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 the first part of the interview, we discuss what brought her into comics and what she looks for when she is considering new creators for the First Second family. In this second part, we discuss Calista’s fondest memories in editorial and the future of First Second.
Alex Lu: What is the project that you look back upon working on most fondly?
Calista Brill: There’s two that leap immediately to mind. One of them is out and it is Ben Hatke’s Little Robot. For whatever reason, it’s a book I ended up working very intensely on with Ben. We had a great collaborative author-editor experience with that book. It felt like a delightful exploration of worldbuilding and storytelling right from the start. It was a beautiful experience that I really treasure.
The other project is a book that is called The Prince and the Dressmaker. It comes out in Winter 2018 so anybody reading this interview should make a note on their calendar to buy this book in a year. It is written and illustrated by Jen Wang, who people might know from First Second books like In Real Life. Yesterday, during our Winter 2018 [Winter 2018 in publishing terms is January through April 2018 – ed.] in-house launch meeting where editorial presents every book in an upcoming list to the sales, marketing, rights, publicity, distribution, and publishing teams, I basically gushed at them about The Prince and the Dressmaker for about five minutes.
At one point I asked everyone who watched Rupaul’s Drag Race to raise their hands and a surprising amount of people did…weirdly I think it’s a good comparison point for Jen’s book—not necessarily in content, although drag is the subject of Jen’s book—but in tone. Rupaul is cornier, kitzschier, and campier than you can even begin to imagine, but it’s also intensely sincere and intensely kind and inclusive. It’s generous and tenderhearted. You think it’s going to be a bunch of catty queens backstabbing each other but it’s actually really sweet. I feel that sweetness is present in Jen’s book as well.
Jen is a remarkable talent. She’s somebody who I have loved working with since day one. From the moment she pitched The Prince and the Dressmaker, I was really excited about the fact that she was so excited too. There is a special alchemy that occurs when someone who is very good at what they do is extra excited about what they are working on. The book takes on an energy when every moment of working on it is a joy to the person making it and that has obviously been the case here. Jen said that working on this project was so much fun that she felt guilty. This is a beautiful book and there is a lot of yelling in it, which I love. This is one of my favorite yelling books!
In addition, at the meeting yesterday, we announced Box Brown’s new book—a biography about Andy Kaufman.
Brill: Oh see, you’re young! I’m realizing that there’s a weird generational gap with this guy. He was basically a professional troll before trolls existed. His comedy was more like performance art and he was deeply committed to this persona he created where he was basically this misogynistic asshole. He was really into professional wrestling and he offer to wrestle women because his trollish persona believed men were inherently superior and wanted to prove it by wrestling women.
The thing was that he—or his persona, at least—was this weird, slobby, incoherent guy. But he was a really good wrestler and he really tried, so no woman could beat him. He was weirdly unique in that he devoted all his time to this act that ultimately extended into his real life. He acted like a horrible asshole because, as a performer, he was interested in reactions that were genuine and powerful. He figured out that he could get those reactions by being an incredible dick and he was so successful at it that nobody realized for a really long time that he was actually this normal, sweet-hearted guy who had just, for some reason, devoted his time to being an enormous shithead.
Lu: That’s fascinating. I’m looking at his Wikipedia now, and I noticed he died surprisingly young.
Brill: Yeah. Because he was such a huckster, there are some people who think he faked his own death—he definitely did not, by the way. But it is a sort of weird element of his legacy. Kaufman was obsessed with Elvis, and a bunch of people don’t believe he actually died either, so there’s a weird parallel between the two of them. The tin-hats out there are convinced that Kaufman’s death is just his longest stunt yet.
It’s sad, actually. Box interviewed Kaufman’s brother at some length for this book and at the end of the book, there’s a coda where Box asks Kaufman’s brother what he makes of the conspiracy theory that Andy didn’t really die. His brother says “well, it would be really nice…” and that’s all. It’s clear he really died…and there’s this melancholy feeling because for the people who actually lost him, it’s not a fun conspiracy theory—it’s this painful thing.
