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An Interview With Mark Siegel, Part One
posted April 23, 2006
 

image Mark Siegel talks about doing things "right" with his launch of First Second at Roaring Brook Press. From a quality and production standpoint it's hard to second-guess him. Say what you will about the content of the first six books out from the publisher at the end of this month -- and there will be plenty to say about this interesting group of works -- it's undeniable that as a group they're beautifully packaged, in an appealing format, offer up a mix of comfortable and out-there styles, and target a range of audiences from 8 to 80. The last is a cliche that doesn't get used in comics all that often because it would be laughable.

For all that's on the line the next few weeks, the French-born Siegel, an artist himself who in addition to his book gigs frequently puts his work into a first-rate blog promoting the company's slow development, has the confidence of someone who has more than a single-season commitment from his publisher. It looks like he has up to six, or three years, to help his company find its market position. I think people are hopeful First Second's experiment works, not just because the books are of a high quality, but because First Second's success would say something wonderful about the audience for comics for everyone.

A second interview yet to be conducted covering Siegel's impressions of the line's launch will appear on this site later this Spring.

TOM SPURGEON: Can you tell me where you are -- ?

MARK SIEGEL: I'm in the Flatiron Building. The Daily Bugle.

SPURGEON: Can you tell me where you are in terms of getting the books out there?

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SIEGEL: Oh. [laughs] The first six books come out the very end of April. We have them now. We've had them for a while, with advance copies. We're now getting the actual copies. They'll be in stores basically May 1. This year both seasons, Spring and Fall, we're doing six titles at once. Partly because we need to make a presence in the places we're going.

SPURGEON: Now was that a conscious decision, to have that many books come out in that specific format? Was that to have a larger shelf presence, a marketing presence?

SIEGEL: It's aiming to do many things at once. Partly it's to establish us as creating a collection. We do have a standard format of six by eight and a half. Have you seen the books?

SPURGEON: Yeah, they're really attractive.

SIEGEL: Great.

SPURGEON: I like the size quite a bit. How did you decide on the presentational format, Mark?

SIEGEL: That was there right from the start. When I first met for breakfast with my two bosses, so to speak -- Simon Boughton is the publisher of Roaring Brook and John Sterling is the head of Holt -- I had already worked out a basic vision of what I felt really needs to happen in America to create the broadest possible avenue for graphic novels, to really shine as a literary presence. Part of that was exactly this format. I had done some tests at Simon and Schuster with Little Vampire and my own book, Seadogs, in the picture book format. It became very clear what markets we were totally cutting ourselves out of, in the fact that no adult would be caught dead reading it, basically, and also in terms of booksellers and librarians and what they could and couldn't do. There are also hardcover, softcover issues.

We went this format. One of the reasons was I calculated six by eight and a half was just about the best happy meeting point between American-kind comics format, the European BD format, and the Asian manga format. Something that could import and export easily, but also something that would be cargo pants pocket friendly, and be readable on subways and be portable. Then of course the fact of a uniform format, even though we're going for a very eclectic range of themes and authors and styles and stuff. We want to build a wall that can hold together.

I grew up in France with these books that were called the Pink Library and the Green Library. Millions of French kids grew up with this very coherent format. But within it were great authors, some of them were classics. I read Last of the Mohicans when I graduated into the Green Library. I was very proud of that. It had a whole folklore that was appealing. And the idea that you could grow up with it. You could find something if you were seven years old, and then keep finding stuff in there, always at a high standard because that's how they defined themselves. It had a whole range of ages, and I really loved that idea.

SPURGEON: Are you pursuing a specific age group?

SIEGEL: No, really a whole range. This is something I want to keep doing from season to season. Our first season has Sardine on one end, and then Eddie Campbell on the other end. Something like The Lost Colony -- just this week I got some notes from people about their nine-year-old daughter reading Lost Colony and loving it. But you could also have a 50-year-old man who's really into the subtext and the pointed stuff about America's dark side. That kind of reading. I'm trying to keep every season having something for the younger set and something for really adult, mature readers. And things that go both ways. One of our core targets is college readers, and then bleeding down and bleeding up, into the adult market, into the young reader's market.

SPURGEON: Can you tell me about the practical steps you had to take to build a line? When you had that initial breakfast meeting, did you already have formed in your head which artists you wanted to bring on board?

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SIEGEL: A lot of the people I've brought on board, a lot of them are my favorite artists from around the world, so there's that side to it. But yeah, I had a sense very quickly that I wanted to go really aggressively, especially with the Americans, to build up a core of Americans, which is going to be more and more of a presence. Our first list I had to jumpstart so we have more imports than we will as a standard. But it's still important we have that worldwide feel to it. There's been some discoveries along the way, and I can definitely think Jessica Abel for introducing me to a lot of people I didn't know on the American side.

