In 2006, First Second opened its doors with a collection of titles created by cartooning luminaries including Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. While their output was modest, the work they produced was strong. The publisher capped that first year with the release of Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, a charming story about the first generation minority experience in America. The book went on to become the first comic nominated for a National Book Award, was a New York Times bestseller, and won an Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album. The rest, they say, is history.
Over the decade of First Second’s life, the publisher has released comics by creators including Paul Pope, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, Asaf and Tomer Hanuka, and Faith Erin Hicks. Their dedication to reaching beyond the direct market towards the library and trade distribution channels makes them a unique player in the comic book industry, where most publishers focus their efforts on either comic book shops or traditional bookstores. The work they have released for young readers, teens, and adults, coupled with their all-encompassing distribution philosophy, demonstrates a dedication to bringing comics to people from all walks of life.
In celebration of their tenth anniversary, The Comics Beat recently sat down with Calista Brill, First Second’s Executive Editor, to discuss her career and First Second’s editorial philosophy in a special two part interview. In this article, we discuss what brought her into comics and what she looks for when she is considering new creators for the First Second family.
Alex Lu: What was it that first drew you into comics?
Calista Brill: I have been a comics reader since I was a small child. I grew up in a household of people who love comics. Uncle Scrooge, and my parents also had these beautiful collections of Little Lulu and Tubby comics. Then, when I was seven or eight years old, I discovered Elfquest and it all went downhill from there— or depending on your perspective, violently uphill.
I was working in children’s publishing in 2005, and there was this rush of renewed interest in graphic novels because Scholastic had picked up Jeff Smith’s Bone series. They were reissuing and selling those books hand over fist and suddenly every publishing house in town was wondering how they could get in on the action.
At the time, I was working for Disney, and I managed to use this to my advantage and acquired this lovely little graphic novel series called Jellaby for Hyperion, which was owned by Disney. Using that experience and my intense love of the graphic novel form, I was able to parlay that acquisition into a position at First Second.
Lu: How do you think your experience at Disney differed from the one you’ve had at First Second? Conversely, how did your job there prepare you for your role at First Second?
Brill: We are very author-focused when we acquire projects; we pick them up under the presumption that, if all goes well, we will remain the primary publisher for our creators for their entire careers. This is not the case for everybody that we publish— there are a lot of people that we publish who also have other publishers and we’re happy with that situation, but that is the default that we strive for. We’re investing in people for the long-term. That’s unusual in the industry.
Lu: When you’re looking for a new author, what is the selections process like?
Brill: We’re looking for people who are excited about committing themselves to their career. Almost all of our creators have other irons in the fire, but we’re looking for folks who nonetheless try really hard to improve their craft. They’ll partner with us editorially and when it comes to promoting their book. We have a very strong marketing publicity machine here at First Second, but a lot of what makes it extra-strong is that we make it clear from the beginning that our authors need to consider themselves our partners in that effort and really throw in as much time, energy and resources as they can to help us make sure that their book goes out to the world successfully.
Lu: What is it that sells you on an author’s work?
Brill: That’s tricky. It varies a great deal and it falls into that nebulous space of “I know it when I see it.” I like working with people who take a very personal approach to their work. You really don’t want the author to view their project as a way to make a quick buck because it isn’t. What we’re looking for are people who are committed because they have a real personal passion and the drive to make beautiful things.
Lu: A couple years ago you wrote a piece on the First Second blog about the economic probabilities of making it as a full-time comics creator. I wasn’t reading comics criticism at the time, but apparently it made a quite a stir.
Brill: It was a mistake on my part to write it the way I did. I stand by what I said, but a lot of people misinterpreted it because the tone that I took was a little on the insouciant side. I think calling the piece “When to Give Up” was particularly stupidly inflammatory. It sounded to them like “fancy publishing lady wants to tell you if you are allowed to make art.”
But I am often in a position of having a front-row seat to people’s financial situations as they work on making a career in comics. There are a lot of people who do successful work in comics but aren’t necessarily paying the bills with it. The folks who are making their living off comics are usually fairly far along in their careers.
I see a lot of really passionate kids spending a lot of money on an art school education, but not necessarily having a clear career path towards paying off their student loans. I wish there were more realistic avenues of advice available to kids who are considering art school. I think that people need to think more clearly about whether they are investing in something that they can use to make their money back—or if they are investing in something for love, and the money is less relevant to them. If the latter is the case, what I have to say is probably irrelevant to them anyways.