Box is so good at humanizing these larger than life figures. He did it with Andre the Giant very deftly. And he’s so fast. I love working with him for that reason. Normally, I do all of my intense editorial intervention on a project very early on—either in the script or thumbnail stage. I do this because to ask someone to redraw more than a couple pages of final art seems cruel. With Box though, he prefers to script, thumbnail, pencil, ink, and letter then send it to me for a first look. At that point I have carte blanche to make as many edits and wide ranging changes as I wanted to. With the Tetris book, he redrew 30-40 pages and was fine with it!
Lu: What was the most memorable moment you have from working on a project?
Brill: I have two and they’re both kind of silly, but I guess silly things tend to stick in my mind. After the first Delilah Dirk book came out, I was at New York Comic Con working the First Second booth. I had never done cosplay before, but I decided to dress as Delilah Dirk. So I was at the show with my costume on and I felt half super-excited and half self-conscious because cosplay is a thing that can make a person feel pretty self-conscious. Moreover, Tony, the creator of Delilah Dirk, was there to promote the book. I think it must have been pretty awkward for him because his editor was at the show dressed as his character!
What’s more, the show fell around the time we were in the middle of putting together the second Delilah Dirk book. Tony had just started working on the plot for that and we both realized that since we were in the same place at the same time, it would be a good time to have a quick meeting and talk about the shape of the plot. We ended up having that meeting while I was dressed as his character. So he was in this weird and unenviable position of receiving editorial notes from his character. I think that must have been very strange for him even though he was exceedingly gracious about it.
The other memory that immediately leaps to mind comes from when we were working on the Andre the Giant biography with Box Brown. I had this notion that it would be nice to get a blurb for the front cover from one of the co-stars of The Princess Bride. We’d reached out to a number of people with varying levels of success because getting a hold of Hollywood people if you don’t have a direct personal connection with them is essentially impossible. It’s not hard to figure out who represents them but it’s really hard to get anyone to return your calls. So I wasn’t banking on having much success, but I had sent out some emails and had included my personal contact information in case anyone wanted to get in touch while I wasn’t in the office.
Around Christmas, I was on vacation and I was coming back from the gym. I was all sweaty and discombobulated. My cell phone rings and I pick up. A voice says “hello Calista, it’s Mandy Patinkin.” He was calling because he’d gotten my email and he said “I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier, but I saw that you were publishing a book about Andre and I would love to help and offer a blurb.” So we had this lovely conversation while I was standing in the hallway of my apartment building dripping sweat and sort of staring blankly at the wallpaper, trying to pretend I’m a professional human being. For the record, Mandy Patinkin is super nice!
Lu: Honestly, your story with Tony is absolutely mystifying to me. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like for him! Have you cosplayed since?
Brill: I haven’t! It was the only time I’ve ever done it, but I love cosplay, actually. One of my favorite elements of comics conventions is looking at the beautiful costumes and admiring the kind of joie de vivre that comes from the pageant of it. I thought it would be fun to try for myself, but I found it hard to turn off the self-conscious part of my brain. That was a bummer because one of the things I love about cosplay is how it invites adult human beings to experience the complete expression of pretend that we all have access to as children and then lose, by and large, as adults. That said, it was still fun!
Lu: While we are on the topic of escape and play, when you’re not at your job or tending to your family, what do you like to do for fun?
Brill: I have my own personal projects, which are not particularly relaxing but are a lot of fun. I write books, sometimes on my own and sometimes in collaboration with others. I’ve also been trying to watch John Wick on my iPhone for the last three weeks in five minute increments as I find time. It was recommended to me by someone at work and I really love this type of movie. That’s to say, I like really well crafted, tight, good examples of a particular kind of terrible movie. John Wick is to a Hong Kong Shoot ‘Em Up as Pacific Rim is to a Godzilla movie. It’s an excellent entry in a crummy genre.
