Mark Siegel Promotes Comics in Minneapolis

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I’ve known for awhile that First Second’s Editorial Director Mark Siegel would come to Minneapolis this winter. Until he arrived, I didn’t understand why.

Minneapolis, I now know, was the second stop on his “goodwill tour” (my words). Siegel is meeting with booksellers, organizers, librarians and students in an effort to promote comics readership and by extension First Second Books.

He’s reaching out to the people who matter in the comics world who we rarely talk about — the connectors.  People who are positioned to take comics seriously and bring new readers to the medium.  His travels have taken him to Seattle and Minneapolis so far.

Siegel’s tour may lead to other cities, I didn’t get his full itinerary, but I know he spent nearly a week in Minneapolis:

I attended a Thursday dinner where representatives from local bookstores, reading groups, writing centers and universities were present.  I see that he’s really reaching out; hopefully making a big impression on our local literary scene and reigniting excitement and interest in the graphic novel.

On Friday his time was spent largely with the folks at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design (MCAD), talking with seniors during the day and at night giving a presentation on graphic novels to a packed house.  The talk was sponsored by Rain Taxi (a literary magazine that also reviews comics and runs the Rain Taxi Festival of Books), MCAD and Big Brain Comics.

Saturday he delivered a talk on graphic novels to the Children’s Literature Network, an event that targeted librarians and educators and discussed comic editing and publishing at the Loft Literary Center.

Monday he stopped by comic shops around town, including Dreamhaven (closed, unfortunately) and The Source Comics & Games, and ran a workshop on creating graphic novels through the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Tuesday he met with a group of public librarians through the Metropolitan Library Service Agency (MELSA), a library group that includes the majority of the metro area’s public libraries — including Hennepin County Library, one of the top library systems in the nation.

I was able to attend his talk at MCAD and have transcribed parts of it below.

Part of what I do is travel around the country and hit up important towns, talking to librarians and educators and a lot of writers and artists.

As the years wore on…what was the underground, I think it’s fair to say, gave birth to the indie comics scene. And the indie comics scene was maturing this idea of adult comics — but adult in the best sense of the word. In the idea that there are authors working here in this medium.

Teen and children’s librarians have been on board with graphic novels for a long, long time. Before booksellers, before publishers. Sometimes adult librarians are catching up.

If you look at music, movies, novels, poetry — it’s all 90% crap. But there are the gems and the stuff that stays that’s forever. And you meet another human mind, and your life is enhanced from that meeting. Whether that is someone you connected to through their prose or their comics it doesn’t really matter terribly.

To Dance is a book my wife wrote that was ten years of her life in ballet and we did this for middle grade girls, mainly. It’s a little comic book about her being in George Balanchine’s school while he was still running it and she was a young pre-professional ballerina. I tell this when I talk to librarians because, first of all, ballet disarms them a little bit, they don’t expect comics geeks to know even what ballet means. What was interesting was Sienna, she doesn’t really warm to comics and I don’t especially warm to ballet. And we were looking at this project — we’re both excited about it — but we both had to journey towards each other’s medium.

And my journey with ballet is a lot like other people’s journey with comics. With ballet I had to get a little bit of the vocabulary — because it’s a language — just enough so that I could sit through one then enough to appreciate how you read a ballet. Because if you’re looking for plot it’s painful, so you’re supposed to be looking for something else. You’re actually looking with a different part of yourself — you’re actually looking more with your feelings.

What happened with the ballet thing is I had a moment…Sienna pops in this tape of old black and white footage of Don Quixote. It was Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea and George Balanchine as Don Quixote — him walking almost in slow motion and she’s doing this incredible dance all around him and [knowing some of the background of the performers] — I could feel that it was real. He was reaching for her and she just kept alluding him. The feeling was electrical it just shocked through my spine and I got it. What I felt just now is what gets someone hooked on ballet. And from that point on I was actually able to read ballets and from that point on I could get something from ballets, they could nourish me in a way they couldn’t before. And the reason is it doesn’t matter — it’s never going to be my favorite medium — but what came through that moment was the universal man-woman mystery, it’s human. It’s beyond whatever medium, it just comes through this moment, in this case ballet.

Basically, First Second is aiming to get moments like that into comics. There are more and more. For some people a book like Fun Home a book like Persepolis a book like Maus — now more and more books — are doing that. And it doesn’t have to be heavy. Sometimes it’s goof and it’s fluff or you know in our first year at First Second we put out American Born Chinese which tapped into a very universal immigration experience. And it suddenly entered into this bigger conversation and it wasn’t about whether or not you were into comics, it was just an important book.

In the last five or six years, in large part because of manga, all the large publishing houses sat up and took notice that there were millions of dollars changing hands and they weren’t getting that money. I happened to be right at the right place at the right time in a weird way. My first picture book had come out and it was in a comics form so that got a good deal of attention. I was at Simon & Schuster and acquired Little Vampire by Joann Sfar — a great, great children’s comic — and that was on the New York Times best seller list for awhile. Then this article came out about me — it was an interview but it made me sound like the messiah of the coming graphic novel — which I’m not. I think I’m not. I’m pretty sure I’m not. I was a designer doing picture books and suddenly I had interviews with the heads of the biggest houses in New York and the head of Macmillan was the one who basically offered me editorial freedom. I had a vision for what First Second would become — we didn’t have a name for six months — which was something uniquely American that could do for America what happened in Japan and Western Europe, which was to actually get into the mainstream reading household and stay there forever. And it wouldn’t happen in the same way as it did in France or Japan but it had to happen in a way that’s right for here. And there was a plan for approach. And Macmillan was definitely the place to go — so I went ahead!