Lu: I do think that you covered that to some extent in “When to Give Up.” You talked about how you see people going to art school and coming out with a sort of idealistic notion that if they create art, the financials will fall into place.
Brill: Yes. That’s great if you can afford it, especially if you have a backup plan. However, what freaks me out is that I think that the industry as a whole doesn’t do a terrific job of preparing kids for the likelihood that they are not going to make a ton of money as cartoonists— at least not right off the bat. As I get older, I’ve developed this weird maternal attitude towards young artists. I sort of want to council and protect them whether they want me to or not.
Lu: I definitely agree that there’s a discussion to be had. The financial side of this industry is particularly well concealed, in my opinion.
Brill: The financial elements of this industry are really opaque to most people and it’s something that I think a lot of professionals don’t think about. From our point of view, it’s stuff we grapple with every day. You lose track when you are an expert at something on what it looks like to an outsider. It shouldn’t be as hard as it is to get reliable information on the financial realities of publishing. And yet…
Lu: I have done interviews with other editors in the past, but oftentimes it’s hard to find background information about them because they haven’t given many other interviews before. That isn’t the case for you, though. There have been a number of in-depth interviews with you over the course of your time at First Second. What do you think it is about your position or you, personally, that pushes you to pull back the curtain on the editorial process?
Brill: I really enjoy doing interviews, but I think it is actually less specific to me and more specific to First Second. One of the things that we noticed early on at First Second was how shallow the pool of information about the publishing industry was and to an extent, still is. There are these elements of book publishing and graphic novel publishing in particular that seem shrouded in mystery from the point of view of authors and readers. One of the things that we have been working really hard on since the inception of the company is to use the internet to help demystify the publishing process as much as we can. It seems silly that there should be so many misconceptions about how book publishing works.
Lu: In one of those previous interviews, you mentioned that when you were getting into First Second you wrote Mark Siegel a professional mash note.
Brill: Oh yes! The world’s least professional application letter! I had become friendly with Gina Gagliano, who is the Marketing and Publicity Manager for First Second, because I kept running into her in the children’s graphic novel publishing world. She mentioned to me that First Second was hiring and thought I might be a good candidate, so I wrote Mark this letter that was the professional equivalent of: “do you like me? Check yes or no.”
I later learned that was the right approach to take with him, because there are some houses that value strict professionalism over raw enthusiasm, but First Second is surely not one of those houses.
Lu: What is your creative relationship with Mark like?
Brill: We complement each other very well and we settled pretty quickly into the dynamic that we still have today. If you were to draw a venn diagram between Mark’s taste and priorities as an acquiring editor and mine, it would be two circles that overlap a lot but not completely. That has worked out really well for us because in broad terms, our tastes are similar and we’re coming at the industry and thinking of First Second in what is more or less the same way while maintaining our own personal passions.
Lu: Where do your passions lie when you look at new projects?
Brill: It’s pretty broad, but I have a soft spot for stories that are really dramatic and really broad in their emotional inflection but still feel extremely sincere and have room for nuance. The sort of shorthand version of that is: I’m a real sucker for stories where people are yelling all the time, whether they are yelling about something they are excited about or yelling because they are angry or afraid or in love. I really like stories that are broad and dramatic but still feel sophisticated and nuanced— it’s a tone is really hard to pull off, but something I really love when done right. If anything unites the titles I tend to acquire at First Second, it’s that.
That is not to say that I don’t love a quiet, gently inflected tale of emotional nuance, but boy do I love people yelling. I just love it!
Lu: Three years ago, when you were a Senior Editor at First Second, you wrote a post describing a day in your life. It was a pretty interesting day!
Brill: Oh yeah, I love that post! I look back at it every now and again and re-read it just for nostalgia’s sake.
It was a typical day in how incoherent, unstructured, and variable it was. That’s sort of what my day-to-day here was and still is like. There is no typical day at First Second because as an editor here, I have my fingers in so many pies and those pies are all prone to unexpected erupting. That…is an…unfortunate metaphor that I just mixed, but what I’m saying is that you can never predict what your day is going to look like when it starts. That is one of the harrowing things about working at a small, new publisher like First Second still is even though it’s ten years old and has expanded. However, it is also one of the many great things about working at First Second—your day has a lot of challenges and variation, so you’re never bored.