I am not a person who has a lot of hobbies lately. If you had asked me this question a couple of years ago, you would have gotten an earful about baking, crafts, making quilts, and going to museums. Lately, there hasn’t been a lot of that, but that’s not as bad as you think because I’m getting a lot of personal fulfillment out of the work that I’m doing.
Lu: Have you found that as you spend more and more time at First Second, that work-life balance simply becomes…life in the best possible way?
Brill: Yeah, but it’s been that way since the beginning. If anything, with the baby, I’ve had to draw a harder line between work and the rest of my life than there used to be. The last eight years of my life have basically been First Second, First Second, First Second all the time and now I have to force myself to say “no, I’m at home with my family, and I’ll just worry about this when I’m back in the office.”
The wonderful thing about my job is that it provides a lot of the satisfaction I think I’d be looking for in my life outside of work if I had a really boring job. I see really interesting, lovely people every day at the office. It’s a very lively social environment. I’m working on projects that bring great personal satisfaction and are of great personal interest to me. So if I were an insurance adjustor, I would be a little more concerned about having a stimulating creative life outside of work. However, as it stands, I have my writing projects, but I also have a really fulfilling work life and that’s a lovely thing.
Lu: This may be confirmation bias to some extent, but having watched First Second over the years, I’ve felt like there has been an expansion of the all-ages line of titles. If that’s the case, what might have triggered the move in that direction?
Brill: Oh that’s interesting. I wonder if the numbers bear that out. I actually don’t know for sure. It’s true that, because we are embedded within the children’s publishing arm at Macmillan, the children’s books that we publish tend to be a more visible part of our line sometimes. It’s also true that only about a quarter of our list is comprised of adult titles, but that’s been the case from the beginning, I think.
We are always striving for a nice balance between books for very young readers, middle grade readers, teens, and adults. It kind of depends on the year—we don’t get too precious about it because we generally want to publish books when they’re finished and ready to publish. We’re not holding back one book because the current list has too many teen books on it, or whatever. But we do like to have a good mix of different books for different readerships.
Lu: Being a part of the children’s publishing arm, are there any challenges associated with publishing more adult oriented titles?
Brill: Well, we do have access to the Macmillan adult sales team. They know our list and like it a lot. They do very well by us. But you know, on a day to day basis, there is this strong association of First Second as strictly a children’s book publisher even though that’s not the case. I think that it has also been influenced by the fact that some of our strongest and most visible authors and titles are for younger or teen readers.
Lu: What do you see as the future direction for First Second?
Brill: More and better of what we have been doing. We are building several independent series and programs that run with minimal intervention from the core First Second team. For example, we have this terrific Science Comics series. That launched in the spring of 2016 with two books, Coral Reefs by Maris Wicks and Dinosaurs by M.K. Reed and Joe Flood. That series has gained a lot of steam and is continuing with at least one book per list. The phenomenal Dave Roman is now the editor for that series and is doing a remarkable job alongside John Green, the designer for the series.
Lu: So what does this mean for the one-off, more auteur driven titles?
Brill: More editorial attention, hopefully. We are not scaling back that type of publishing, because that’s our bread and butter. First Second is, above all, a house for authors. I think it’s telling that, even though the series we’re launching are developed in-house by the First Second staff, the individual entries in those series are conspicuously author driven. With Science Comics in particular, we work with authors to find a topic that’s exciting to them and then basically give them free rein to take whatever approach they want to the subject as long as it is in keeping with the tone of the series and appropriate for the readership. What we did not want was a series that felt cookie-cutter, where you would know exactly what to expect with each book; we didn’t want it to feel safe.
We’re going for the First Second version of this type of serialized publishing, which is to say that it’s author driven, idiosyncratic, fun, interesting, and breaking new ground.
Brill: Well that’s what happens when you hire someone like Jon Chad to do a book about volcanoes and you just say “do it your way!” Jon said he wanted to do a book set in the near future during nuclear winter where the scrappy remnants of humanity are trying to find ways to stay warm…and they discover the miracle of geothermal heat!
