Art by Derek Kirk Kim

That art right there is by Derek Kirk Kim, from the new graphic short story collaboration between Derek and Gene Yang. It’s called The Eternal Smile, and it’s coming this Spring from First Second Books. I bet you want it, don’tcha? (Edit: It’s too nice not to see it in full size, click on the image for really big version.)

Gene Yang’s previous graphic novel, American Born Chinese, has far-and-away been First Second’s bestelling graphic novel, and has done extraordinarily well by any standard–having won awards, been recommended by schools and libraries, and it’s even done quite respectably in the bookstores.  I keep seeing it Offered Again in Diamond’s Previews Catalogue, I can only imagine that there are more than a few comic book stores selling copies as well. So, yeah, it’s successful.

Quite a few people were surprised to learn that American Born Chinese was not Gene Yang’s first graphic novel… I actually started following ABC during its initial online serialization because I was already a fan of Gene’s work. Two of his previous releases actually have a lot in common with American Born Chinese, in that they:

- Deal with Asian-American issues
- Address the concept of being an outsider, and the difficult nature of friendship
- Discuss religion in a fairly prominent way

Do you know what those books are? It’s okay if you don’t, most people that have read American Born Chinese have no idea about Gene’s previous graphic novels. Which is really interesting to me, as a reader and particularly a retailer.

Gene’s previous two graphic novels are Gordon Yamamoto and the King of Geeks, and its semi-sequel, Loyola Chin and The San Peligran Order.  Both of them are currently in print, and available from SLG Publishing. I actually recommend them both–they’re not as strong as ABC, but if you liked that one, I’d be surprised if you didn’t enjoy those two graphic novels.

So, let’s compare the covers of those two books with ABC:

gene_yang_cvrsAll three have lots of negative space. All three feature very passive characters on the cover. But one of them is clearly more visually interesting than the others, and it just looks, pardon the expression, more professional. That’s the one coming from the graphic novels arm of a multi-national publishing corporation, but yeah, which one of those three books would you rather pick up off the rack? I’d be curious to know whether Gene Yang created the cover to American Born Chinese entirely on his own, as I believe he did the earlier two graphic novels, or if there was any feedback, input, or design at his publisher First Second. I’d probably lay down money on the latter.

Now, obviously success is not as simple as a cover design, when it comes to why one book hits when another doesn’t… Actually, that’s not always true, I’ve read lots and lots about authors who feel that their books were done-in by poor covers, never really giving them a shot. In fact, one of the funniest contests I saw on the internet last year was a “redesign the covers of classic books” based on this very issue. Check it out, it’s quite good. But in this case anyway, I think it’s some pretty-amazing press and good word of mouth (and all of the work that went into getting that press and word of mouth from First Second) that accounted for ABC’s success.

Let’s put the design aside for a moment and talk about what’s in between the covers… ABC is a full colour book, longer than Gordon and Loyola put together, with higher over-all production (french-flaps!) and weighs is roughly the same price as either book. It’s also just a stronger work overall. Add in beautiful design and a great cover and a strong international marketing force, and you’ve got a hit on your hands. And it might be clear why Gene’s work really found an audience more than 10 years after he started putting it out there.

But here’s the question I really wanted to ask all along: Will all of the new readers that Yang has picked up from American Born Chinese go back and discover his earlier efforts? I think so, and I think First Second are counting on it too.

eternal_smileYou see, as I mentioned up top, Eternal Smile is actually a collection of short stories, and that gorgeous piece of art is from just one of them. The other two stories are somewhat under wraps, but I can confirm that one of them appears to be a much older collaboration between Gene Yang and Derek Kirk Kim, a story originally published by Image Comics almost 10 years ago called Duncan’s Kingdom. By way of confirmation, according to Canadian bookseller Indigo, the one-time title of The Eternal Smile was “Duncan’s Kingdom and Other Stories“, just check out the address bar when you get to that page. Duncan’s Kingdom was a two-issue mini-series written by Gene, and illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim in and around the time that Derek created some of the short stories that make up his Same Difference and Other Stories.

Now, just as an aside (though an incredibly important one): Duncan’s Kingdom is fantastic. It might be my favourite work from Gene or Derek, just because of how funny, well-illustrated, well-told, and ultimately gut-wrenching it is. I am entirely thrilled that this little-known story will be brought back to print, and I can’t wait to share it with people. It’s just that well-done. I even raved about it online somewhere, a long time ago, and it was maybe how Derek Kirk Kim and I met. So, yeah, I’m on board.

