Bridging Countries, Genres & Ages
Have you ever heard of the ‘Cargo Pants-Pocket Format’?
These are graphic novels of 6 x 8.5 inches, about an inch bigger than regular manga but smaller than American comic books (in fact, A5 size to us Brits). I first encountered the concept over dinner with bright American editor Mark Siegel in London for the 2005 Book Fair. Only half-joking, Siegel had hit on this as the perfect uniform format for First Second, by far the smartest, freshest graphic novel line launched in the US in 2006. His notion is that you can slip one inside that handy pocket on the outside trouser leg and carry it around with you. Its corners might give your thigh a few bruises, but that’s a small price to make comics into portable street fashion.
Unconventional thinking like this probably derives from Siegel’s childhood exposure to comics, far from typical for an American editor in this field. Though born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Mark was raised in France and on Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées, the birthplaces of Asterix, Tintin and other iconic characters in large-sized hardback albums popular with generation after generation, like Lucky Luke, Yakari, Blake and Mortimer, Thorgal and others now being translated by Cinebook. These are comics that can talk to children without talking down to them and yet still have more than enough ideas, wit and levels to intrigue readers of any age. They gave Mark an enthusiasm for ‘all-ages’ comics, no matter where they come from, which can "...blur ages and span a readership, to use Tintin magazine’s slogan, ‘from 7 to 77 years old’."
Siegel first stood out in 2003 at Simon & Schuster by convincing them to publish two of Frenchman Joann Sfar’s horror-humour Little Vampire stories, co-translating and designing the books himself and printing them in France in the same hardback format. Funny, slightly creepy and sometimes hilariously gross in the tradition of The Addams Family and Fungus the Bogeyman, the two became best-sellers but mysteriously no more in the series, seven so far, have followed despite a successful French animated TV spin-off.
There’s another side to Mark Siegel. In the pub before dinner, he was persuaded to open his sketchbooks which brimmed with strips, on-the-spot travel drawings and more. It’s not enough for him to be an astute editor; he’s also an accomplished, and published, artist. In early 2004, for Simon & Schuster’s Atheneum imprint, he illustrated Lisa Wheeler’s story Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta. His pictures accompany her songs’ boisterous lyrics to tell of an eager girl pup at a canine cast’s performance of a swashbuckling musical. The mix of pirates and pooches kept being reprinted and thrilled 17,000 kid voters in the Texas Blue Bonnet Award so much, they chose it as their favourite book of the year. A hit children’s book in comics form, whatever next?
Success can get you noticed and Siegel was headhunted by the young American publishers Roaring Brook Press. Founded only in 2001, they won the Caldecott Medal, America’s most prestigious award for illustrated books, in 2003 and again in 2004. Acquired that year by the mighty Holtzbrinck Publishers, Roaring Brook had both the backing and the independence to enable Siegel to head up his own imprint, First Second (as in ‘it all begins with the First Second’ or the stopwatch-style logo :01), and see to fruition his 3-year vision for a list of breakthrough graphic novels that can "bridge countries, genres and ages."
Judging from the first dozen titles both originated and bought in from abroad, Siegel is well on his way. Shrewdly, he went back to Sfar and chose his follow-up series to Little Vampire. Instead of sticking to the individual thin hardback albums, Vampire Loves packs four of Sfar’s Grand Vampire series into one 192-page wodge. Reduced in size, nothing of Sfar’s febrile, ornate linework is lost. You might expect this to be about Little Vampire’s later years, but actually the grown-up Ferdinand became so sad living as an adult that he asked to become a child but wound up simply shrunk into a Little Vampire.
Bald, gentle and skull-eyed, Ferdinand is "kind of square and Nosferatu-like" and sucks blood with only one tooth so that he is mistaken for a mosquito. He gets entangled with a mandragora or girl-plant, a redhead vampiress, a trainee witch, and a Japanese woman he seduces in the Louvre after closing time. In a scene of poetry and pathos, the two nocturnal lovers bask in the swirling sunshine of a Van Gogh painting, the only sunshine Ferdinand can enjoy. Monsters have hearts too in this unpredictable gothic rom-com, as eerily enchanting as the best of Edward Gorey or Tim Burton.