We had a conversation in-house when he pitched his concept. We asked ourselves if it was too eccentric or too sci-fi. But no, the thing is, Jon came up with a really compelling and exciting premise to cram a ton of information about volcanoes into a book for kids. And that’s exactly what we wanted.
Lu: And that contrasts pretty strongly with Coral Reefs, which feels much more like a journal comic.
Brill: Oh totally. Coral Reefs is Maris Wicks’s coral reefs. It’s her approach, and it’s totally in keeping with her authorial voice. We’re looking for people who have a point of view and have a voice that will enrich this series.
Lu: And Maris is currently living in Antarctica thanks to the USAP Artists & Writers Grant, right?
Brill: Yes! We’re so proud of her and so excited. That grant is given to one human being every year. It embeds her with a scientific team in Antarctica during what’s winter for us, but summer there.
Lu: What triggered First Second’s expansion?
Brill: We’re doing really well, so we figured “why not do more of it?” Not to get too much into the nitty-gritty of the business side, but basically, when a new imprint is formed at a house like Macmillan, there’s a business plan that’s put in place. That plan generally allows for a period of time where the company is not expected to be particularly profitable while it’s getting underway, developing a backlist, and finding an audience.
Suffice it to say, we not only made our numbers, but we exceeded them. Having watched the company grow and thrive for long enough that everyone was pretty sure that it wasn’t just a fluke, we started having conversations with Macmillan about increasing budget, staff, and title count in a way that was sustainable and did not put First Second’s core values in jeopardy. So it has not been a violent or particularly dramatic experience because we want to maintain what’s working best about the imprint. It’s been a wonderful process, actually, because it’s been so thoughtful and measured.
Lu: Besides The Prince and the Dressmaker, what books are you excited to release in the upcoming year?
Brill: All of them! But one of the books that I think is going to do really well for us and that I personally adore is a biography about Mama Cass from the Mamas & the Papas. It’s written and illustrated by Pénélope Bagieu, who did Exquisite Corpse. She made a name for herself in France as a cartoonist and then recently moved to the U.S. to pursue her American career. We are her publisher here and she’s a really good biographer—she has a real flare for non-fiction.
We’re also publishing a book in the spring called Spill Zone which has the potential to be one of the biggest graphic novels we’ve ever published—it deserves to be, anyways. The art is by Alex Puvilland (Templar) and it is written by Scott Westerfeld, who is a megastar in the world of YA fiction. He is very savvy and passionate about comics. He’s always wanted to do a graphic novel and pitched us this concept that reminds me of LOST in that they have the same mysterious feeling that makes you say “what is going on?”
It takes place in the near future, and something terrible has happened in Poughkeepsie. I’m not going to give you any other details because it is one of those books where the less you know, the more you enjoy it. It is currently being published as a webcomic, though. It’s the first of two volumes and it is so exciting, weird, beautiful, fast-paced, and page-turny. It’s a little bit like this book could have been published by either Image Comics or First Second.
Lu: What is it that you think that publishing a book like Spill Zone online adds to the promotion of the title? I know that several other First Second titles have also been promoted as webcomics prior to their release.
Brill: We love doing this, actually! Ideally, it creates a fanbase for the book ahead of publication. At First Second are all huge webcomic fans, and what we have found is that it never does a book any harm to have it out online ahead of publication. It gives the author the opportunity to connect with a readership in a personal way that they can’t necessarily do if the book is only going out through traditional publishing channels.
Lu: To wrap up, what are the top five creators you would like to work with that you haven’t been able to, already?
- Jaime Hernandez
- Eleanor Davis
- Fiona Staples
- Glyn Dillon
- G. Willow Wilson
There are some people I didn’t include in that line up whom I adore but I don’t think I could publish at First Second, because they would be so out of tone for our company. But the folks in this list are all people who are making beautiful work in the world whose stuff I think would make a lot of sense on the First Second list.