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December 28, 2012

CR Holiday Interview #10—Mark Siegel

imageMark Siegel is the editorial director of First Second Books, the graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook Press. He is also an author and illustrator whose most ambitious work to date, Sailor Twain, came out in October of this year following an ambitious, two-year, on-line serialization. First Second creators have included Eddie Campbell, Lewis Trondheim, Gene Luen Yang and a significant number of authors oriented towards all-ages graphic novels, many of whom, as we discuss below, confuse me. I always enjoy talking to Siegel at the various funnybook shows we both attend, and this year at San Diego's Comic-Con International he seemed almost blissful about the direction of his company. I also always wanted to talk to someone who works both side of the creator/editor divide in the same calendar year. Mark indulged my curiosity about all of this and more mid-December. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: I have a question for you, a potential first question, that I wanted to put up front because if it sucks I could easily fast-forward past it. [Siegel laughs] You just came off of an author's tour, an extensive one, and I have to imagine that can be a pretty strenuous thing. You also have a ton of professional responsibilities at First Second. One of the things I'm fascinated by in comics right now is how people our age -- we're near the same age -- stay in shape. Comics people aren't always known for taking care of themselves.


SPURGEON: It seems there's a mini-trend of people reinvesting in that kind of healthy living. And I wondered if that's ever been important to you, the physical fitness thing, or at least finding a way to do everything you do and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

SIEGEL: I had my own health scare about 10-12 years ago. It forced me to really devote some time to setting up a lifestyle as opposed to just wining it on whatever. As you know, that's a tough time in your life, but it's also a blessing. You basically pay some bills on how you've been living. I do try to have some sense of that. A big part of it for me, a big part of the balance of health, is having certain patterns and routines. Including creatively. I think your creative health is kind of inseparable from your physical health. For that, being able to set routines, my early morning studio stuff, and my work time, and then of course when you hit the road and do the author thing that's definitely a source of imbalance and I'm feeling, I'm definitely feeling some burnout from having scrambled some finely-tuned patterns in my life. [laughs] I'm hoping to find my way back to a certain kind of balance.

SPURGEON: Just getting the amount of work done that you get done seems to me it would take a considerable amount of thought. It's not unprecedented in comics, your kind of split responsibilities. A lot of publishing figures have also been creators. A lot of folks have found their own way into that kind of balance. Was it more difficult for you when you first started?

SIEGEL: Not really, because in a way it predated First Second. First Second came along, before that I had jobs in publishing that really were more like day jobs. First Second came along, and it's more... there's a part of it that's really dayjob in terms of the admin work, the managing side of it all. But First Second is also a baby in a creative sense? It's a project. It's a project, so it has a different kind of nourishment than just clocking in for a paycheck.

Before First Second started, I knew... when I was just a designer at Simon & Schuster before that, I knew that I had to safeguard my project time, and fight for it fiercely. There are so many people that put off that novel they dream of writing, and it eventually becomes the regret of their life. I knew I never wanted that. It's true I think that you pay the price of what you want to do. If I wake up... I found for me that carving up some time that wasn't yet claimed by everyone and everything else had to be really early morning. Most of my life I've been a night owl, but I've reprogrammed myself. So early mornings became that time. As I expanded that time, I had to push further earlier and earlier into the morning. The price of that is I'm not going to have much of a social life, because I'm useless after 10. That's a price I was happy to pay.

SPURGEON: Do you find that that has an effect on the way you create, though? I know that when I talk to artists with a demanding day job, maybe even a few of whom are in that early phase of having a family, they find they make stronger and quicker choices out of necessity.

SIEGEL: Yeah, I think it's true. I think it's true. I know it's a total cliche, but they say if you want something done you give it to a busy person. I think there's something about... when I think back on my twenties, and when I look back, I think in a way I had so much time on my hands and I have so little to show for that time. Those years. And of course, there are different things that you're going to be drawn towards in your teens or your twenties or your thirties or your forties... it changes, definitely. But I feel that as I've grown older and busier, that the time being more precious tends to be invested rather than spent. You can't really have a life without downtime, without empty, vacant time. That's also important.

It's basically become a set-up for me of a life that's like many little lives, where I know that 15 minutes can count, half an hour can count, especially if I know it's every day. At the end of a month, there's a lot to show for that. As opposed to always waiting to have that good marathon session in the studio. I know this from working with comics people, some very talented comics people, that some people have more of a struggle with their productivity than others. And oftentimes I hear they're kind of like, "This weekend, I'm going to give it a good, six-hour run and that should be great." And of course those six hours never come. As opposed to those people that never let themselves grow cold and they stay warm on a daily basis and it's maybe less spectacular and in the end it kind of wins the day.

