Smash Pages Q&A: First Second’s Mark Siegel discusses World Citizen Comics

The editorial and creative director of First Second Books discusses the origins of the new line of nonfiction graphic novels.

Mark Siegel is the artist and author of books like Sailor Twain and Moving House and the co-writer of the 5 Worlds series. He is also the editorial and creative director of First Second Books, where one of his major recent projects has been the release of World Citizen Comics. The series released its first two books this year, Unrig: How To Fix Our Broken Democracy by Daniel G. Newman and George O’Connor, and Fault Lines in The Constitution by Cynthia Levinson, Sanford Levinson,and Ally Shwed. 

The books attempt to provide civics education, media literacy and historical context to current events, which are all too lacking today, but that damns the books with faint praise. They are also inventive, entertaining and informative, and artistically dynamic. Each stands in the very best tradition of nonfiction comics.

Today is Election Day in the United States, but that’s far from the only notable thing happening around the world. The people of Chile overwhelmingly voted to draft a new constitution to replace the one written when the country was ruled by a military junta. Poland has been rocked by days of mass protests, the largest since the fall of communism in 1989. Tanzania’s presidential elections were held last week, featuring an incumbent using government power to undermine the press and his political opposition. Protests continue in Belarus, Nigeria, Thailand and elsewhere.

We live in a moment of a great change and possibility, and Siegel was kind enough to mark the occasion with us by answering a few questions about why he launched the series, being global citizens and his ambitions for the project.

Mark, obviously the success of Hamilton shows that everyone, kids especially, want to learn more about the Enlightenment and the arguments around government, politics and philosophy. Seriously, though, what was the impetus behind the World Citizen Comics series?

Hamilton opened a door. Against the odds, a genius cast of mostly Black and Latino performers brought to life some of the spirit and struggles of the founding fathers – in a way that truly matters today. What a testament to the power of art.

I think it was Robert F. Kennedy’s quote, that Americans were the most entertained and least informed citizens in the world? Around the 2016 election, alarms sounded off from most experts on democracy and dictatorships, and in 2017 America was downgraded from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” And as the fault lines in our civil and political landscapes have become more visible, it’s clear that democracy is not possible without education and civic involvement. But in the last decades, the very foundations of a civic education have almost disintegrated.

There was a moment that catalyzed me in starting the World Citizen Comics project: it was at a Women’s March. Three elderly ladies proudly held a huge banner that said “Marching for everything we hold dear.” It struck me hard, and I realized it’s not just about fighting what is wrong – it’s about championing and upholding what we love. Including democracy. So for me personally, launching into World Citizen Comics was a balm, a relief from unproductive rants on social media, into joining with some brilliant authors and artists to offer something hopeful to the human future.

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Not that First Second hasn’t published nonfiction before, but in the past couple years, :01 has expanded into nonfiction in a very serious way. What’s behind this push?

Yes! First Second has always had some non-fiction in its mix, because it’s part of what graphic novels can do extremely well, in so many cases, from memoirs to biographies and histories of all kinds.

And then we launched Science Comics, which boasts an incredible, ever expanding array of science topics for young readers. The conceit was simple: high quality scientific content (lots of it!) married to high quality cartooning. It’s evergreen publishing, and going into homes and classrooms around the world.

Following on the success of that, we launched History Comics and the amazing, instructional Maker Comics series, with the same high goal for content and for the reader’s enjoyment.

The same approach applies to World Citizen Comics but now we’re taking aim at the adult reader – with of course a ton of crossover to YA and teen readers.

The first two books are very much about the United States, but this is also the “World Citizen Comics” series, and I wonder if you could talk a little about trying to not just write about American history and civics, but to look at the world and make this a global project.

World Citizen indeed.

It’s true some of our titles have a U.S.-centric focus. Our first two, Unrig: How to Fix Our Broken Democracy and Fault Lines in the Constitution do indeed, but an upcoming title, Re:constitutions, is a marvelous guided tour of national constitutions at large, around the world, by Beka Feathers, a renowned specialist in the matter. If you were to look at starting a new society on Mars, this would be one of the books to pack for the trip.

