"[David Saylor] is so clearheaded on exactly what books should look like, how they should feel, how kids are going to respond to them."
-Jeff Smith, creator of Bone
David Saylor has been there since the beginning. Back in the early aughts, before there was a kids graphic novel section at Barnes and Noble, before you could buy graphic novels at Target, he was publishing kids comics. Having started at Scholastic as a creative director from 1996, Saylor founded the now-acclaimed Graphix imprint in 2005 starting with a color edition of Jeff Smith's Bone and has helmed the imprint ever since, seeing the publication of award-winning titles (that turned into franchises) including Dog Man, Smile, and Amulet.
Popverse recently had a chance to chat with David Saylor about creating the Graphix imprint, how the industry has changed over the past two decades, and what he thinks is in store for the future of kids comics. Check out the full interview below.
Popverse: Graphix has almost reached its 20th anniversary. Nowadays, we know that kid's comics and graphic novels are a huge juggernaut in the industry, but you were ahead of the curve. What led you to launch Graphix back in 2005?
David Saylor: I was a huge fan of comics when I was a kid, particularly when I was eight, nine, and ten. I was reading a lot of comics, not so much the superhero comics, but kind of funny, character-driven comics like Little Lulu and Lotta and Richie Rich. I also read a lot of Disney Adventures. There was one particular comic that was longer stories of Huey, Dewey, and Louie and Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck that I loved. And I read it over and over and over and over.
So I loved comics as a kid, and then, having been in publishing for a long time, I just sort of realized that, 'Oh as a children's publisher, we should be publishing comics. Why aren't we?'
I started looking into it probably around 2002 or so, once I realized that there was this need in the marketplace for creating comics for kids, original content for kids. Happily I had an assistant Janna Morishima who was really interested in comics and there was another editor at Scholastic at the time named Sheila Keenan who was also very interested in comics. And so we founded the Graphix list and launched in 2005.
The gestation of it took a little while, and we talked to a lot of people to sort of figure out if we could do it, because at the time no major publisher was doing comics for kids at all. It seemed sort of radical in a sense, because comics were really being left to Marvel and DC and other publishers, but there wasn't a mainstream children's publisher that was doing comics or creating graphic novels for kids.
We published Bone by Jeff Smith which turned out to be the right first move because it's kind of guided us ever since, in terms of great storytelling and great artwork, page-turning, something that that kids would really love. And so that's sort of been our guiding light as we've acquired more and more books for the Graphix list. We realized that once kids had access to buying the graphic novels, either through the book fair or bookstores, that they would gravitate towards them. And they would love them.
So, that's how it all started.
Speaking of your first publication Bone, you chose a fairly successful (though maybe not reaching a children’s audience yet) black-and-white indie comic and you added color. Why Bone? And why in color?
I think that once I read them, I realized that the storytelling was so amazing, but I also knew that kids just didn't know about it. I think that even maybe Jeff himself, I think he was creating it for himself and his friends because he published it independently for years and years. But what we discovered was that librarians were championing Bone and were saying that it was one of the most checked out books in their collection. And there was a very small comic section for kids at that time, but a lot of kids were checking it out and reading it. So we figured ‘Okay, there's obviously interest here, but there hasn't been a way for kids to get it easily unless they were going to a comic bookstore or if one of their parents was getting it for them.’
It seemed like the perfect property to publish for Graphix, and Jeff at the time was coming to the end of self-publishing. He was working on the ninth volume, I believe, when we acquired Bone, and he and his wife [Vijaya Iyer], his business partner, were like, 'Independent publishing is great, but it's a huge amount of work.' And they were ready to hand it over to someone to publish it. It seemed like the best way to launch it, because they were already available as black and white editions, was to do them in color.
I think Jeff also talked with Art Spiegelman who encouraged him to do it in color as well. So a lot of people were telling Jeff, ‘Oh you should try doing Bone in color.’ And we thought that was a great idea. So he worked with us, Steve Hamaker, who was working with Jeff at the time, and they made these beautiful color editions of Bone.
It definitely proved that kids wanted color if it was available. We were figuring out a lot of stuff as we were launching, like what the right format was with the right size with the right price point, whether it should be in black and white or color. There was all kinds of decisions being thought about and decided and experimented with as we were starting the imprint. But publishing them in color was and publishing Bone was probably one of the smartest decisions.
What were your goals for the imprint when you were starting out and what are your goals for the imprint now?