Lu: Now that you are the Executive Editor, that means you have fingers in even more pies than before, right?
Brill: It does. I’m taking on a more managerial role and helping to shape things at the highest level in a more meaningful way. In certain respects though, this job title accurately reflects the job I have had for the last several years.
First second is my baby. I have been working here for the majority of my career at this point and the majority of First Second’s life. It is a project I have poured a lot of my life, energy, and passion into over the last eight years. It is really lovely to be able to take on a role where I have a real voice and real responsibility in continuing to shape things.
Lu: When you look back at your time as an editor at First Second over the last eight years, how do you think the company has changed between now and when you started?
Brill: Well, we are a lot bigger. We have twice the staff that we did when I joined and we’re publishing significantly more than twice the number of books than we were. That in and of itself is a huge change because it means that I can’t agonize over every book ad infinitum in the way I used to when we were publishing five or seven books per list. These days, we are publishing fifteen books a list— sometimes eighteen or twenty. That’s a good thing and that’s a bad thing. It’s a good thing because back in the day, I probably agonized over every comma placement to an unnecessary extent. It’s a bad thing because it means that we can’t offer that sort of special touch that we were able to give our books when we first publishing just a few things each year. That was an unusual thing—there aren’t many houses that have lists as small as First Second’s was around 2008. It was lovely to get intimately acquainted with every book and oversee each of them through every stage of the publication process. I miss that sometimes. However, we still give more thorough and more thoughtful editorial attention to our books than most of our competitors do and that’s something that I am really proud of. That’s something we emphasize and is something that is not going to go away.
Lu: With the loss of the boutique element, what would you say is most unique about the way that First Second treats its authors?
Brill: As I was saying earlier, we still have this strong commitment to intense editorial connection. We’re committed to helping shape people’s careers in comics and supporting them. I think that brings a distinguishing element to our imprint. I don’t know of any other houses that take the long-term commitment to an author as seriously as we do.
Lu: I’m reminded of the fact that when Gene Luen Yang was named the National Ambassadorship for Young People’s Literature, Gina reached out to schedule an interview between me and him about that even though the position wasn’t technically related to First Second at all.
Brill: That’s true, that’s a good example. Basically, when our authors partner with us, we make sure to reach out to the other houses they work with and offer to coordinate our efforts. When they do things that aren’t specifically about graphic novels or related to First Second, we still want to be involved or available to them. We are committed to our authors and we are committed to helping them through the world and helping improve their visibility. Partnering with them and being their friends as much as we are able.
Lu: How have you found the juggle between First Second’s expansion and your own growing family?
Brill: It’s really hard. The job has always been hard and it’s become harder now that I have a growing family. In the past, I would brute force my way through work when I fell behind. I would just work 60 hour weeks until I was caught up. However, that’s not an option now so I have had to find new ways of offering authors as much attention as they need and deserve, managing people at First Second, and completing boring and unglamorous administrative duties without having a release valve of sorts. It’s required me to be a lot more efficient and, well, I know I am probably failing at it to a certain extent every day as I figure things out. I know that there are authors who I have been neglecting and that weighs on me. I am getting better at it, but the learning curve is steep.
Lu: I don’t think anyone can ever expect this sort of transition to move perfectly though— especially when it comes to your first kid.
Brill: No, and for the most part, my authors have been remarkably generous and kind with me. That’s something I am really grateful for.
Lu: Despite the hardships, what do you think is the most rewarding part of the juggle?
Brill: The most rewarding part of my job in general is to have a front-row seat to the creation of beautiful books. There is just nothing more satisfying or exciting than knowing you have the privilege of witnessing and aiding in the birth of something that somebody really loves and put a ton of time and effort into. We publish books because we love them. That passion is what unifies our line. That passion means a lot to me.
Lu: To dig deeper into your role at First Second: being an editor in comics is a very unique job compared to being an editor in other industries. What is the editorial process like for you?
