going to be a major event in adult comics. [Laughs] I’m mentioning a handful out of literally almost 40 titles.

When you look at our first seasons, a lot of it was personal taste and a bit of a shot in the dark, you know? Okay, how do we court America with this new kind of graphic novel? And I feel that now it’s not so shot in the dark. We understand the marketplace a bit better and the nature of publishing in America at this time, and there is this hunger that doesn’t seem to be diminishing in any way. In fact, the librarians talk about, besides manga and superheroes, that there is this New Mainstream. And this New Mainstream is author-driven, so it doesn’t have one look and it doesn’t have one theme; it ranges from fiction to non-fiction and to every age category. That’s exactly where we live; that’s what we’re about.

So I feel that that’s what’s coming. That’s the exciting stuff on the horizon.

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