Friday, May 12, 2006

Graphic Lit: First Second

One of the problems with doing a comics column for the Friday Living section, is that it's one of the tighter sections in the paper, due to the amount of movie coverage and just a general lack of space. Thus, I had to cut a great deal out of my Graphic Lit column this week. Lots of good stuff went by the wayside, including some pithy quotes from First Second editor Mark Siegel.

But there's no reason why my faithful blog readers (all three of you) should suffer so. Thus, I present the unexpugated version of today's column. Any grammar or spellling errors may be attributed to the fact this inital version never went through a copy editor and my spelling is pretty pathetic. Otherwise, I think this version is a bit better than the one that actually saw print.


If you’re starting up a comics company, the conventional wisdom is to start small, play things safe, and build up your line slowly.

Mark Seigel doesn’t hold much stock in that notion. As editorial director of the new First Second line (a division of Roaring Brook Press), he firmly against taking a cautious approach.

"What I told [Roaring Brook] is I don’t want to use an eyedropper, but a firehose," he said during a recent phone conversation from his office in New York City.

To that end, First Second has unveiled six books in their debut line-up this month. Aimed at a variety of ages and literary sensibilities, any of these books would be strong enough to stand alone at a publisher’s coming out. Taken together, they reveal the Seigel’s remarkable ambition and the high mark the company has set for itself.

With that in mind, here’s a quick look at First Second’s initial catalog:

"The Fate of the Artist"
by Eddie Campbell
96 pages, $15.95.

All of the First Second books are impressive, but if you can only pick one title to take home with you, it should be this one.

Here, Campbell, best known for his autobiographical stories as well as his work on "From Hell," imagines what might happen if he were to suddenly vanish.

Using prose, photos, parodies of old comic strips and more, Campbell describes the hole left by disappearance, with his family forced to puzzle out where he may have gone to and reminisce about how difficult he was to put up with.

Constantly shifting, "Fate of the Artist" is both a comical and dark look at what happens when an artist grows discontented with his work. It’s an astonishing work from one of the top talents in comics.

"Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda"
by J.P. Stassen
96 pages, $16.95.

Winner of the Goscinny Prize in France, "Deogratias" tells the story of three friends — a boy and two sisters — and how the tragic, genocidal events in Rwanda drive them to death and madness.

Yes, "Deogratias" is about as far from "happy-go-lucky" as you can get, and you had best steel yourself before reading the book, so heartbreaking are its contents. But Stassen’s skills as a storyteller and cartoonist are formidable, and the book is remarkable in its ability to transport you to a far-off country and culture and not make it seem like its events are happening right next door.

"Vampire Loves"
by Joann Sfar
192 pages, $16.95.

Ferdinand is not your typical vampire, seeing how he’s more given to mooning over failed relationships and listening to old jazz albums than to sucking blood (he only bites with one fang, so people thing it’s a mosquito bite). Good thing there’s plenty of women, both real and supernatural, that find that sort of behavior attractive.

As with his stellar "The Rabbi’s Cat," Sfar uses the fantastic to examine the philosophical quandaries and foibles that make us human. Here, he looks at love and romance in its various permutations as Ferdinand bounces from relationship to relationship. There’s not much of a plot, and little is resolved, but the journey itself is so delightful and warm-hearted that you won’t mind a bit.

"Sardine in Outer Space"
by Emmanuel Guibert and Joann Sfar
128 pages, $12.95.

Sfar teams up with his friend Guibert for this Saturday-morning-cartoon-styled frolic involving a plucky young pirate, her swashbuckling Uncle Yellow and her overeager younger cousin Louie.
Hi-jinks ensue when the trio run up against the nefarious Supermuscleman and his henchman Doc Kroc. Fast-paced and unconcerned with following the laws of science or sense, "Sardine" is a fun joy-ride that younger readers are sure to enjoy.

"A.L.I.E.E.E.N."
by Lewis Trondheim
96 pages, $12.95.

The cute-cartoon characters that grace the cover and insides of this book might lull you into thinking this is a good book for kids. IT IS NOT. Blood, maiming, death, destruction and an endless array of scatological jokes await readers inside.

Well-known in France, Trondheim is up to his usual high standards here in this mostly silent story of small alien creatures that prey and are preyed upon by each other. Adults will find this book to be extremely funny, if more than a tad dark. Just keep it away from the children.

"The Lost Colony Vol. 1: The Snodgrass Conspiracy"
by Grady Klein
128 pages, $14.95.

This is probably the most challenging book in First Second’s line-up, and not just for its content. Klein uses heavy black lines to outline his tightly delineated characters as well as divide the panels, giving the book a cramped, confined feel. He also will frequently sequel into a quick flashback or visual metaphor without explanation, which can be jarring to the reader at first.

However, by the time I reached the halfway point, I found myself fully engrossed in Klein’s tale of a small, mysterious island off the coast of 19th-century America, unhampered by slavery and other social ills. "Colony" deals with some rather dark chapters in U.S. history — in an all-ages book no less — and its ambitiousness may be it most flagrant flaw. But the book offers enough promise that you’ll want to check out volume two.

As good as these spring releases are, Seigel promises even more in his fall line-up and further on down the road.

"It’s gonna take three seasons just to show our range of ages, themes and styles —just to show our breadth," he said. "I compare it to the Beatles in Hamburg. The comics world is now coming back from Hamburg, ready to handle big projects in a trade medium."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2006

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