The third book will be Dan Rather’s What Unites Us – and although it draws on Rather’s extraordinary coverage of great events in modern US history, it is very much a universal meditation on patriotism, as distinct from nationalism and partisanship. It speaks to a citizen of any nation.

And beyond that, another ten titles are in the works, addressing a broad range of civics issues from media literacy, to disinformation, dictatorship, free speech and even debating and public speaking. We’re aiming for no less than to create an essential bookshelf to empower citizens of the world. The authors come from a broad range of political viewpoints, all united by a belief in civil society, representative democracy, free press and rule of law.

And we are World Citizens, if you think a moment about it. Like never before, all of us humans on this planet are facing the same pandemic, the same climate crises, and many of the same challenges to establish just, safe, prosperous societies. We’re all in the same boat.

As part of that, are you hoping to have books that look at the specific challenges other countries face and how their governments work? Or, for example, why a lot of countries in recent decades have chosen to not look to the U.S. Constitution as a model?

That’s a huge part of what we’re doing. And I’ve had my eyes opened, including by the mighty Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who famously pointed to the South African constitution as one of the most advanced models on our planet.

Can you talk a little about this mixture of adapting existing books and then having people to write original work for the series and what you wanted this mixture of approaches and perspectives to look like?

We’re only publishing a couple of comics adaptations from existing prose books. Fault Lines in the Constitution and Dan Rather’s What Unites Us are both cornerstones of a civic life as well as books that offer beautiful opportunities as graphic novels. Nothing like jumping back in time to see those Founding Fathers duking it out, or to see Dan Rather’s memories of covering MLK and the Vietnam War. But our other titles are originally written and created as graphic novels.

You are, among others things, an artist, and I’m curious what you look for in an artist for this series. What do you think makes someone well suited to nonfiction projects like this? Because it is and it isn’t like drawing other comics.

So true. There are unique challenges to comics non-fiction. We’re fortunate to have access to some hugely talented cartoonists – many of them like Ally Shwed and Kasia Babis I first saw in the online magazine The Nib, where some great comics journalism and satire keeps appearing.

Specifically for the World Citizen Comics line, I look for clarity and appeal. The artwork is very much the pollen here – what could seem like dry or unexciting material needs to come alive and draw you in irresistibly. Some of our First Second star authors, like George O’Connor (The Olympians) and Mike Cavallaro (Nico Bravo) who paused their own ongoing projects to lend their talent to a title in the collection as an act of their own civic duty.

So what I also look for is a genuine passion and a sense of mission to save democracy – and the result speaks of itself.

In a recent review in Foreign Policy, Ivan Krastev made the argument, “What we see in countries like Poland and the United States is that a democracy of citizens has been replaced by a democracy of fans.” I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that, but I feel like a series of books encouraging critical thinking and teaching history is as good an effort to push against that.

There is SO MUCH in that question! We are trying to equip and arm a new kind of citizen, and yes critical thinking, the context of history, an understanding of how persuasion/manipulation works – these are essential tools for life.

In our present day we’re seeing what happens when fanatic adhesion overrides a quest for facts and truth or justice. We’re seeing the nightmare of blind loyalty or even purity tests when they replace a shared, universal value for humankind – party over country, tribe over humanity itself.

I think so many people right now want things to go back to “normal,” but I also think more people are recognizing that is no longer possible. What do you hope the series can do to play a role in helping people to ask questions, to challenge assumptions, to think about what comes next and what is possible?

I confess I launched this collection with an idea of helping to “right the ship” and “get things back to normal.” But with every passing week and month, as you justly say, it becomes clearer there is no going back. Many of us are increasingly aware that in the pain and turbulence unfolding worldwide, the great, deep, unaddressed problems of our civilization – from greed to corruption to racism to misogyny – are being flushed out into the light of day, to be truly reckoned with.

Now I look at World Citizen Comics as a project to build the civics bookshelf for a new future.

Thanks so much, Mark.

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