The Rise of Graphic Novels: A Ten Year Celebration of First Second Books
Andy Hirsch and Leland Myrick | The Children’s Book Review | March 19, 2016
This time ten years ago, First Second Books was sending their very first season of books out to readers everywhere. Ten years later, they have published 157 books, including New York Times Best-Sellers and award-winners across the book and comics industry. Over the past decade, the graphic novel industry has gone from relatively unknown to an essential part of the entire book trade. To celebrate First Second Books and the rise of graphic novels, we thought it would be fun to have graphic novelist veteran, Leland Myrick, who has been with First Second from the beginning, and Andy Hirsch, a 2016 debut graphic novelist, interview each other.
Part 1: Andy Hirsch interviews Leland Myrick
Andy Hirsch: You’ve been publishing with First Second from the very beginning back in 2006. How did that come about?
Leland Myrick: I had mostly self published up until that time, but then I had a piece in a Dark Horse Comics anthology and got the Xeric Grant for my book Bright Elegy. Shortly after that I got an email from Mark Siegel saying he was getting ready to start a new imprint of graphic novels from Roaring Brook. At the time, they didn’t even have a name for the imprint, but Mark told me about this impressive list of people he’d already signed up to work on books for it. He asked if I was working on anything, and I was. The short story that Dark Horse published was based on an autobiographical poem I’d written about growing up in Missouri. I’d decided to take some of the other poems I’d written and turn them into a full length episodic autobiography in verse. I told Mark about it, thinking he was going to politely hang up on me or laugh, but to my surprise he was interested. After some back and forth, I signed with First Second, although I’m pretty sure at the time I signed it still wasn’t called First Second. That book was Missouri Boy. I remember jumping up and down and dancing in my living room the day I got that contract.
What was the atmosphere like when your next book with First Second, Feynman, was released in 2011? That was a hit!
For one thing by then First Second had already released a lot of books and people had taken notice of the quality and diversity of the books they were releasing. I don’t think there’s another imprint quite like First Second. They didn’t limit themselves to American creators, and think this kind of borderless, world-embracing view of what comics could be is one of the things that makes First Second great. Jim, who wrote Feynman, already had a solid following of fans of his science comics, myself included. I jumped at the chance to work with him. When Feynman came out, it got some good press, and a lot of it from science journals and the like, one of them being a nice review in the New York Review of Books written by the famous physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson. That kind of stuff was amazing. And really, Jim is just a good storyteller. His ability to take the life of a very complex man with very complex science and weave it into a graphic novel narrative is top notch.
The graphic novel world has grown and shifted at a rapid pace – it’s a very different landscape from just ten years ago. Have things changed at all how you might have expected them to?
From an American perspective, I think graphic novels are definitely more mainstream and accepted than they were ten years ago. I’d like to think First Second had something to do with that. It feels like there’s room for a wider variety of graphic novels to get published and do well in the US these days. I don’t have any statistics on that kind of thing, but it feels that way. And now when I tell people I write and illustrate graphic novels I don’t get as many of the blank stares I used to get.
What about you, what recent graphic novels have you found particularly inspiring?
Hair Shirt by Patrick McEown. His artwork is mind-blowingly good on this book. I’d never seen his work before, but Hair Shirt was on display at my local comic shop, and once I flipped through it, I had to have it. It’s a dark and creepy cool book, but it’s really the artwork that captured me. Garage Band and Notes For a War Story by Gipi, which are from First Second. Actually anything by Gipi. Such simple lines, but so beautiful. And I’ve got to go with Joann Sfar’s Grand Vampire books. So I see that I’ve picked creators here whose story telling I love, but really it’s their art that speaks to me first. I know that art and narrative are interwoven in a graphic novel, but I seem to always start with the art.
Can you say anything about projects you’re currently working on? What’s next from Leland?
Yes! I’ve been working on a sort of followup book to Feynman, again with Jim Ottaviani. It’s a biography of Stephen Hawking, and it is taking me a looong time to draw. A lot of research for a book like this is required from both the writer and the artist. Jim is the science guy, so he has to make it make sense to the rest of us, and he does a damn good job. If Jim’s script calls for a panel set on the grounds of King’s College, Cambridge, I’ve got to research what that looks like and interpret it for the page. Jim and I were fortunate enough to take a trip to Cambridge University England to research the book together, and I took a whole mess of reference photos, so I have those to use, but a lot of things I just have to look up. The trip was amazing in itself, and we visited Hawking’s residence, his office, and areas in and around Cambridge that he currently or in the past has frequented. Let me say that, like Feynman, Jim does not shy away from the science in this book. It’s about the man AND his work.
