For the past decade, First Second Books, an imprint of Macmillan, has been bringing graphic novels to enthusiastic readers. And to say so much has changed for graphic novels in those 10 years would be an understatement. I think most people would agree we now live in a golden age of graphic novels: today, readers can choose from a wide array of extraordinarily high-quality graphic novels from creators all over the world, and long gone are the days when educators would frown upon children and teens reading them. What educator, after all, would ask a student to put down a Caldecott Honor book (This One Summer) or a Newbery Honor winner (El Deafo and Roller Girl). Graphic novels came into their own years ago, and today there’s essentially no stopping them.
I could go on, but in my interview today with First Second’s Editorial Director, Mark Siegel, he talks more—and quite eloquently—about the success and staying power of the graphic novel in the realm of children’s and YA literature today. I talked to him via email about the rise of the graphic novel, First Second’s growth in the past decade, and what’s next for this unique art form.
Can you talk about the graphic novel/comics landscape 10 years ago and the who, what, why, when, where of First Second's formation?
Ten years ago, manga was the game-changer. For publishers, booksellers, librarians, and of course readers, the flood of Japanese work was redefining comics, worldwide. From a moribund industry, it was suddenly hot and profitable, which publishers couldn't avoid noticing. Add to that an even bigger impact on who was now reading comics—no longer just (aging) males, but suddenly over 60% female readers. And among them, many of today's creators!
So, that was the context in which the big U.S. publishers jumped into the graphic novel game. Macmillan gave me a shot at starting a new imprint dedicated to high-quality graphic novels, centered on authors, quality at all levels, and works of lasting value. Very quickly we found friends among librarians, especially teen librarians. And Macmillan was and continues to be an ideal setting for First Second. Back then, they gave us the editorial freedom and the long-term support to build a program, to help shape the market, not just jump on the latest bandwagon. So, we had some freedom to experiment, to take risks, to learn with every passing season. And we still do.
What do you make of the fact that in the past two years, a Newbery Honor has gone to graphic novels? As in, they've been awarded for their writing. There is also, of course, the Caldecott Honor for one of First Second's own books, This One Summer.
It makes me so happy! It tells me we've rounded another corner, and the conversation is getting more interesting. It used to be all about the graphic novel format—every other news article on a graphic novel for a while was "oh wow, it's comics, but it's good," which sometimes got a bit insulting to all these prodigious authors doing remarkable work.
But now it's about substance, and it's about author voice. It’s about the writing, as you say, about immigration, or the speeding up of modern life, or about getting married, or growing up with a disability, or simply growing up—about the human experience, in other words. Which is a far more vital conversation than endlessly discussing a format.
As someone who has been doing this for ten years, I’m curious about your thoughts on the diversity movement, which I sincerely hope doesn’t get dismissed as a “trend” (but really doubt it will) in the future’s rearview mirror.
Trends come and go. This isn't a trend. It's really just the long overdue cry of human decency. And literature of every stripe should challenge us, move us, dare us to shine a light in our own blind spots. I find it astonishing that Tintin went on for—what?— 50 years without raising some urgent questions. A whole world and globe-spanning adventures—without a single meaningful female character? And that barely got examined? Not to mention the blatant colonial racism of the early books, but with that at least, there was some attempt to redress it. But Tintin lives in a world without half the human race—and for a long time, that didn't seem to bother readers. But now it glares as an imbalance, a warp that verges on the pathological.
I think we'll know we've reached greater collective wisdom when diversity—in all its meanings—is no longer a movement, but simply the reality of being human, in all its multitude and variety of expressions. And comics, prose, movies, TV, fine art offer a true reflection of that.
What good things do you see and/or predict for graphic novels within the next, say, five years or so?
Surprises! All kinds of amazing surprises. Delights. Shocks. Wonders.
In your time as Editorial Director for the entire past decade , what have been some titles that really stood out for you—and why? On that note, what is First Second doing in the near future that you all are really fired up about?
It's hard to pick out titles. Some are highly visible, because they are part of shaping the landscape for the Great American Graphic Novel—American Born Chinese and Boxers & Saints, for instance. This One Summer. Anya's Ghost. The Photographer. The Sculptor. Battling Boy. Feynman. Robot Dreams. And many more. And some which aren't always as visible, but for so many people are treasures for all time—Three Shadows, Friends with Boys, The Unsinkable Walker Bean, Giants Beware!, and Dragons Beware!
Coming up—oh boy, just wait...! I feel like a waiter who can't wait to serve up his chef's latest, most exquisite creations. Faith Erin Hicks has a totally brilliant new fantasy trilogy—The Nameless City. George O'Connor is barreling ahead to complete his 12 Olympian volumes to ever more acclaim. Oh, so much in the pipeline! Works from Bryan Konietzko, Scott Westerfeld, Adam Rapp. And many names you haven't heard yet, but you will! And one of our most exciting offerings for young readers: the Science Comics series—which delivers the goods in every way! It's super bright, appetizing, and bona fide high-grade nonfiction. Lots of it.
Tell me something about First Second people would be surprised to know.
We're growing. Watch this space.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.