SPURGEON: Let me turn that around. Something that's come through with talking to people on the road this year, people that have a teaching or a publishing gig, a lot of people approach those jobs as their being artistic projects as well. You talked a little bit about First Second being a creative project. Do you think First Second is different for having an artist in your position with the imprint, that you can develop it in terms of its own creative life?

SIEGEL: I hope so. And I know I'm not alone. There are some really talented authors and artists running... Chris Oliveros has his own comics. It's a funny thing. There's this impossible dance between commerce and art. It never quite works. One of the two is getting their toes stepped on. But there's a need for that. There's a need for something to hold that space, where there's some structure that can support careers out of creative projects. I see people like the people I work with, there's some incredibly inspiring people. There are people that have paid their dues, some of them, and can make a living doing what their passion is. Creating a home for that is partly a creative projects. It needs the business to be sound and to be healthy. To sustain. I know I'm less idealistic than when we started First Second, but also there's some idealism I'm fighting to never lose. And I think the part that might be different, other publishing companies in some cases that the business part is a means to that end, as opposed to the sole criterion for success.

SPURGEON: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you isn't just that you have this considerable book out, but also when we spoke this summer, I think of all the publishing people I spoke to, and I think of all the conversations you and I have had in the past at these things, that general, ongoing conversation, you seemed more serene than usual. You seemed happy, like you were in a good place about where things are right now. I wonder if that's a fair assessment, and I also wonder how it feels to get there, to get to a place where you feel locked in, where you feel comfortable with where things are. Are you in a good place with the company?

SIEGEL: Yeah, we are in a good place. I feel happy with our current lot, but there's always a side of me that's striving to get it better. I'm aware of certain milestones that are hard to reach in terms of not just First Second, but First Second's place in the creative community of comics. So broadly speaking, in the sense that anybody's success is a good thing for all. I feel that there are certain things that are... America can be a hard nut to crack, there are still certain prejudices about comics to overcome. You think by now that battle has been won, but a lot of people haven't caught up to that fact. That's an interesting part of my job, traveling around the country and meeting thousands of librarians and educators. That side of things is also where I get some of my optimism from.

I do feel I see a lot of change. I see a lot of support. I see a lot of enthusiasm. There is this incredible renaissance that we're in. With First Second, part of what -- not so much satisfaction, I wouldn't say I'm satisfied, but I'm pleased. I'm pleased to feel we're playing a part in this thing. Right now we're around seven years in existence. We're sticking. We're sticking. We've earned a certain space of our own. And if we can keep sticking, I think we're going to offer the medium itself, and the creators -- some of them not yet born -- are going to have an avenue that can help them sustain, really push the form into some interesting places. Year by year, I would say there was an anxiety. We definitely had -- there's been some ups and downs and some things -- some experiments that went thump. But all in all, the progression is towards greater stability, greater establishment for First Second.


SPURGEON: Your language is very interesting there, Mark, because you talk in terms of roles and parts and space... can you describe what you think that role is? What is that space you're describing, is it advocating for the medium's viability, is it providing stability to a certain kind of artist, is it being a good citizen within the overall community?

SIEGEL: Partly. Partly. I think we do try... I think part of the mission of First Second is to help win a place in both highbrow culture and popular culture for comics that is long overdue in America. We're certainly not the only ones trying to do that. I do think we put special effort in terms of speaking different languages for different audiences and putting books out that are aimed to reach across many different kinds of audiences. I'm always interested in books that are really legit and have real cred for people who love and know comics, but can also speak to people that don't know comics. We're always looking for ways... I love it, like I've heard that Anya's Ghost was one book that somebody told me what was great about it is that it doesn't need a secret handshake. It lets you in right away. It's not necessarily a measure for every book, but for that one I think that's a real success.

SPURGEON: Something I've always wondered: how much are you able to curate a season? You just announced your books for a specific season. How much of that is crafted with a specific, cumulative effect in mind and how much is that beholden to the realities of publishing, what you have ready to go?