Brill: It differs from book-to-book. I wish that it didn’t because it’s very inefficient for yours truly, but it would be even worse if I was in the business of trying to force a single workflow on all of my authors, because they are very variable in how they work. My job, ultimately, is to be useful to them and to support their process. Thus, as much as I wish I could enforce certain rules on them for my own efficiency’s sake, I don’t do that. That means my editorial approach for all the different books I publish is different and is tailored for each author I work with.
That said, an editor’s role is to always do a careful dance between defending a creator’s vision within the publishing company while representing the needs and priorities of the company to the author. Succinctly put, the editor is navigating the conflicting interests of art and commerce. This is not a very sophisticated binary, but it’s useful. For example, during the cover design process for a book, the artist might have a very specific idea of how they will want the book to look. That idea might be odds with what First Second’s parent company Macmillan’s sales and marketing team wants. It might also be at odds with what will work best for the author when they go out into the world and try to get people to buy the book.
At that point, the editor’s job is to help mediate the conversation between the author and the publisher. We help both parties find a happy medium where everyone is satisfied. The artistic priorities of the author are met when the commercial goals of the sales and market team are also accomplished. It’s hard because I think that, to the author, it can often feel like the editor is unfairly privileging the view of the sales and marketing team. On the other hand, the sales and marketing team feels like the editor is mindlessly defending the author and in so doing, obstructing good business.
There’s this cliche about how a successful negotiation concludes with all parties feeling dissatisfied, and occasionally that’s the case with these conversations. However, the hope is that both parties will ultimately be satisfied.
Lu: When what the publisher wants and what the author wants are irreconcilable, how do you go about brokering a compromise?
Brill: Usually, we just start from scratch. It is inefficient and oftentimes people don’t want to do it because they’ve already sunk so much energy into the current conflict. However, if you do that, you can really screw yourself because you end up with a bad compromise that nobody likes rather than starting fresh and finding something new that everybody does.
Lu: Has becoming a mother changed the type of stories you like? Has it changed the way you think about the books you edit or pick up?
Brill: You know, you asked me this when we had the first version of this interview last week, and I told you that I didn’t think having a kid would change my taste. I am already such a fan of children’s literature and it’s something that I have put a lot of thought into for myself. However, over the weekend, I thought about some of my friends who have kids. What some of my friends who have older kids have told me is that when you have kids, you begin to realize in certain respects that the true value of a children’s book is not whether it has demonstrable artistic merit but whether it simply works. Ideally, a children’s book does both, but when in doubt you just want a book that works for the intended audience, which is to say, the kid. I expect I’ll have this realization eventually as well. My baby is only seven months old–he doesn’t talk, let alone read.
It will be interesting to see if [motherhood] has any effect on my taste or my priorities as a publisher a few years down the line when my baby is old enough to have opinions about stuff. Right now his primary interest in books is that he can he smack them with his fat little fist. Once he moves beyond that stage as a reader, we will see.
What kind of tips would you give editors looking to improve their craft?
Brill: This falls into the category of “do as I say not as I do.” Many other smart editors have advised me that it is better to diagnose a problem than to prescribe a solution. You should feel comfortable just pointing out problems rather than offering solutions to them. Finding the answer is the author’s job and if you try to do the author’s job you are interfering and potentially creating a book that works more for you than it does for them. I am not very good at following this advice, myself. I love offering solutions, so this is something I think about a lot and try to rein myself in on.
Lu: If you were to play devil’s advocate with yourself, what would you argue would be a con of following that advice?
Brill: That it is inefficient. For all that I think it empowers the author more if you don’t offer a solution, it also means that they have to go away and think about for a long time. Sometimes it is just obvious what the solution is and if you have it in mind and they like it then I don’t see what the harm is.
Lu: When you are trying to consciously rein that part of yourself in, how do you navigate which points to hit on and which to sort of let lie?
Brill: In general I think the successful way of having that conversation is to say “I think there is a problem with x, y, or z.” Then you bite your fist to stop yourself from saying “why don’t you do a,b, or c?” You just let the problem hang out in the air uncomfortably and wait for them to ask you for help or to figure it out themselves.
Read on for part two of The Comics Beat’s interview with Calista Brill, where we discuss First Second’s editorial expansion and the future of the publisher.
Alex is the Managing Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at Papercutz. He is your go-to fella for creator interviews, conversations about comic book structure, and general DC Comics nerding. Currently geeking out over movies, too.