Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

January 23, 2017

CR Holiday Interview #6 -- Mark Siegel

imageMark Siegel and his team at First Second celebrated their tenth year publishing in 2016. He was thus was an easy choice for this holiday series, now slightly spiraled into 2017. Sorry, Mark! Sorry, Gina!

First Second has changed significantly from its first two or three seasons. Part of this is natural growth, but I think there was course-correction, too. Conventional wisdom is that First Second has become more of a kids-book publisher. I think it's true they lean more towards that direction now than at the beginning -- something Mark confirms below. In 2017, they'll not only ramp up the number of books they're doing but the number intended to be part of a multi-volume series, kind of the gold standard for publishing in general, I think.

The biggest change at First Second since 2006 I think has come from embracing a kind of clarity in storytelling over all other things. This has cost the publishing line some of the quirkiness of its first few years. By the time The Moon Moth came out (2012), it felt like it was working the publisher's outer edge, and certainly notable launch series Grady Klein's The Lost Colony would seem radical in the current line-up.

What First Second has received back, it seems, is a broader connection to comics fans as so many more people start reading them, and a firmer place in an aspirational chain of reader to student to comics artist. They're more than set for the decade to come. Siegel's one of the nicest men in comics, and I always enjoy talking to him. I tweaked what follows for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Let me take you all the way back. We've talked a few times over the years, and I think we even talked pre-launch, before a single First Second book had hit the marketplace.

MARK SIEGEL: I wouldn't be surprised.

SPURGEON: What intrigued me comparing those interviews to the rhetoric I hear from you and the imprint now is that you've remained committed to creating an identity for the line So there's not just a conception of Project A or Project B coming through, but a vision for First Second as its own entity. And that's not where conventional wisdom was in the mid-2000s, where company identity was seen as a relic of the great push-away from Marvel and DC in the 1980s. In fact, in a creative field with so many individual parts, a collective identity can even be seen as a liability, along the line that a company spends too much time on the staff and not on the creators being published by that staff.

Given all that, what has been important to you about making an overall impression, a collective impression?

SIEGEL: That's a great question. I love that. Yeah, that's always been there. It still is. It evolves, and it's not a fixed identity -- it's an evolving identity -- but it's definitely a part of the dream behind the project. A part of creating First Second was establishing a home. That becomes the identity: people lend their strengths to it, and relate to each other through it. Every time we think Gene Yang has peaked, every time he's had a big breakthrough, he pulls up his peers. Part of it is his advocacy for First Second and the people behind it.

So we're a house. We're a business on one hand. That piece is going to be always imperfect. There's always this problem, this uncomfortable dance between business and creativity, between commerce and art. They're never good bedfellows, not completely. But when someone like Gene talks about working with First Second he's talking about the intention, the aim, the things that are beyond the business of it. He's always pulling up other artists. That's part of that group identity, that authors can benefit each other. I think it's needed for cracking America on this different kind of comic.

We're not alone, obviously. First Second isn't the only company trying to make this happen. We're in a field that is actually... it's starting to succeed at wooing a big American readership. So I think that's what it serves.

That was always my hope for First Second, that it would always be a home. It's not like all the relationships we've had have been perfect and rosy. There were people that didn't have a good experience publishing with us, but I think that's not been many. I think most people feel like they're were championed, and that they had peers and a strength in numbers. Not everybody's book is going to make money, necessarily, not their first book -- not their first six books.

It's cool. I like it. I hope that's something that keeps growing for ten years.

SPURGEON: In one of our past interviews, we talked about breaking from an original conception of First Second publishing into three different markets, understood in perhaps the broadest terms as three different reading levels. The idea expressed in that interview was that you were still interested in reaching multiple markets, but after being rigid about it interestingly you were moving towards a strategy where one season you might see way more kids' books, for instance. And I think that's true of what you have planned for 2017 when I look at what you're doing.


SIEGEL: It's not thirds so much anymore. We're doing fewer adult books in terms of quantity, at least on the immediate horizon. They tend to get a lot of focus and attention as a result. The Hunting Accident is probably going to be our biggest adult book in 2017. Head Games, maybe. The Penelope Bagieu. It looks like there's maybe four or five -- definitely less than a third for the coming year.