SIEGEL: [laughs] There's a bit of both. It's funny, because I do believe anything you set up, collective or solo, at first you govern it and you establish the rules. Later it governs you with whatever you've put into it, for better or for worse. First Second has gotten to a point where there's a kind of an organic life to it, so magic things happen. For example, at one point I was really pushing to see how we get a balance of really talented women cartoonists. Because they're out there. And now there are more and more and more of them. I remember having conversations about this years ago. We started signing people up. I was presenting to some librarians, there were a hundred New York librarians that came here to the Flatiron Building last week. I was presenting -- which list was it? -- I guess it was the coming Fall list, one of the upcoming lists. Five of the six projects were by women. I hadn't even noticed it. Sometimes you set things in motion and the season is that kind of season. We do have a bit of a curatorial look, and then there projects that fall off or that come in early. But each season has its character.

SPURGEON: Is it a change at all now that you're dealing with repeat authors? You kind of have your people now.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah. And I love that. I try. I try. I feel like we have, there is a stable of authors in a sense -- some of them do projects with other houses -- but there's a sense we can build certain bodies of work? And that's also kind of organic. There are sometimes when the timing just does gibe for something with someone. I like that. I think part of the long view mission of an editor is to be seen in the course of an author's first five, six, seven books. I think some agents and some editors and some publishers aren't good at that kind of long-term support. I think some people are signed up. I think their first book may be flawed, but they have a masterpiece in them and I want to be there for that day.


SPURGEON: I've taken a step back as a critic this year, and one thing I've concluded is that I don't have a refined aesthetic when it comes to comics for younger readers.

SIEGEL: Yeah, you've slammed a couple of ours.

SPURGEON: We've had a couple of exchanges.

SIEGEL: That's the one time I feel I disagree with you.

SPURGEON: What usually happens is some friend of mine with kids will talk me down, in that they just seem to have a more natural eye for what might work for that audience or what might not. "My kid really likes that book. It's not that bad." But here's what I'm interested in: how far along are you in developing that kind of taste? Because it seems you publish a lot of that kind of material now.

SIEGEL: I'm working on that. From the beginning there was a third for children, a third for teens and a third for adults -- roughly speaking for First Second.

It's a funny thing. I now have kids. One is seven and one is five. Over the years I've gotten to see and test things on them. The first thing that happened is when we were first reading picture books. I had done some picture books, and I had worked in picture books. The second I started bringing home picture books and started reading with them, my ideas of what made a good picture book completely turned on their head. They just completely were turned inside out and upside down. Then it got me thinking, "Well, what is it?" What is it about some of these books that really works for them and for me, too. But other times there are book where I think, "Oh my God, they're going to love this." And I bring it home and we never read it again.

imageI've come to respect certain authors. Like Peggy Rathmann, who did Good Night, Gorilla. There must be 12 words in that book. It's a perfect book. I've read it probably a hundred times and on three or four occasions along the way of those 100 readings the bottom dropped out and I had a revelation of like, "Oh my God, I see what she's doing. She's a genius." It's not unlike comics. Picture books are dismissed by people as easy stuff. If you've done a novel, you can bang out a couple of those. It's really hard to do a picture book that is actually for children. One of our experiments is Nursery Rhyme Comics; the next one will be Fairy Tale Comics. We have these amazing cartoonists working the classic nursery rhymes. Part of what we're trying to do is make it not just winking at adults, but really make it for that three or four year old at bed time. It's a different reading, and it's surprising sometimes to us grownups that the world really does look different when you're four.

SPURGEON: Your own work... I avoided reading a bunch of your interviews. A lot of CR readers, I'm guessing, may not have caught up to Sailor Twain yet. When I started reading the online version, your milieu, the place where you put this, is not something we see a lot of, or that we hear a lot of, that part of the country, that part of the world, that very important river and valley. You live north of the city in one of those towns. Is that a fair assessment, that this isn't an area that we see processed a lot through art?

SIEGEL: There's definitely a rich tradition. There's literature and there's art centered around here. Washington Irving and Rip Van Winkle -- he was trying to create a new American myth. There's writing. Pete Hamill I think is a great New York novelist. It's funny. The Hudson is the Mighty Hudson, you hear a lot about the history and the commerce, but the romance you don't hear about. I find it very romantic.

SPURGEON: Is it that element, then, that spurred you on to make art about that place? Or was there a connection to the other works of art?

SIEGEL: There was some of the art stuff, but some of it was that I commute, on a train going down the Hudson every day. Where I live, the Hudson is about three miles wide, and it's in this bed of granite. If you go up you pass West Point Academy and you go up towards Rhinebeck and Poughkeepsie and then towards Albany. And it's like there are so many different landscapes. It's incredibly, incredibly beautiful country. Around New Paltz and Poughkeepsie there's the wine country, the Hudson wine country, which you don't hear about so much. There's definitely a lot of charm and a lot of appeal. There's history. Edith Wharton and the gilded age of New York. A lot of that is Manhattan, but a lot of is up the river. You get the Rockefeller and the Vanderbilts and the great New York 400 families. There's amazing history, amazing stuff there.

imageSPURGEON: I want to ask you about two formal aspects of it that struck me. Your character design is interesting to me. The figures are very... they're very arch, they have a very cartoony aspect to them.