Sfar is responsible for three more First Second releases. He draws two double-helpings of Sardine in Outer Space, each with a dozen joyful, nutty 10-page scrapes written by Emmanuel Guibert. Only our ginger-haired junior heroine and her pirate uncle, the aptly named Captain Yellow Shoulder, can save the galaxy from wannabe universal dictator Supermuscleman. In a more bittersweet tone, Sfar’s Klezmer recreates his mother’s East European heritage before the Second World War and follows the fortunes of a band of wayward, wandering Jewish musicians. An aspiring player himself, Sfar brings a lightness and sureness of touch to his zesty Yiddish dialogues, unexpected yarn-spinning and vivacious watercoloured sketches.
Equally innovative and prolific as Sfar is Lewis Trondheim, the duo behind the daft Dungeon saga translated by NBM. Siegel has picked one of Trondheim’s solo gems in A.L.I.E.E.E.N., or Archives of Lost Issues and Earthly Editions of Extraterrestrial Novelties. Reproduced with burnt edges and fuzzy screened colours, this tattered, charred comic book was supposedly found while Trondheim and family were backpacking in the Catskills. On closer examination, he realised it’s "the very first comic strip for extra-terrestrial children ever discovered on our planet." You’re on your own reading this truly alien artifact, whose landscapes populated by kindly and cruel critters demand and reward close attention. It’s akin to Jim Woodring’s unsettling, soundless world of Frank except for some balloons of extraterrestrial language which, symbol by symbol, you’ll find yourself deciphering, from the very first cries of pain and for help to the back cover’s rave review entirely of laughter.
Siegel, like any savvy publisher seeking autobiographical cartoonists, jumped at the chance to commission Eddie Campbell of Alec fame. In The Fate of the Artist Eddie has "the disquieting feeling that it has all gone wrong." The mounting everyday demands of being a husband, father, family man and breadwinner on a philosophical, obsessive, less than practical dreamer like Eddie prompt him suddenly to disappear. Eddie is played here by an actor in unflattering strip ‘reconstructions’, alongside a detective’s notes on this ‘missing person’ case, his interviews, notably in photo fumetti with key witness, daughter Hayley, and cuttings of imaginary faded newspaper comics such as the declining domestic gag series Honeybee. Only at the end does Eddie appear in a mock O.Henry allegory playing a popular Victorian comedy writer whose marriage and family life are almost ruined by his vampire-like reliance on his wife’s comments and kids’ antics for his humorous pieces. He finally finds contentment by abandoning his writing career and working in the tranquil backroom of a funeral home. Lucky for us, the real Eddie is sticking to crafting comics.
In a similar vein, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang brilliantly connects three different narratives about the price of becoming what you wish for. One retells the Monkey legend; another, a shy Chinese-American boy’s attempts at romancing a white all-American girl; and the last concerns Chin-Kee, the ugliest racist stereotype of the Chinese, whose visits ruin his cousin’s high-school status. Yang’s last chapter weaves together these threads brilliantly in a set of arresting twists. The book’s nomination for an American National Book Award, the first for a graphic novel in the Awards’ 57 years, sparked online debate after commentator Tony Long of Wired News whinged that "as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories." Though Yang’s did not win, the winning author M.T. Anderson praised his book and the NBA panel for nominating a work of graphic fiction, the first perhaps of many.
Siegel should take some pride himself in what his list has achieved already. Personal memoirs don’t come much stronger than the Giles-inspired Kampung Boy about Lat’s vanished childhood in a Malaysian village and Missouri Boy, Leland Myrick’s poetic vignettes of firecrackers, skinny-dipping, betrayal and breaking free. Siegel has also gone back to the drawing board and to Atheneum in To Dance, his Puerto Rican wife Siena’s dream of becoming a professional ballerina. Anyone who shares that dream will love this book. Looking ahead, Mark Siegel has signed up Paul Pope, Brian Ralph, Christophe Blain, Jessica Abel, Nick Abadzis, Warren Pleece, Tanitoc and more for First Second. This is the sort of astute editor comics need, sourcing international voices whose storyworlds are inviting and involving wherever they are created and read.