You know, they're pretty much the same. I really wanted to publish books that kids would love. And that they would read over and over again and that would feel that they were written just for them, and would take them off and into another world or give them clues as to how other kids live their lives and how other creators live their lives. Like with Raina Telgemeier’s memoir style comics.
For me, it was always about creator-driven comics that were written and illustrated by the same person. Even though we do publish books that are written by someone else and then illustrated by someone else. But creator-driven comics were part of our original mission. Kid-centric titles that had some quality that just felt like you had to have these books, which is why we acquired Amulet very early. We acquired Raina Telgemeier very early. She was doing the Babysitter Club adaptations. Dav Pilkey of course is an incredible, brilliant creator for kids and has sort of become like the king of comics in a sense, because his books are introducing so many millions of kids to comics. He's helped expand the market further because all the kids that have read Dog Man are now growing up and reading other comics and other graphic novels.
I would say that our mission hasn’t really changed. I mean, and partly it's because I've been there a long time, so I'm keeping my eye of the ball, but the editors that I work with, Cassandra Pelham Fulton and Phil Falco, our creative director, we all are on the same page in terms of the kinds of books that we want to publish and the kids that we want to reach.
The industry has changed a lot. You also mentioned that, at the very beginning, you were helping make the core decisions that would set the tone and the price points and even the formatting for what kids graphic novels would be in the book market. What are the biggest changes you've seen over the last two decades of kids comics?
Mostly, the explosion of kids comics. Now every major publisher has a kid's comics imprint or are publishing comics for kids, so there's been tremendous breakthroughs. I believe, Mark Siegel, for example, he founded First Second about a year after Graphix, so he was another early booster of comics for kids. And then from us too, it just kept on expanding. Abrams obviously has been doing a lot of kids comics. Charlie Kochman has been doing amazing work, so it's not just me.
The whole industry has embraced kids comics and created this incredible— you know, there's now shelf space, there wasn't even shelf space back in 2005 when we launched. A lot of booksellers didn't know where to shelve the books. Where do you put them? Do you put them in middle grade? Do you create its own section? You know, all these decisions had to be made early on. It has all finally sort of come to fruition. Now, there is a lot of space devoted to graphic novels for kids in bookstores and at retailers, and you can find graphic novels at Walmart at Target and Sam's Club. You can find them everywhere now, which was just not the case almost 20 years ago.
So there's more shelf space, there’s more publishers, there's more places to sell… which also means you've got a different level of competition now than you used to, when you were the only ones doing it. What sets Graphix comics apart from other comics being published in the book market?
You'd have to ask other people maybe about what the differences are. I'm so in it that maybe I can't even see what the differences are. But I do feel like we focus very strongly on working with creators to do their best work. We give a lot of editorial direction if they need it, we really focus on making sure that it's a very satisfying story from start to finish and that it has a great arc. I would say that we put a lot of editorial and creative direction into our books to make sure that they feel really well crafted. Not that not every publisher is trying to do the same thing, but I think that we generally tend to have a very strong editorial focus that to help our creators do their best work.
Another conversation that's kind of parallel to changes in the kids comics industry has been the book banning of children's comics and books, especially those featuring Black protagonists and relating to queer themes. Has this pushback had any impact on what and how you publish?
It hasn't had an impact on what we publish. We haven't shied away from publishing anything. In fact, I think we've led the way in some cases. Drama by Raina Telegmeier was one of the most banned books for years and years and years— even Bone has been banned, which I could never quite figure out why.
Things have definitely gotten worse, obviously in the past three and four years, I would say. If anything, I think it's strengthened my resolve to make sure that we're publishing voices that don't always get published and to make sure that we're representing everyone in the books that we're publishing. It couldn't be more important now. It's our mission as publishers to make sure that kids and queer people, everyone is represented in the books that we publish.
It's gratifying when you see something like Heartstopper take off in such a huge way. I was thinking about, for me, growing up as a gay kid in California in the '70s, what would my life have been like if I'd had a book like that at that age to make me feel like, ‘Oh I'm okay and I'm not alone.’ It's hugely important to show and to represent all kinds of lives in books in general but also certainly in graphic novels, and the pushback is frightening. The banning is very frightening but you know, we're all staying strong. And we're gonna keep going forward, carrying the banner forward, not going backward.
That's great to hear. I know Graphix just acquired Maia Kobabe’s new book, can you tell me a little bit about the book and what you're excited about it?
