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:
All 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.
You 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?
(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.)