Part 2: Leland Myrick Interviews Andy Hirsch
Leland Myrick: You’ve been doing comics for a while now, but this is your first book from First Second. What brought you to First Second, and how is this book different from your previous work?
Andy Hirsch: When you’re just starting out, which I very much was at the time I came up with Varmints (September, 2016), you send pitches to just about anyone who will take them, and I always considered First Second the longest shot. They publish really good books, you know? When my future editor Calista took a liking to it I was absolutely thrilled. It was a real vote of confidence that made me think I could actually pull this book off and make something worth reading.Varmints is different from my previous work on, gosh, almost every level. It’s my first long-form writing project, and while it seems kind of obvious, it’s nice to get to write exactly what you want to draw. Apparently that’s horses and jokes.
Your new book coming from First Second, Varmints, is a very fast-paced, action-filled romp through the wild west with a lot of humor. What drove you to make this particular book?
I started self-publishing Varmints back in 2011. There weren’t a lot of western comics coming out at the time (there still aren’t), and the genre seemed like a way for me to stand out while working in a setting I really enjoy. The pacing and humor came from my aiming to make the kind of book I’d want to read as well as one I’d want to spend years working on. As far as westerns go, my inspiration was more Brisco County than Deadwood. In hindsight, it’s also surprisingly personal. My relationships with my siblings are important to me even as an adult, and I drew a lot from my experiences growing up with them.
Pick any three graphic novels published in the last three years that have influenced your work or life. How or why did these graphic novels affect your life or work?
Hmm, I think it’s probably too early to say what recent books will end up influencing my work, but some I’ve really enjoyed are Kyle Stark’s Sexcastle (one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read), Tony Cliff’s Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant (an incredible historic adventure book, and published by First Second, no less), and whichever is currently the most recent volume of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai in particular has been (and continues to be) a huge influence on me, not just for the quality of his work but for the dedication he puts into making it.
If you can, tell about the difference for you between collaborating with a writer and illustrating your own writing.
Writing adds another layer of responsibility, which is great because I can be flexible with the details of how the story unfolds, but it’s also intimidating because, well, I’ve got to write the story. It’s easier for me to focus on one thing at a time, so I kept the writing and illustrating pretty separate. That also made sure I didn’t get ahead of myself and end up having to redraw a bunch of pages if part of the script ended up not working. In a way, I guess I organized it as if I was collaborating with myself. It was a learning process, but I think doing those first few independent minicomics helped an awful lot. They acted like a rough draft and helped me find my legs. I really enjoy handling as many aspects of comics creation as I can, though coloring still eludes me. I’ve got Hilary Sycamore to thank for making the colors in Varmints look as great as they do.
Now that Varmints is about to come out from :01, what’s the next project?
I’m just starting another book with First Second that I can’t talk about quite yet, but even before Varmints is released I’ve got a new monthly series coming out March through June. Sometimes the timelines of graphic novels and floppies are weird like that. The Baker Street Peculiars is a Sherlock Holmes inspired miniseries about a gang of kids (and their dog) in 1930’s London investigating crimes with an angle too bizarre for the Great Detective. It’s written and co-created by the great Roger Langridge with colors by Fred Stresing, and it’s another one of those projects that I’m pleased as can be to have gotten to work on.
About Leland Myrick
Leland Myrick is the author and illustrator of First Second’s “Missouri Boy.” Feynman is his second graphic novel. He lives in Pasadena, CA.
About Andy Hirsch
Andy Hirsch is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Dallas, Texas. The third of four children, he was born in Minnesota, migrated to Texas at a young age, and studied comics in Savannah, Georgia. He previously illustrated the graphic novel The Royal Historian of Oz, which was listed as a 2013 YALSA Great Graphic Novel for Teens, and has contributed to the Garfield, Regular Show, Adventure Time, and Peanuts comic book series. aforandy.com