SPURGEON: When I went back and looked, in that same talk we identified a change in the way you approach your line that maybe hasn't been discussed as much since. It seems, if you compare those first few years of books to the seasons you offered in 2016 and will offer this year, it seems you really emphasize accessibility and narrative clarity across the board. You no longer have the idiosyncrasy you saw more frequently in those first couple of years with, for instance, illustrators trying comics for the first time. I would say you have a greater percentage of your line being made by people who are at heart sequential narrative type cartoonists.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yep.

SPURGEON: So is that part of your editorial mission now? Do you seek out books that people can read without being indoctrinated into the form?

SIEGEL: They don't need to know the secret handshake, this accumulated experience of reading comics for years? I will say that's true. Even with people that are comics veterans, I try to encourage that from an editorial end.

I think I've found my legs somewhat as an editor. I've always known there are certain stages of a book. When you have a conversation over thumbnails, I feel I'm looking at the acting, and looking at the staging and even in a cinematic way I'm paying attention to clarity in terms of the action and the staging the angles... it's not to try to make an homogenous style of art by any mean. I really do believe that it should read not just for the cognoscenti. It should be widely accessible. That's part of the broadening of audiences. That's one piece of it.

I kind of love it. I love that about comics. I think that's a skill of great comics-makers. They can do that. They have a way of guiding you. Sometimes that's weird. If you look at a Chris Ware page for the first time, you go, "What?" It feels obscure and difficult to access. When you actually get into it, he really does take you by the hand and guide you. There's a great deal of clarity. There's a handwriting there that's readable. I think that's why it reaches people.

I want us to have that. I think it's the kind of thing that as an editor I want to look out for. It's the stuff I didn't have time to tend to in the first few seasons, being so busy setting up things.

SPURGEON: Are you getting people that seem more ready-made to publish through your line? Do people know what a First Second book is before they bring it to you?

SIEGEL: Some people do. It's interesting, we're getting people now that have been reading us for a few years. That's kind of an interesting thing. I think part of the gamble of First Second was it being a long-term campaign to push the medium. Push our medium in certain ways -- not the only ways but the ways we're going after.

SPURGEON: [laughs] Give me an example of one of those things. I think there might be a perception, for example, that you're super-traditional in a lot of senses. That you work within established genres with this very specific, clarity-emphasizing approach.

SIEGEL: More traditional as opposed to more experimental?


SIEGEL: Here's the thing. I feel like we've moved away from a certain kind of... I love the core indie comics. I read a lot of them myself. I feel like the indie thing can become an identity and become this straitjacket where people have made these rules. It's gotta be a solo writer-inker-letterer-everything.

Some of those defining traits of the indie comics served a purpose in that they were pushing against a certain kind of comics. But now it's not that. The readers of today and tomorrow, that's not a very universal appeal. I think the human qualities of a story, the depth of how characters are written and acted, is more important to more people.


When you see Decelerate Blue, I think that's a very daring book graphically. That's Adam Rapp's script with Mike Cavallaro's art. I think it's some of Mike's most beautiful work ever. I think for the comics-comics people, they'll feel at home with the style. I think for book readers it will be surprising but they should be able to get into it. Or if you take Box Brown and some of his stuff with Tetris now and the Andy Kaufman book, which I don't think is '17, I think that's later.

SPURGEON: I've seen him working on it.

SIEGEL: He's doing stuff that would have been seen at one point as very indie, very experimental. But because of what he's exploring... in a way, what's interesting is that while everything is diversifying in terms of visuals, in terms of personal signature artwork, the conversation is moving beyond the form of comics. Which I really welcome. When we started First Second, the stuff in the media was covering "hey, comics aren't just for kids" or "hey, comics don't have to be superheroes." You could only have that conversation so many times. Now they're talking about literacy or about immigration or about autism. The conversation is about the subject matter.

SPURGEON: Is that just part of the normalization process?

SIEGEL: Maybe.

SPURGEON: Or is that you've found an aesthetic key...?

SIEGEL: No, I don't think there's an aesthetic that has won over America. You're not making apologies any longer. That used to be very common. Libraries, bookstores, it's one of the things on the menu now. That's one of the milestones we wanted to reach.


SPURGEON: Is it a false impression of mine that in '16 and in '17 you have more series than ever?

SIEGEL: No, it's true. It's true. It's one of the few things we're pushing. We have experiments, books to launch, I really want to get going. We want to get good at series as one of the kinds of comics we publish. We have the stuff Faith Erin Hicks is doing. I just got in The Stone Heart, which is the second book of The Nameless City. And it's really beautiful. We have Secret Coders.