SIEGEL: Twain in particular.

SPURGEON: For sure. Can you talk about how you settled on designs for the project?

SIEGEL: That was definitely an exploration. The beauty for me with this project was giving it time. I started it before First Second. I've been working on this thing for about nine years. I had done a set of page that were entirely in ink, ink washes, about 30 pages of that, I did 15 pages in another attempt. They had to be scrapped as they weren't quite right. As I worked the story, and the historical research and some of the background of the characters over four and a half years, I ended up coming back to the character designs several times. There was a point where I thought I knew the characters, and I thought, "There's no way he'd look like that." Or, "There's no way she would wear something like that." So I went back.

In terms of the formal properties of the, what I finally figured it out is that it had to be done in charcoal for the mood and the steam and the smoke and the fog. The thing with charcoal is that in ways it's hard, because it's messy. But it's also forgiving in that you can shade everything in a way that's homogenous, but then within that you can have a character like Twain that's very geometric but almost manga kind of iconic, and a character like Lafayette that's more naturalistic. The thing with Twain and Lafayette, they're this American captain and this French ship owner, and they're the two central men in the story. And they're a little bit like the two strands in my genetics, basically. That's how it started, anyway. The French and the American thing. The American was always intended to be in this more geometric, this more black and white stylization. That's a bit like his moral world. That's his anglo-saxon moral world. Whereas Lafayette is all in shades of gray, and he's more loose and more organic. A little bit caricatured, but not geometric. I felt like they were playing against each other, and the way they transform is that Twain ends up more conflicted whereas Lafayette, who starts off amoral, ends up discovering a certain kind of honor in a way.

SPURGEON: That extends to their physicality as well. Twain will often act in this outsized, cartoony way.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Like the Crumb "Keep On Truckin'" way.

SPURGEON: This struck me as an interesting choice, because a standard, create-a-work-in-five-minutes version of this, an easy way to do this is to distinguish between the fantasy elements and those that are decidedly less so in terms of how you draw them. But Twain is as out there as the mermaid... the spirit character.

SIEGEL: She's more realistic than he is, in a way. That's right. That's exactly right. Again, this is something that gets a chance to ripen and layer over time. They grow over time. I don't even feel I can take credit for them personally. It was more like discovering them as I went. With Twain, he's... there's times when he's less cartoony and more anchored in reality, but there's something about... there are certain things about this story I took very seriously and certain things I deliberately did not want to take too seriously. I love it when there are certain books and certain works and movies when I feel you can subvert the seriousness of a moment. You have these five chapters before you meet the mermaid, before you know for sure there's going to be a mermaid in the story. He finally finds this wounded mermaid, and there's a tragic weight to that moment. Suddenly he's thinking about selling her to PT Barnum. [Spurgeon laughs] When that moment happened... there's also a moment, a potentially romantic moment of carrying this naked fish-woman in his arms, and she's all slippery like a fish. She's bonking her head on the deck, and he can't figure out how to hold her. I love being able to switch. I feel in comics there's a way to have a range of feelings for a character that's unique to comics. I was playing with that.

It worked with Lafayette in a different way. He's a cad, and a libertine, and almost a buffoon at first. Then in a way the story of redemption is his story.


SPURGEON: The other formal thing that jumped out at me is that the structure of your pages is all over the place. There's no set grid, no set of standard solutions, except maybe that you tend to do big story moments as full pages. I think that's a consistent structural element. But your page design is very... all over the place.

SIEGEL: I knew where I didn't want it to go. I didn't want it to break... it's still a very conventional window. I tried not to bring the reader out of the story and into the formal design of the page. Exploded shards of panels... I tried to keep it pretty simple. The main thing I kept checking it for was the clarity. I didn't want to have any doubt as to how to follow the story.

SPURGEON: The clarity isn't in question, but the wide variation in terms of page structure does seem to lend a nervous energy to it, in that you're never able to settle into a specific pattern. It's jumpy in a way that I'm not sure a lot of books are. Even pages that face each other than look the same, perhaps the same number of tiers, you end up varying the size of the tiers, so the reading experience shifts again.