First Second is bringing Duncan’s Kingdom back into print, and hoping that Gene (and Derek) have enough of a fan-base to make it a success where, originally, the comic industry pretty much ignored it entirely. Sure, they’re hedging their bets by including (beautiful!) new work, but it’s essentially a reprint of a previously-published North American comic book, and I think it’s the first such work that First Second has offered (if you don’t count their repackaging of Little Vampire).

The reason this is fascinating to me (and if you’re still reading here, thanks, I realize this is way more rambly and navel-gazing than usual) is that conventional wisdom in the publishing industry states that, with very few exceptions each work only gets one kick at the can. No one wants to spend money publishing something that the industry considers “failed”. I’ve heard stories of editors and agents being incredibly prejudiced against anything that’s seen print in any form before. Some of those B&W experiment Image Comics in particularly. Hell, some of my friends in webcomics have had a lot of trouble with publishers on this front, which is totally baffling to me, but then a lot of people just don’t understand webcomics. But I digress.

I think it’s great that the graphic novel industry has matured to a point where we can actually repackage good material that’s been glossed over, books that were ahead of their time, or got poor distribution or promotion. That the industry can breathe new life into work that deserves it.

If, of course, The Eternal Smile succeeds. I don’t know how it couldn’t, given the pedigree of its creators and just how absolutely beautiful it is, but stranger things have happened.

Still, if I were SLG Publishing, I’d maybe be calling up Gene Luen Yang about putting together an omnibus collection of his first couple works, with a new title (and maybe no one picking their nose on the cover), hiring a colourist and maybe even getting Gene to do a brand new epilogue to the stories, for Spring 2010. Maybe they could even spring for French Flaps?

- Christopher
(This post came about because people on my Twitter voted for me to write something about “Bookstore Publishers”, because I wanted to see if anyone was reading my Twitter or not.)

20 Comments on “A little bit about Mainstream Publishing.”

You can track this conversation through its atom feed.

  1. Jennifer de Guzman says:

    If the omnibus of Gene’s work does come out (and it’s certainly something we’ve been talking about — you could have asked), maybe you can say that it was your idea, especially if you’d like to pay for coloring, color printing and French flaps.

  2. Jennifer de Guzman says:

    I forgot: ;)

  3. Chris says:

    You know, it’s just not an article about SLG anywhere on the internet unless Jen DeGuzman shows up in the comments section to snark about it. I was worried you’d just snark at it from the round-up on the SLG blog, but I’m glad I was worth your time to come and post here. Thanks Jen, you’ve added a lot.

  4. Chris says:

    Oh and, me too. :) :) :)

  5. Amy says:

    Kazu and I are always talking about the importance of packaging, so I really appreciated this post. After going to Italy and Japan, I’ve come to realize that North America’s gotta step it up when it comes to book packaging. :P

    p.s. I can’t WAIT for Eternal Smile!!!

  6. Chris Rice says:

    Good to see Duncan’s Kingdom reprinted, I was a huge fan at the time, and it led me to pick up Gene’s 2 SLG books when they came out (although weirdly I didn’t connect it to Same Difference till a couple of years after I’d read SD).
    I can’t remember whether DK was complete in those two issues, do you know if the reprint will be updated/completed?

  7. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Jan. 14, 2009: Juan Valdez secretly lusts after goats says:

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  8. hcduvall says:

    First Second seems like an outfit that has a game plan and knows what it’s doing, but it could also be that “failed in the comic book market” doesn’t count too much for a big publisher. I imagine there’s a segment of publishing that actually reacts opposite to the way you describe: “Oh good, repackage. That means we don’t have to copy edit.”

  9. Eric says:

    Also: I’d like to see more new stuff from Derek Kirk Kim…

  10. Chris Butcher says:

    Amy: I’ve got at least a two posts in me on packaging and trade paperback design, and I just got a camera for Christmas which was integral to doing them. Maybe that’ll be the next post…

    Chris Rice: I don’t know if the reprint will have any additional material, but the second/final issue of ‘Duncan’s Kingdom’ did come to an unexpected, gut-wrenching conclusion, yeah.

    hcduvall: Heh, that’s a nice thought, but I sincerely doubt it. Those guys tend to go over stuff with a fine-toothed comb.