Very quickly I had a sense... we have a program for newcomers, people we want to coach and bring up from unknown status. But people like Sara Varon and Brian Ralph and Paul Pope and Greg Cook, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden, a whole bunch of others, for anyone in the comics industry they've proven themselves already. They're not green, basically. I don't know if you can say they're in their prime but they're on the top of their game, they've paid their dues.

SPURGEON: Is there a dependability issue, too? That you want to work with artists that are reliable and have a reputaiton for handing work in?

SIEGEL: Yeah... and I've gotten a little bit of a taste of that with things that are dropping off into Spring '08 [laughter]. I don't mind it, because there's quite a lot, and I deliberately overshot a bit for 2007. 2007 is going to be the big rolling up the stars... that's going to be the Paul Pope, which is an enormous project, the Derek Kirk Kim, the Jessica Abel, the list goes on with some really astonishing... even Richard Sala has something that's very different than anything he's done before.

SPURGEON: He's in a good place with his art.

SIEGEL: I know, he really is. And what he's doing is he's going a little bit like Paul Pope is, broader and a little more mainstream, with classic storytelling. Which I find very exciting. That's what I presented to him when I first approached him, was if he'd like to go for that. I love working with people that feel like they're honing their craft with whatever new project they're taking on. They're growing new skills and reaching beyond their comfort zone. And I feel like that's the case with a lot of them.

Oh, and also 2007 we have the big Eddie Campbell project. Fate of the Artist was kind of tacked on the deal [Spurgeon laughs]. I really wanted him to do Black Diamond Detective Agency, and he said, "Okay, I'll do it if we can throw in this Fate of the Artist." I knew nothing about that, but it turned out really well.

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SPURGEON: When you mention 2007, how far ahead do you have plans and how contingent are those plans on the success of the two 2006 seasons you've announced?

SIEGEL: In a way, in a totally practical, practical sense I do want to expand our list. As long as there's no cutting corners on quality and production values. The first list there are a couple of imperfections that are going to bug me until the end of my days, but I feel like we're starting out on a certain footing and declaring ourselves as holders of a really quality standard. The picture I have in my mind is that in the next two years we'll be expanding our list and spreading it out over the year. But that's contingent in a way partly on how the first season does and how that allows me to build up a quality staff here. That first season I was almost on my own. Which nearly killed me. Now I've got a couple of really good, passionate people -- one in marketing and one in design. I would need to double that pretty quickly, and I'm counting on that.

SPURGEON: What kind of editorial relationship do you have with the artists that are developing stuff for the line, as opposed to those having existing material translated?

SIEGEL: In general, here and around the world, I feel an area that the graphic novel will make another leap in substance and quality is in developing the role of the editor/art director. We know Scott Allie and other people around that are exciting editors. But there's so much stuff that's produced both here and in Europe where you get incredible artistry, brilliant characters, a totally dazzling premise, and then halfway through the story kind of falls apart. That's the kind of stuff where a novelist would expect a good editor to ask tough questions and have that fine balance of how not to meddle with someone's vision and be there coaching alongside, and sometimes being unpopular. In the second draft you might be the most hated person in their life, but you're going, "Hang on, this relationship arc disappears halfway through the story. What about this?" It's not the same with everybody. Some people take to that, and some people really, really want to be left alone.

SPURGEON: There are two reasons historically for that, I think. One is a rejection of editor-directed mainstream comic books. The other is that a lot of companies -- not yours -- interested in comics as artistic expression have been capital-light and haven't been able sustain having a book in production for very long. Which I think is a distinct advantage you have, that you can support a book through a longer process.

SIEGEL: That's the thing. If you go with that approach, then it is a risk that a book needs to jump two seasons because it's going to be a great book if it does, but only okay if it doesn't. A lot of books have felt the need for expediency and economy, and a lot of times have suffered. The other one is also the idea of banking on an author in a long-term way, that they are building a body of work, and there's not just the short-term kind of blockbuster... but it's true. If you can't sustain that, and back it up financially, you're backed up into a corner. That's a risk. That's one important thing. I love being able to work with somebody. I have a couple of freelance editors doing some incredible, incredible work for us. One has a very literary sensibility and she really knows graphic novels. The people who have worked with her... I'll hire her when I really want to be freed up as the art director, and no longer wear both hats. Somebody like that, the relationship she has with authors, they treasure. They really shine. It's rare, it's really hard to find that right balance.

SPURGEON: One thing that's compelling about your first season is that you're trusting the audience will accept different approaches to comics art. Was there any trepidation on your part concerning how restrictive the American market can be in terms of taking to different styles? The Sfar books and Lost Colony in particular, are very different than what the market's used to.

