Five Years of First Second
To mark its fifth anniversary, First Second’s editorial director Mark Siegel and editor Calista Brill discuss the past, present, and future of the comics company.
Congratulations on your five-year anniversary! What do you remember now about the company’s earliest days? What were your initial goals when you started?
Mark: Let me see…I remember the drunken intoxication of chasing after my favorite comics authors around the world…no, wait, let me try and give you a semi-professional interview here. Initial goals were realistic, modest, and cautious. Those words best describe First Second’s early days, and me generally. That was when we set out to take over America and flood every household with astonishing graphic novel works of pure genius.
It would have been too crazy to imagine that in our first year, one of our authors would score the first National Book Award nomination for a comic, or win the coveted Printz Award from ALA. But then this Gene Yang guy comes along, still fresh from photocopying and stapling his mini comics, and losing his own money selling them at comic cons, and he managed to do that. So initial goals of gaining further literary recognition for comics, and proving that American readers of all ages are eager for alternatives to superheroes and commercial manga were met quite early on! Then new goals were established: See previous paragraph with our current megalomaniacal aims.
What made Macmillan decide to start First Second five years ago?
Mark: I’m guessing the Macmillan board members were worried that they would only be known for serious and excellent publishing, and they needed some goofballs in the Flatiron Building. That’s when I got a call.
Actually, five, six years ago, all the big publishing houses were looking at the sales on manga and angling themselves with respect to the graphic novel category, one way or another. Random House had Pantheon already, with a place of honor in the field, but otherwise there were hardly any concerted publishing programs for comics. I met with the heads of several large New York houses, and Macmillan offered the very best circumstance to do something bold and far-reaching. The culture here tends to support long-term ventures, and this was where I could have the greatest editorial freedom.
Where were you before this, and how did you come to First Second?
Mark: I was designing picture books at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers and wondering why there weren’t more graphic novels everywhere.
Calista: I was working at Disney Publishing, mostly doing in-house licensed publishing. So: princesses, pirates, fairies, and the like. I liked it a lot! And I got to do comics here and there, but I really wanted to do comics all the time. Gina Gagliano, First Second’s marketing guru, was someone I knew a little from the industry, and she mentioned to me that there was an open position at First Second. I basically wrote Mark a mash note: DEAR MARK SIEGEL I LOOOOVE FIRST SECOND OMG IT IS SOOO AWESOME PS DO YOU LIKE ME CHECK ONE YES NO and for some reason he interviewed me instead of, like, reporting me to the amalgamated order of book editors to have my membership revoked. (There is no such thing as the amalgamated order of book editors, by the way, and the first rule of the amalgamated order of book editors DEFINITELY isn’t you don’t talk about the amalgamated order of book editors. Just so we’re clear.)
Where did the name come from?
Mark: It just appeared one day! For our first six months, nothing would stick, and we started doing business without a name. Once “First Second” turned up, it stuck. Later we found all kinds of interesting meanings for it. I’d been looking for a name that suggested something totally fresh, always new, always prime. The first hour, the first minute, the first second—things at their moment of appearance, their inception. Also First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth is the start of a sequence, a nice fit for this sequential artform.
How was the industry changed over those five years? Are there trends that you’re seeing now that weren’t present back then?
Calista: Autobiography/memoir comics seem to be here to stay, which is good news for me because I love them. Ditto heavy-hitting journalistic geopolitical stuff. Bone-style middle-grade fantasy adventure seems to have dropped off a bit, but it’s still a big category. Food comics! I predict this category will only grow.
What are some of the accomplishments you’re most proud of in First Second’s history?
Calista: The publication of The Photographer still marks one of the proudest moments in my life, maybe THE proudest. I can’t state strongly enough how much it meant to me to be involved in that book. Also, the day I held the first printer’s advance copy of our Feynman biography—which isn’t out yet. But that one means a lot to me, too. I really admire Richard Feynman, and I love the way Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick brought him to life. And this title also represents a kind of staggering quantity of labor on my part. I had to learn the basics of quantum electrodynamics to edit this book, you guys.
What do you see ahead for First Second in the next five years?
Mark: A hundred more small successes, and a dozen really big ones.
If you had to pick just three of your favorite books from First Second’s past five years, what would they be?
Calista: The Lost Colony, The Photographer, and Lewis & Clark.
Mark: Ah! Impossible question to answer! Different answer every day!
How do you see the company changing in the coming months/years—are there new challenges or opportunities you’re seeing on the horizon that you plan to adapt to?
Mark: It seems it’s constantly about changing nimbly to meet new requirements. There are the requirements of the market, digital media, reading habits; but then there are the requirements of the muses—what new kinds of inspiration are appearing, what new kinds of work is being produced. How to publish that, and do it well. I hope we’ll keep proving ourselves against those challenges.
What current projects are you working on that you’re excited about?
Mark: H ave you seen Zahra’s Paradise online? It’s making history. Comics history. Publishing history. Political history. Have a look!
Calista: NURSERY! RHYME! COMICS!