First Second’s Tenth Year: Sara Varon Looks Back On Her Comics Decade [Interview]
In 2006, First Second Books emerged as a fledging publisher with a distribution deal with Macmillan. Among is first offerings were works from European greats like Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim and Emmanuel Guibert, as well as The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell, a handful of non-fiction books and, in the fall, a book called American Born Chinese by educator-turned-cartoonist Gene Luen Yang.
Yang's career trajectory would mirror that of First Second, which published his many original graphic novels that followed: Both garnered more attention and accolades each year, with one foot in the world of the traditional comics industry and another in the broader literary world.
As First Second celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, it can look back on a catalogue that includes scores of books by some of the biggest, best and most important names in the medium. First Second has introduced American readers to international talents; promoted the work of new cartoonists to a wide audience; and produced some of the most talked-about books of recent years, including Laika, Boxers and Saints, The Sculptor and This One Summer.
To mark First Second's ten year contribution to comics, ComicsAlliance is spending this week talking to cartoonists, creators and talents associated with the publisher, to look back at their own past ten years in the industry.
Today we speak to Sara Varon, a cartoonist, children's picture book author, and illustrator who has been with First Second since the publisher's first year. She created two original graphic novels for First Second, Robot Dreams and Bake Sale; she collaborated with writer Cecil Castellucci on another, Odd Duck; and First Second just republished a new version of her short story collection Sweaterweather, and will publishing Varon's next work as well. In addition to her comics work, Varon has published two picture books for Scholastic Press: Chicken and Cat and Chicken and Cat Clean Up.
Comics Alliance: My first exposure to your work was 2003’s Sweaterweather from Alternative, and my second exposure to it was 2007’s Robot Dreams, published by First Second. As we’re looking at First Second through the prism of some of its cartoonists this week, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about where you were, in your career and artistically, about ten years ago?
Sara Varon: I’d graduated from SVA [The School of Visual Arts in New York City] in 2002, so at that point I was still trying to figure out how to juggle part-time jobs --- I think I had a number of them back then and they were always changing --- and still make comics.
And I was probably still trying to figure out where I fit in --- I also had a children’s book, Chicken and Cat come out in 2006, and I was still doing a little editorial illustration. For now, I’m happy to say, I have those things figured out.
CA:You mentioned your first Chicken and Cat book; was 2006 any sort of crossroads for you, in terms of making children books versus making comics, or do you not make any hard and fast distinctions between the two media, which obviously share a lot in common?
SV: No, to me, they are all just stories. The format makes little difference to me.
CA: Do you remember your first impression of First Second? You've been working with them since very early in their first decade; at that point, did you have time to form an opinion of the publisher and their work?
SV: No, we were all just starting out and trying to figure out what we were doing. I got in with them --- I think --- before they even had any books in print yet. There were lots of little independent publishers at the time --- Top Shelf, Highwater, Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics --- but First Second was one of the first ones that was an imprint of a big publishing house, so that seemed exciting to me.
CA: Can you tell us a little bit about the creation of Robot Dreams? I confess that it’s one of my all-time favorite comics/ It’s right up there with Craig Thompson’s Good-bye, Chunky Rice in terms of comics that made me bawl.
SV: Aw, thanks! I’m honored to be grouped with Good-bye, Chunky Rice --- that book is what made me want to make comics! As for Robot Dreams, I really just wanted to get paid to do comics so I could keep making them --- I didn’t get paid for Sweaterweather, just in books --- so I thought I’d make a proposal and see if I could sell it.
I had an eight-page story about a dog and robot, and my idea was to have a bunch of short, unrelated stories about those two characters. I’d found an agent, and she said no-one would buy a book of short stories, but I could sell a single long story. This thought was terrifying --- I’d never made anything more than about eight pages. So the book started with my eight-page story and I tricked myself into making a long story by breaking it up into 12 months. Then I could think of it as 12 (consecutive) short stories.
CA: It was, at the time, your longest book yet, and while in retrospect it worked quite beautifully, was pitching it at all difficult?
SV: I think I got in at the right time. Graphic novels were new, and I think Mark [Siegel, editorial director] was kind of just open to anything. At that point, I had Sweaterweather, so it showed I could complete a long book, and Mark just took a gamble based on that.
CA: That was followed by two more First Second books, Bake Sale and Odd Duck. The former seemed a bit of departure in that it featured anthropomorphic food, rather than animals. Did the story dictate the change to foodstuffs rather than animals?