So the vision for First Second can be summed up in these words: care and quality. Specifically care in the editorial process and trying to learn from the best editors.

It’s not the Marvel/DC school of editing, it’s the Maxwell Perkins the Ursula Nordstroms — the great, great editors who are the champions of authors and they also ask the tough questions of authors and drive them and hold them to their own highest standard — and we’re trying to do that at First Second.

The care during is the production of the books. We really try and pamper them in every possible way. And there are a few houses like Drawn & Quarterly that produce really beautiful books. We’re producing them in a slightly different way with a different angle but we’re also trying to create really beautiful books that are not pulp and are not throw-away, that are for keeps.

Care after, of course, is championing a book and trying to not let them go out of print. We banished the word backlist — it used to be that publishing houses lived on their backlist, it’s what sustained them. And then more and more the corporate model of publishing has moved into the more Hollywood model which is the blockbuster weekend and then it’s forgotten and we’re on to the next thing. And I think that’s a terrible tragic thing and it’s not right for books, or how we want to be at First Second.

Another pillar for First Second was a worldwide talent pool. I’m very interested in experimenting with bridging with other fields and that’s sometimes fraught with trouble but I’ve had some very successful experiments and some duds with a playwright, some screenwriters a novelist some historians, I have a naturopath nutritionist — there’s going to be a medical graphic novel coming before long, a couple of culinary projects, and stuff like this is bridging to other fields. We have writers from the Daily Show and Colbert Report. Foreign partnerships we’ve pursued aggressively from the start. I think American Born Chinese is getting up to 18 or 19 languages now. These are international editors that I know that I keep in touch with and we buy from each other. That’s part of the First Second idea.

If you look back at our first season with First Second it looks like we were all over the map — and we were. There was Sardine in Outer Space for 8 year olds and Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist on the same season and I think also the book about genocide in Rwanda, Deogratias. And a few people were wondering what is the program at First Second? But those things became the start of these broad avenues that we’ve kept exploring.

We’re doing every age category so we’ve got children’s, teen and adult concurrently within the collection. We’re not trying to corner a particular niche.

If you’re a librarian, Nancy Pearl is a rock star. She’s in Seattle, she has a TV show called Booklust and a series of Booklust books. She’s one of these highly influential librarians. She was the one who started Seattle Reads and all of Seattle read Persepolis and she’s been a great champion of comics and she’s done great things for First Second.

I think one of the things that distinguishes First Second is that we make an effort to play in all three of these markets — there’s the direct market, the comics world, the book retail and the library market and there’s interesting overlaps between them.

Some of the big publishing houses are good at the library and good with the book markets but they can’t get their act together with Diamond and the comic shops. Some of the indie publishers are good with the comic shop but they can’t figure out how to get properly reviewed by the book reviewers in mainstream media.

With webcomics we have a few experiments going. There are a few different kinds of webcomics — the ones that have been the most successful are the strip comics that are short, easy to forward and kind of self-contained. But then there are more and more of these long-form comics that are like the old-fashioned serialized story, and that’s what we’re exploring more of. I’ll mention these three: Zahra’s Paradise is being done with some Iranian dissidents. It’s being written about the events in Iran that are going on right now, starting back in the June 2009 protests and is a phenomenal story. The other is Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson and that has a 19th Century plot to it, and seems to belong in that tradition of the old serial. There’s another one which I’m especially pushing to librarians which is Americus. It’s a banned book story.

Each one is basically an experiment in building a different kind of community around a project. It’s a very interesting thing.

In America it’s kind of a vexing thing. I wonder why do we have (other than our top tier of books) print runs around 10,000-15,000 for a first printing? And that’s better than some of the indie houses, but I think in a country this size it’s crazy. So I think there’s work to be done here. And maybe you guys can join into that but we need to find a way to crack America open. It needs to be that comics are in every reading household and maybe in some cases households become reading households.

I really do think the taste I’m getting from being here and talking to a lot of people is that the Twin Cities are ripe to make something happen for the whole country. I think if it happens here it will happen everywhere else.

I’ve been to Seattle, which for a long time has been the big book town, and I’m from New York. Certainly if you can make noise in New York that’s a feat in itself, that can launch a book.

Seattle can launch a book. Nancy Pearl has been known to do that. And she was the one who told me two years ago when I was doing a workshop out there, “Go to Minneapolis, you need to go to Minneapolis. That’s where it’s going to happen.” And I don’t know if you know that about your own town. Just in terms of books, Minneapolis is one of the great book towns.

So how does that translate into comics? How can you harness some of that Minneapolis power and make it go bang? Because I think if you can make it happen here it will spread through the librarians, to the booksellers to the comics community…it will happen.

You’ll find more photos of Siegel’s visit HERE.

Congratulations to First Second Books on its fifth anniversary this year!

Sarah Morean

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