PG TIPS EXTRA
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda
By J.P. Stassen
First Second, $16.95
Fearful, feral, a boy crouches to avert his gaze from the thousands of stars crowding a vast, almost oppressive African sky above. Dogs and stars are two striking visual motifs on this book’s cover and within. They resonate back more than a century to a speech made by the chief of the AmaNdabele people in 1896 to the British occupying forces in the Rhodesian territory. He proclaimed, "You came, you conquered. The strongest takes the land. We have accepted your authority. We have lived under it. But not like dogs. If we had to live like dogs, we would rather die. You will never turn the AmaNdabele into dogs. You can exterminate them, but the children of the stars will never be dogs." A century later, in 1994, one ‘child of the stars’ named Deogratias feels he has been turned into a dog, driven to madness by witnessing the horrors of eight hundred thousand Tutsi people massacred by the Hutu majority in Rwanda. Author Stassen comes from Belgium, whose colonial rule of Rwanda exacerbated the racism dividing the nation. In 2000 Stassen was among the first Western authors to denounce the genocide and the world community’s failure to respond. He also condemned the Catholic church’s central role and so refused to accept an ecumenical comics award for his book. Instead of portraying the big gruesome picture, he focuses on its build-up and aftershocks through a series of flashbacks, where panel borders disappear, and flashforwards, where they return. What he doesn’t show becomes all the more harrowing as he draws you inside the head of this damaged youth, a survivor but at a terrible price. Now settled in Rwanda with his family, Stassen offers a clear and deep understanding of the roots and legacy of this tragedy.
Journey Into Mohawk Country
by George O’Connor
First Second, $17.95
Documenting the earlier history of the New World, O’Connor illustrates young Dutchman Van den Bogaert’s diary from December 11, 1634 to January 21, 1635 of his winter trading trek among Native American Iriquois in search of the hottest items back in Europe, beaver pelts. His style is lively, cartoonish, a bit like Hunt Emerson’s, his layouts favouring widescreen panels for the engulfing landscapes. But O’Connor does much more than illustrate. He perceptively reads between the lines and adds amusing and revealing visual details and silent sequences which the words imply or omit. For instance, where Bogaert records the "objects for idols and telling fortunes" which the Indians keep upon them, O’Connor draws him secreting his crucifix inside his shirt. Later, where three scalps of rival warriors hang overhead, O’Connor shows them for a moment as Bogaert’s and his two companions’ own, reflecting the trader’s anxiety. Read closely and these counterpoints, even contradictions, open up this fascinating text about the encounter between two cultures.
The Lost Colony
by Grady Klein
First Second, $14.95
America’s more recent history gets deliriously rewritten in this opening 120-page episode entitled The Snodgrass Conspiracy. Outsiders are not welcome on The Lost Colony, a fantasy island that appears on no map and wants to stay that way. Especially unwelcome to most of the inhabitants of Grady Klein’s seeming paradise are an outsider and his posters from Port Succor advertising a "big auction of negro slaves". But not all. Those interested include wealthy inventor Rex Carter, greedy banker Snodgress, and his spunky little daughter Miss Brody, who in innocence and ignorance buys a slave who sells himself to her to gain his freedom. Klein’s storytelling and graphics are fresh and inventive, using bright Dolly Mixture colours for his backgrounds and outlining only the characters in black like cel animation, constructing each page into black-bordered grids that resemble stained-glass windows. There’s real intelligence and wit here, dropping in priceless single-panel associations of thought or clusters of colour-co-ordinated shots. With the next book The Red Menace due soon, his allegory speaks loud and clear to today’s America.
Posted: October 7, 2007
The original version of this article appeared in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga, in 2006.