We did this experiment with Last Man, which was something we could roll out really quickly. We thought that could also find a presence in the comic shops as a series. I think it's still one of the grails for us, getting that big ambitious, adult -- not necessarily adult, even teens or young adult -- addictive series. I'd love to get us there.

SPURGEON: You think that's a function of work coming out quickly, or the nature of the work...?

SIEGEL: Both. There's a piece of it where I do think about the impediments we face when we try to do what we do, and one of them is just how labor intensive the medium is by its nature. Part of it is we have a few people like Mike Holmes who can tear through a Secret Coders almost as fast as Gene Yang can script one. That's really impressive, but not many people can do that, and do it well, and pull it off. For most people it's a year, two years, three years or a lot more years of their lives. If you're doing a series and it comes out every two years, every three years, it's very difficult to publish successfully that way. So for DC and Marvel, they have the assembly line approach to maximize the Ford Motors model. [laughs] For us that doesn't quite work, it doesn't work for this kind of storyline. So for myself, I have my own experiment with 5 Worlds, which is its own thing. We have a few team projects like that here.

SPURGEON: Is this why Demon is being published across four books rather than as one giant omnibus? You want that multiple-volume effect?

SIEGEL: Yeah. Probably. I think it'd be great to do an omnibus, a big fat thing of that. But with that one we were committed to rolling it out quickly, so it feels like one experience for people. We didn't want to keep people waiting. It keeps warm in people's minds.


SPURGEON: With Last Man, maybe I'm imagining things, but you're not done with that one, are you?

SIEGEL: I'm not sure which one came out last.

SPURGEON: I want to say I've read volume six.

SIEGEL: I'm looking at 2017, so I think we did six ending in 2016. With that one, there are more volumes in Frances, so we have to decide if we're going to do more.

SPURGEON: How was that book received? Aside from it being a candidate for you to try this rolling release of trades, that book seems culturally weird to me.

SIEGEL: We get a lot of enthusiasm for it at comic cons. I feel it was embraced by comics creators more than anyone else. I think there's an aesthetic to it, a kind of artist's artist approach to a fantasy thing. It's someone with real chops, and a real visual style. That's where I hear about it. A lot of our authors ask me for a copy. That's kind of encouraging at one level. But in terms of hittting a mainstream reader, it hasn't quite popped to that.

SPURGEON: Why do you think that is? I thought of that one... I had a different conception of it as a project than I did after I got to read your version in the States. Was it a little too enamored of its pulp roots at a time we're a bit more arch and critical of that kind of material?

SIEGEL: I feel that as I get older, as the years pass I'm less confident in my own pronouncements about why things go the way they go. [laughter] When something really tanks I can see some of the reasons why, and it's usually one explanation having to do with content.

I know that on-line it sparked what I feel is healthy discussion. There was a bit of blowback about some aspects, and the authors jumped in. Typically that's not a good idea, but in this case it turned out to be. The authors jumped into the debate. It was not unexamined on their end. Even if it was not sensible... they had a position in the matter. They were happy to engage with readers about it. I thought that was cool. I thought that was an interesting moment.

There are still some differences between Europe and the states. Some things just read differently in different context. The same book can have very different impacts in different markets. I'm always interested when we bring stuff in and translate it, the risk of disconnect with an American reader is always higher. In this case -- I don't know actually. I hear a lot of good stuff from people who come to our booth. So there are people who really do connect with it. But in terms of a big number, a big audience? Maybe it skirts too close to that line. I think in America there's a very important conversation about a lot of things -- about appropriation, about sexism -- that could seem unexamined in their work.


SPURGEON: What did you see in Demon that made you feel it was a First Second book?

SIEGEL: [laughs] I know! You wouldn't predict that one on our list.


SIEGEL: Calista [Brill] first landed on that and brought me into it. We both felt the same way. Holy shit, we have to do this. This will be the most insane thing we'll ever do. [laughter] But it's also genius. Shiga is an incredible... he's incredible. It's not what you're expect from the last ten years of our publishing program, you're right.

imageOne of the things I would like to be defining for us is that we do keep surprising. Not for the sake of surprising. That we do keep pushing into areas that are outside our comfort zone. Things that have now become staples -- like This One Summer doesn't look like a typical First Second book. But now it fits into the line in terms of an important new voice. I don't want us to get sclerotic or locked in. I wouldn't want that.