SIEGEL: That's definitely stuff I was playing with. There's a bit of the euro influence in that. Each story beat has its own treatment.

SPURGEON: You had a very high profile, very elaborate publicity tour -- we mentioned this up top. You went out and did a lot of events related to the book's launch. That's not typical to someone in your position. You have some things to do. You said it did disrupt some of what you had going on. I wondered about your decision to be fully present for the book in that way.

SIEGEL: The book itself, I feel like it was born from a personal journey. In some way, putting this stuff out there in a project and then fashioning a story to its ripeness, in a sense, it felt like I was shedding something. It's a little bit like letting it go -- giving it that push and getting it out in the world is a way to shed it and be free of it and move on. There's another side of me that's been treating all of this as an experiment and taking a lot of notes along the way. The webcomic and the serializing, some of that we're applying to other serial projects at First Second. Getting a taste of being out there and flogging your book, that's something we've asked our authors to do. I got a taste of that, to see what is that really like and how does that work and where does it work and where does it need improvement. I felt it was part of an experiment.

SPURGEON: I've been dying to ask you this, Mark. How sensitive were you to the fact that you're the boss, the editorial director, and you're getting author time? You're getting a certain kind of tour and certain press opportunities -- considering the fact that you have these other authors, was that a concern at all?

SIEGEL: It's definitely a delicate balance. Definitely. A lot of thought, a lot of conversation went into that here. [Spurgeon laughs] I did do my best to make sure I wasn't giving myself any special deals. Like there was a lot of stuff -- the webcomic was all on my own dime. I was basically doing my best to be as impeccable as possible with it. There was also that I did need to fulfill my duties as a First Second author with a book out. If it holds its own, if it doesn't lose money, it's part of the viability of the whole thing. And to be fair, there's always been some incestuousness to our relationships. Colleen [AF Venable] is our designer but she's also an incredible author. She's doing a new project for us. There's a part of it where I feel that's clear. There was no secret for all of the authors. I was always doing my picturebook projects and things. In this case, doing it in house, it has problems. It's not the easiest thing to do at times.


SPURGEON: You're kind of in a unique position, then. Having just said goodbye to this project, saying goodbye to this part of the journey and now looking at it with a cold eye as a publishing project, something this big -- I'm always curious when an author makes something this big and personal if the work itself has revealed anything to you for your getting a chance to look at it in this different way? Do you look at the book differently now?

SIEGEL: Yeah, I do. When you put something out, you get to discover it through other eyes. There are certain things that people resonate with. Some people mention mid-life crisis, they're reading it through the eyes of a mid-life crisis. Or looking at mermaids in terms of their lives. For some people, mermaids resonate with addictions or with obsessions -- it's in there, but people have fresh insight about that. I do love books where there are mysteries. I like most things to be wrapped up pretty tidy, but I like a few things that are open-ended that might send you back into the work again. I've heard some interesting takes that people have on some things that are not my own take. There are messages in bottles that Lafayette is throwing overboard, I've heard some interesting theories about that. I'm keeping my mouth shut, I don't want to give anything away.

SPURGEON: Those are some pretty potent, broad metaphors you're tossing around there. Mermaids may be somewhat neglected, but people have been foisting significance onto them since olden times. There's a river, just the fact of the river. River travel. Your characters mirror one another, those life and love issues that are explore that way. I have to think that was on purpose -- that you wanted to use these metaphors to specific ends, but you also wanted them to keep their mystery.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. That was definitely the meditation running through it. What I tried to do with all of that -- the metaphors, but also the characters, their psychologies, and some of the historical issues -- there are currents about feminism, and black history in the 19th Century. I pushed them down a little bit -- in earlier drafts they're more prominent but now they're mostly undercurrents. I always tried to bring them back to what's real to me today. I didn't want to do an abstract thing. It's more about you govern your characters at first and later they govern you. It was a matter of spending the right amount of time with them. I wanted to play with these things, but not so much a literary conceit but because I was wrestling with stuff as we all do. We're up against ourselves and we're up against life's struggles. There are times you feel that you're really up against it and that your life is in the process of derailing or you're about to break through to a new development for yourself. So I was bringing in these big things, but out of that need as opposed to some kind of a magnum opus.


* Mark Siegel
* First Second
* Sailor Twain


* image from opening scene of Sailor Twain
* image from Vera's Ghost
* cover to Nursery Rhyme Comics
* Peggy Rathmann's picture books
* that strange Twain character design
* page design -- standard but rarely repeats
* two with Twain and the mermaid (one below)



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