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SIEGEL: I can't wait until you see the next Lost Colony. He's got time on his side, because there's a whole world developing, arcs that go into ten books with some of those characters. I know what you're saying, and I think that's actually in a way a kind of responsibility, the way I see it. Having a chance to run at this properly and not having to sneak it through some kind of publishing program. [Spurgeon laughs] I get some editors from other imprints and other places that come and want to chat and see what we're doing and swap stories. They're doing their one or two graphic novels in a whole list of novels or of picture books or other things. They're kind of sneaking in. That seriously crimps what you can do. I feel like I'm here, I've got some really gutsy people editorially and financially, like John Sargent, John Sterling and Simon Bouton are really going, they're really making this a gamble. We're going to do this well and properly.

Part of that is not just running along with what's already been done, but really looking to shape the market. I really like the idea that Sardine... which kids love so far. Eight or nine years old are reading it, which is older than I thought the audience was, but we're getting some incredible response there. What I love about it is that it's not slick. Disney has had such an impact on children's art, where everything has to be really slick and kind of perfect. Sardine is kind of messy and all over the place, these rambling, crazy stories. It has some good vitamins for kids. It's nourishing stuff. Right now it seems like we're pushing back the boundaries. I think it won't seem like that in a few years time. Pantheon is another example of introducing things. At first glance when you see Persepolis, and definitely Epileptic, it's really pushing what we're used to reading visually. But now, especially with Persepolis, it's become part of a certain visual vocabulary. Part of that is measured against the comics we know, that's one thing, but there's a very, very big audience out there who don't have much in the way of preconceived notions about a graphic novel. That's malleable, and waiting to be shaped in interesting ways.

But still, if I fly on a plane and end up talking to somebody next to me, the number of times where people are still going, "So what is a graphic novel?" reminds me there's a very big world outside the comics world waiting to be introduced to all kinds of things. So tastes are still very much in flux, maybe now more than ever.

SPURGEON: Can I take it from what you've said about children reacting to certain books that you're doing some formal testing?

SIEGEL: No, no. Not like focus groups. No. That would kind of go against the idea that we're really championing authors, first and foremost. We're sending it around to try and get a response. I had to decide early on about what we were going to do with age categories. And right now, our two young titles, Sardine and A.I.L.E.E.N., which is a bit older, are also listed in the Roaring Brook catalog. They're being sold in the children's market. But we're deliberately not putting age categories, because I think graphic novels blur those better than almost anything.

SPURGEON: Why do you think that is?

SIEGEL: In a way, I think... it's a bit like The Simpsons in that you can have many readings at many levels. In a way, in a huge blockbuster arena, why is Harry Potter blurring age categories? There's something about it that can touch different ages. I think graphic novels almost have that by design. Not Crumb, obviously. [laughter] But you know what I mean?

I love Grady Klein. We have these amazing conversations. Speaking of the editorial process, it's a delight working with him. We work on the thumbnails for Lost Colony. I throw a lot of questions and challenges at him, and he always comes back with some kind of generative thing. We talk a lot about the graphic novel, about the medium. One time we were talking about how all the names for it are misnomers, like "graphic novel" or "comics" or "comix" -- none of them are really an accurate name. Everybody kind of settles for whatever they're happy to call the medium. He calls it "Little Faces." Which I really like. There's something about the appeal of little faces. Why is it that medievel tapestries are fun? It's because there are little people, stuff going on. It draws you in in a way that defies age brackets.

SPURGEON: Are you guys set up to do traditional comic shop distribution?

SIEGEL: We're definitely working with Diamond. The comic shop is something that we're definitely factoring in and working at. In a sense -- and I have to be careful what I say -- it's one part. There's a big world outside of that. It's important, because there's definitely a hardcore base of people that are already savvy with that vocabulary and everything else. But I think it would really be a mistake to lose perspective and think this was it. That's our pool for fishing in.

SPURGEON: What is the ideal launch for First Second? Where do you want to be on July 1?

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SIEGEL: We're getting our advance orders, and all the first books are already reprinting. I didn't want to build up anybody's expectations here, and I told them from the start that I want to have a few years to run at this. Because we need set shelf space even just to establish the scope of what we're doing. But come July it would be nice to see us... I think we have an incredible reception and anticipation already, support and encouragement, in the comics world. Even what you put on your wishes for 2006 at the end of last year. There we were, number five -- a successful launch for First Second. I sent that around to everybody here. It was an incredible feeling to have that sense of support.

SPURGEON: I'd like to take credit, but I'm drunk most of the time when I post on the blog, so I have no memory of that. [Siegel laughs]

SIEGEL: You had five wishes for 2006, and that was the fifth one. It was cool to have that before we're even out there.

I feel like in July the first thing that would be really great is if we live up to people's hopes in the kind of anticipation department. Another one is that the anticipation keeps building. I feel like we have a first season that should knock a few socks off, and then a second season that should do that even more and then 2007 is Shock and Awe. [laughter] Probably not a model of success we want to follow.