Wil Moss sent us this report on the graphic novel talk last Sunday at the 92nd Street Y.

On Sunday night a variety of voices gathered at the New York City 92nd Street YMCA to discuss graphic novels. In attendance were Jessica Abel (La Perdida). Mark Siegel (editorial director of First Second Books), Andrew Helfer (former editor of DC Comics’ Paradox line and current editor and writer of Hill and Wang’s Novel Graphics imprint) and Joann Sfar (The Rabbi’s Cat). The panel was moderated by WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate.

When asked about whether they prefer the term “graphic novels” or “comics,” almost everyone came down on the side of “comics,” with Abel saying, “A graphic novel is a description, not a definition of an art form. We really need to repossess that word [comics] and make it something we can use.”

Speaking about the notion that more adults read graphic novels than children and teenagers, Siegel noted that the Sardine in Outer Space series is a big hit with 8-, 9-, and 10-year-olds, “leading the pack” in terms of sales for First Second’s line of books.

Helfer talked about proposing publishing manga to DC in 1992 but being met with indifference. He said he was able to convince them to publish Masashi Tanaka’s Gon because it would be cheap – the books are wordless and thus flipping the art to read from left to right was easy to do. Helfer, who has written biographies of Malcolm X and Ronald Reagan so far for Hill and Wang, said he is next working on a biography of J. Edgar Hoover with Rick Geary.

On his first stop of a mini-book tour, Sfar talked about his grandfather’s passion for Jack Kirby; about how he doesn’t do autobiographical work, instead taking “a real story and making fiction about it;” and about how he never changes a drawing when it’s bad because “it’s all storytelling.”

Siegel spoke of First Second’s origins, saying it started when he felt a “perfect storm” brewing about four or five years ago in terms of an emerging new creative scene, a growing readership as shown by the success of manga, and more publishers becoming open to graphic novels. “I sensed an opportunity to take the lead and raise the bar as far as it could go.” Siegel said he has 60 contracts signed for future First Second, including work from the head writer of The Colbert Report, children’s author Jane Yolen, and playwright Adam Rapp.

A topic of discussion was the negative response American Born Chinese has received in some circles for being nominated for the National Book award, on the grounds that it’s a comic and not a book. As Abel said, “What is it that makes looking at an image bad and not intelligent?”

The evening ended with a book signing in the lobby, where the French cartoonist Sfar seemed very appreciative of his American audience. Siegel said he was excited to bring so many European voices like Sfar to American shores, and that a large French publisher recently bought the rights to publish First Second’s original commissioned work (like Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of the Artist) – “I’m thrilled it’s also going the other way.”