SPURGEON: Can you think of anything about your relationships with your authors that's different year one to year ten? Are there difference in the standard contract? Are the authors more cognizant of media rights than they used to be? Are they demanding a certain level of guaranteed publicity? What's the difference between someone sitting in a room with you and their rep year one and year ten? What do they ask for? What are they worried about?

SIEGEL: We rarely go for any media rights. We barely have, Tom. There was a space where we experimented with that, where for a limited time we tried to make something happen with film or gaming or something, and then give them back to the author if we don't make it happen. But we've always been on the side of just taking book publishing rights and leaving the rest to the authors. So we were more unique in the field in that way in the beginning than we are now. I don't know... are people more informed? Yeah, I suppose so. People generally have agents or they get one soon after their first book or two. I think the good agents know if they're helping their clients build a long-lasting relationship with a house or a few different houses, they'll be doing that over time, and not with a first book. If they have a hit, they do come back and push. Which is what they should do. That's their job.

SPURGEON: One big issue in terms of this era of comics, this ten-year period, is the crumbling of infrastructure for the various cartoon expressions. Newspapers have crumbled.

SIEGEL: Newspapers for sure.

SPURGEON: Some will argue that book publishing isn't as sturdy as it was ten years ago in terms of the number and strength of its institutions. Ditto specialty shops. Some of the people reading -- maybe not as much as we though -- are going online, and we have festivals now that kind of stand as a fundamental restructuring of the way people buy and relate to what they're buying.

How different is it to get a book where it catches on? How much do you have to work this array of angles? What makes a book catch to the point it builds momentum on its own?

SIEGEL: I'm not sure. It's a bit of a different game. There's book publishing, and then within book publishing graphic novel publishing follows a very different patter. It's not really... if you were to start graphing out the health and activity of book publishing generally across different formats, graphic novels don't seem to follow the other trends. There's steady growth. People hoped it would be a magical formula of some kind [laughs] and they've moved away from that, but this slow, steady growth and stability. For First Second, 2013 was the year where as a publishing house we seemed to reach a certain kind of maturity and stability. We've always played a long game, but I think creators can build a steady career more easily now than they could ten years ago. It is still a steep entry curve, with all of the work involved. Even now, with a decent advance, you're still likely only getting minimum wage in terms of hours of work.

SPURGEON: Don't oversell it, Mark. [laughter]

SIEGEL: It's the readership. What makes it a viable career is that there's a readership to sustain the amount of money that cartoonists need. I've had times of great optimism. I've never been totally in the pessimistic school. I feel now more level-headed hopeful. It feels for me, for First Second, from where I stand, that we have a viable business model. It's becoming more and more of a viable model for the creators and not just a passion-career with little hope of making real money.

SPURGEON: You've never struck me as a negative guy... so what worries you? Is there an asteroid you see that maybe we don't? Does declining literacy worry you, or the ability of speciality shops and brick-and-mortar stores more generally to stay open? What worries you most about finding viable careers for a variety of cartoonists that can do this for a living?

SIEGEL: One thing that's been on my mind a long time is if there's a way of finding a good proving ground. In France, it used to be the magazines. Pilote. That was the place where there was a big heavy-hitter star artist, and there was a place for newcomers to show their stuff. In America, I think it was the indie comics scene for a while. It still is. They're still around. I think what joined alongside of it is the web comic, the web serial. I think it's kind of equivalent in a way. It's a proving ground where people can hone their skills and people will start building an audience.


For us, we have the Science Comics line which we'll have a lot of. We have a lot of that coming. And I'm happy because we'll be giving a lot of artists, in a lot of cases very young artists, a shot. It's not a massive, mega-project that's going to crush their spirit with two years of slaving away, but they'll get to show what they can do. They can contribute to something that has a reach. It's getting out there. I'm interested in more of those kinds of things. Things where people don't have to share their magnum opus first thing out of the gate.

SPURGEON: Do you get to read comics? What's the last comic that didn't have something to do with work that struck you in an interesting way?

SIEGEL: I tend to read a lot more prose these days, so lately for me it's been re-reading Ursula K. Le Guin, floating with pleasure in that stuff. Ted Chiang I've been really into as well. In comics Nimona was the last one that wasn't First Second that really lit up for me, where there was real comics reading pleasure.

SPURGEON: I asked a few comics pros about a question to ask you and a surprising number came up with the same joke to ask you about your beard.

SIEGEL: [laughs] Wait a minute, these are people that know me?