SV: Bake Sale started with a character that I drew who was a cupcake. (Cupcake bakeries were really popular at the time.) And I was looking at a lot of Japanese illustration, which often features food characters, so it wasn’t that much of a leap.
The story came after the creation of the character, which is usually the case for me. It was fun to draw food characters, because there is an endless array of choices. And it was fun to think about who would be friends with whom.
CA: What attracts you to drawing anthropomorphic characters as your protagonists, rather than human beings? And, not to over-analyze something fun, but how do you choose which animals to use for which characters? For example, could the dog in Robot Dreams have been a cat, or would that have changed your creative process in some way?
SV: Well, I’m actually pretty lousy at drawing people, so that’s the main reason. Also, I find non-human characters more relatable. You don’t have to worry about their race, age, or gender. Also, each animal comes with inherent character associations, so my choice of animal is a sometimes a way of adding background info. For instance, everybody knows a dog is supposed to be a loyal friend, and it’s a story about friendship. I mean --- no offense to cat people --- but if a cat broke its friend and left it lying on the beach, who would be surprised?
CA: For Odd Duck, you worked for the first time with a writer. How did that particular collaboration come about, and how different was the experience of making a comic with a writer, rather than making it from scratch all by yourself?
SV: We were put together by the original publisher (not First Second). I think the standard arrangement in children’s books is that the author works with the editor and the illustrator works with the editor, but the author and illustrator usually do not have contact. However, Cecil and I were both really confused by the editor’s comments, so we got in touch with each other. We decided that it might make more sense for us to work the book out together and bring it back to the editor.
Originally, it was a chapter book with some spot illustrations. Cecil and I collaborated --- she was really fun to work with and had great ideas --- and we came back with a picture book/graphic novel. The editor didn’t like it, and, after much pain, Cecil and I were released from our contract. We brought the story to First Second, and Mark published it almost as-is. We just added some pages and made a few editorial changes.
As for working with someone else’s story, I was very lucky. First of all, I do occasionally get offers to illustrate manuscripts, but Cecil’s was the first one I accepted because it was the first manuscript I received that I connected with. The story had strong characters, and I myself am an odd duck, so I could really identify with Theodora, the main character.
And I say I was lucky because Cecil gave me a ton of freedom with her story. When I received it, it was entirely prose. But she trusted me enough to let me take out a lot of words and tell the story with pictures. So, although it was her story, I was able to tell the story in a way that was inherent to me. So it was a true collaboration.
CA: First Second just released a new and updated version of Sweaterweather, so pretty much your entire comics catalog can be found at First Second now. Why did you guys decide to do the new Sweaterweather, and why now…?
SV: Sweaterweather was originally published by Alternative Comics in 2003. There was one print run, which sold out, and the book went out of print. In about 2013, Alternative came back to me and asked if they could reprint it, and did I still have the digital files. Just as in the first printing, I would not get paid, because Alternative is a small publisher that prints comics more as a labor of love than as a money-making enterprise (or at least that was the case in 2003.) So I thought, why not offer it to First Second, since First Second is able to pay its authors? Mark agreed, providing I would add some new content and redesign it.
At first, it seemed like a real drag to go back to something that was already finished and from so long ago, but in the end, it turned out to be a lot of fun to work on. I love doing the packaging part of a book, like thinking about the title page, and the end papers, and how to make everything fit together. First Second very generously let me have a different image on the book case than the book jacket (the standard is to have the same image on the book case and the book jacket), and I love thinking about that stuff, like what is the right image that will tie everything together.
CA: Next up is a children’s picture book you illustrated, and another graphic novel, Francis the Donkey, right? Anything you’d like to share about them at this point?
SV: Oh, I’m having a lot of fun working on Francis the Donkey. I think it’s the best thing I’ve done in awhile. It’s based on my trips to Guyana, where my husband is from, and I’ve gotten to do tons of research and taken cool trips to see tropical plants, fruits, and animals.
CA: Finally, do you have a favorite First Second book from among the many they've published that you haven’t drawn?
SV: I love that you qualified that with 'that you haven’t drawn'! I would never pick my own as my favorite --- ha!
Well I have to admit that I don’t read a ton of comics anymore --- mostly I read novels and non-fiction books. I read a lot in the very beginning of their career, though. I loved all the Joan Sfar books, Vampire Loves, Klezmer. And I loved Aaron Renier’s Walker Bean. And of course Laika by Nick Abadzis.