    Eric: Hey, me too. I think Derek’s been working on stuff for years and years, including this new stuff with Gene Yang. Here’s hoping he sees fit to release some of it at some point in the future…

  11. Jennifer de Guzman says:

    I’m really sorry — I came off more flippant than I meant to. What I meant is that I’d really love to see Gene’s early work published in a format with the kind of production values that Chris describes, but we have a lot fewer resources than a publisher like First:Second, and I was *trying* to make a joke about how we’d give producer credits for funding. (Not that we really would — it was not very funny as jokes go, obviously.)

    In all seriousness, the subject of how small publishers can compete in a market that is including more and more publishers with much larger budgets for production and marketing (despite all the talk about “austerity” in the publishing industry) and more bookstore know-how is one that has been concerning me lately.

  12. hcduvall says:

    Oh, completely figure First Second to not just put out some previously published work without taking care of it, and First Second probably has a better relationship to their sales and marketing folk (especially considering the success of American Born Chinese). I’m not denying that there’s a segment of either “it didn’t sell” (or more honestly, “we don’t know how to sell this”) that a book can encounter, I still think though that book publishing as an industry though probably doesn’t register something from Image as a case of something that failed.

    Jennifer’s right that austerity in publishing in a New York book publisher say is different than SLG. There’s enough going on in the economy that some folks will figure repackaging work is actually a good bet re:cost, particularly with graphic novels, still largely unknown territory to them. But it’s no surprise that imprints with some association to children’s publishers have a better handle on how to treat these things.

  13. Scott Saavedra says:

    SLG is constantly giving a first home to new creators like Gene but for a company of SLG’s modest resources giving any new, untried creator the deluxe book treatment is just too financially risky. As for the cover design of Gene’s first two books (design being my area of expertise as SLG’s “Art Director”) my recollection is that the covers — designed and I believe produced by Gene — pretty much reflected what he wanted. I would love to design more of what SLG produces myself but that’s just not SLG’s operating style. The creator, in every way possible (yes, there are limits), usually gets to do what he/she wants.

  14. Secret Identities says:

    Off topic, but if you’re a fan of Gene’s, he has a fantastic piece called “The Blue Scorpion and Chung” (with art by Sonny Liew) in the forthcoming “Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology” from the New Press:

  15. Kat Kan says:

    I’ve known the people involve with First Second Books for years, when they were publishing and marketing Roaring Brook Press (they still do that, too). These people care deeply about the books, the creators, and they even care about their library customers. They are deeply committed to making First Second Books a major publishing success, from the publisher to the editorial director to the editorial staff and to the marketing people. Their booth is one of the first places I go whenever I attend a library conference, because they’re genuinely welcoming and wonderful people.

    That being said, I’ve also been a fan of Yang’s ever since the SLG books first came out; Gordon Yamamoto is a personal favorite, because Yang completely busted the whole Asian American stereotype in a positive way. I’m half-Japanese, so this really matters to me, and what he did made Yang my hero. I was primed for American Born Chinese long before it was published.

    While design and packaging does matter, I’d just be happy if SLG can just keep Gordon Yamamoto and Loyola Chin in print so I can keep putting them on my lists of recommended titles for school and public libraries.

    And yes, I am very much looking forward to reading The Eternal Smile.

  16. Mark Siegel says:

    The awesome magnificent exquisite Chris B strikes again. Thanks for another thoughtful reflection, and some very kind encouragement for First Second.
    Just to be clear, if I pick up anything previously published, it’s always as a new proposition to be babied and designed and launched *for today* and for a North American sensibility (in the case of foreign projects like Little Vampire or our upcoming Manhwa trilogy The Color of Earth.) And in the case of THE ETERNAL SMILE, I too loved the original Duncan story. The two other stories UNCLE GREENBAX and URGENT REQUEST are original Gene Yang works which I believe will stand up to the very best in Gene’s body of work. And Derek of course, the mad virtuoso, drew all three in TOTALLY different styles… I’ll say no more!

  17. Myk says:

    When American Born Chinese came out I wrote, and I´m gonna quote myself here: “Now could someone please collect Duncan´s Kingdom?“.

    Yeah, I was the one that bought it. So, yay! YAY!

  18. Myk says:

    And while on the topic of Derek Kim Kirk and while we´re talking obscure and ill-fated comics periodicals, how about reprinting Cell, that book he did for Antarctic Press?

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  20. Macbeth Uk says:

    Ah, Duncan’s Kingdom, I loved that you know and never twigged it was by ABC creator, but it was a long time ago – DUH!

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