SPURGEON: You looked very rugged this year at the shows, Mark. That's all I'm saying.

SIEGEL: It was a vacation thing where I grew one on vacation and my son wanted me to keep it. Then it stuck. I think when you have a dramatic change of look it sticks because it goes with a shift. Something has been shifting internally. That was my way of marking it. I don't know if it's going to stay.

SPURGEON: Do you still use your kids to get a read on material, as a bellwether?

SIEGEL: I do. I do. Now they're 11 and 9, so I bring stuff home. There's two interesting measurements I get. One is what they say about what they read. And then I watch to see what they re-read. Because there's stuff that they're okay with but they never pick up again. The stuff they re-read is the stuff they like -- they'll re-read and re-read and re-read. There's a lot of it. They're constantly reading these things.

SPURGEON: I think that's all I have. Personal aside, while I have you: I heard you almost made it to CXC [Cartoon Crossroads Columbus] this year. I hope you can make it soon.

SIEGEL: I came really close. My 5 Worlds project is coming out with Random House in May. I'll put that show on their radar. I'm going to be doing some stuff in support. That's really fun, actually. I visited my son's school, and presented that project to 200 sixth graders. It was so awesome. It was so much. It was really a blast.

imageSPURGEON: I'm not sure I'm totally caught up with this next creative project of yours, which you've mentioned a couple of times now. Let me go back to interview voice. Can you give me the rough parameters on 5 Worlds? I knew you have been working on something as a creator distinct from your editorial duties at First Second and I heard you were working with collaborators. But other than that, I have nothing.

SIEGEL: There have been a couple of hits announcing it. It's in May. It's called 5 Worlds. We're a team of five, including my brother Alexis. He's now in London for a couple of years with the UN. We have these three awesome young graduates of MICA. Matt Rockefeller. Boya Sun. Xanthe Bouma. These kids. I'm almost scared to talk about it because I don't want to jinx it but the teamwork has been the most magical thing.

It's a very ambitious five-volume, 250-pages a volume, full-color space opera. With a lot of background world-building, a lot of big transformations. We're kind of packing in... I'm aware of what's being made in middle-grade -- especially fantasy and sci-fi. We're pushing the density of it. I'm really, really excited. This is a big, special project for me. But I'm also in a team of five. It could have gone wrong in so many ways but it's actually one of the most beautiful things in my life, honestly. [laughs]

SPURGEON: With the last one that you did, when we talked about it a lot of your language was about the solitariness of getting that done. The discipline to get the project in. You almost sounded like this lone, Olympian runner. [Siegel laughs] So I imagine having company was fortifying. A group component had to appeal as beat-up as you were after Sailor Twain.

SIEGEL: It did. The Frenchies do this a lot. They kind of switch between solo projects and collaborations. This is a very unusual, the whole process that we're using and the way it's coming out. We feel like we're finding a way to have one voice, together. Which is really, to me, a very rare experience. It's sort of like the thrill you might get if you're in a choir and the magic really happens. That's how it's feeling.

What happened was that my brother and I were writing and we were going to bring in these three young kids to take direction from us. Really soon into the project they began to join in. They were generating into the worlds, the cultures and the histories of these worlds but also the story itself and the characters. It's become tight, a really tight little affair.

When we went out with the project it came down to a couple of houses and Random House took it away. That's been a really interesting experience, getting a taste of that house.

SPURGEON: Is there something that sticks out with Random House as a sharp contrast to an experience you've enjoyed in the past?

SIEGEL: It's definitely a big, big house. We see what's possible. The number of people involved in the support system for launching a book, is huge. It has up and down sides. I felt really good working with a couple of super-competent editors. That's always useful, to see how things are done. It's interesting because with First Second we're heading into our biggest year ever. With 2017, we're getting near 40 titles.

SPURGEON: I saw your list.

SIEGEL: This list is so cool. It's so good. I feel we've had some good lists and not so good lists. This is really, really strong; it's strong across the board. I really feel this is our best offering ever, this coming year. At the same time this is going on I have this really intensive project going on on the side with Random House [laughs]. But it's interesting. It's interesting.


* First Second Books
* Five Worlds, Book 1


* First Second Books anniversary logo
* from The Hunting Accident
* from Decelerate Blue
* Faith Erin Hicks' latest
* from Last Man Vol. 3
* from This One Summer
* it's Science!
* first cover image for a 5 Worlds book
* art from Sailor Twain [below]



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