I just think it's a terrific book. David Levithan acquired it for the Graphix list, and as you know, David is also a YA author in his own right. But it's going to be terrific. I don't want to say too much about it because it's still coming together, but it's a fantastic story. And I'm so excited to welcome the creators to our list. It's amazing.
I'm excited to read it. So tell me a little more about you. How did you get into publishing?
I had sort of a slightly roundabout way, I guess. I graduated from college with a history degree, and then I moved to New York right after I graduated. I wasn't really sure what to do with my life, so I took stock a little bit and thought, ‘Well, I like books. Let's see if I can get a job in a bookstore.’ This is the '80s when I came to New York, and I didn't know how to run a cash register, I hadn't really worked in retail, and I could not get a job there, but I did end up getting a job for a typesetting company.
I always had an interest in visuals, I was the editor of the school newspaper, and I was always very interested in doing the layout and that piece of it. Working for a typesetting company was my tiny introduction to publishing because I was working with type all day long. I was working with a lot of magazine editors, and so I started thinking, ‘I should really try and get a job in publishing.’ So I got a book called How to Get a Job in Publishing.
It said, ‘Just try and get a job, everyone wants to be an editor and those jobs are very hard to come by.’ So I got a job on the manufacturing and production side of publishing and started there. I worked for a small science publisher called Marcel Dekker, and then I went to Random House and was working on college textbooks for a while. It wasn't my passion, but it was really great to understand and to go on press and to see how the press works and to see how books are made and all the different steps that you have to take to make a beautiful book at the end of day.
So eventually I kind of realized that design was where my heart lay. I went back to school at night and took a lot of classes in design and [got] a certificate at Parsons. I was already sort of in production management at that point, but I took a big step backward and became an assistant to the creative director at Harper Children's books named Harriet Barton. She gave me my first job in design, and that was when I fell in love with my job and with publishing, because I loved design. I loved working on picture books. I loved working in kids books, it was just a really great experience.
From there, I moved very rapidly to become a designer and art director and went through several different jobs in publishing and landed at Scholastic. I started on April Fool's Day 1996, which turned out to be a lucky day for me, and happily I've been at Scholastic ever since.
At Scholastic, I've been able to adapt and grow in my role. I came in as a creative director, and I was directing all of the design and art direction for all of the children's books list that we were producing, but I was always a very editorial driven art director in that I was very focused on the words and on how words and pictures work together. So that interest of mine all came together when I formed the Graphix list in 2005. They allowed me to grow and expand in my role to the point where I'm now publisher of the Graphix list.
It seems like you've used everything you've learned along the way in your current role as a publisher.
Everything. Yeah. I mean, which is the advice I give people young people too, is that even if a job doesn't feel related necessarily, there's always something to learn from it.
I know you worked on the design for the Harry Potter books which, along with the author, are obviously a complicated subject now. But as a physical item, these books are iconic in the history of children's publishing. Can you talk to me about your experience designing what the Harry Potter series would look like in America?
That was a great experience, and it started when the editor, Arthur A. Levine, brought back a bound galley from a meeting at the Bologna Book Fair, and Bloomsbury was selling the rights to this particular debut fantasy novel. Arthur was very interested in it, and he gave a copy to me. I read it and I loved it.
The bound galley didn't have much of a look to it at all. It was set very plainly. There wasn't much of a design to it, and there was no art or anything in it. I remember meeting with Arthur, and because we loved the books, we just wanted it to look special and to almost feel like it was an instant classic in a way.
We put a lot of effort into thinking about the paper quality that we wanted, using some uncoated stock for the jackets, and all the little details that we wanted to make it feel special.
I remember when I was looking through my art drawer. I used to keep an alphabetical file of samples of different artists, and I landed on Mary GrandPré. I was like, ‘There's something about Mary's work which really feels like she could do Harry Potter.’ I remember offering her the book and having her read it, and she'd loved it. Working with her was a complete dream. She was so great, and she's the one who actually came up with the Harry Potter logo, which is now one of the most famous logos in the world probably.
It was an incredible experience and just all the details in terms of the typography and the signatures that are in the books were a lot of fun. I actually signed the name for Sirius Black, book number three. Arthur signed for Ron Weasley.
It was the first time I worked on something that my friends or even my nieces and nephews paid attention to. Because everyone seemed to be reading it, and it just became such a phenomenon and the midnight parties and all the excitement around the publication. Then keeping everything secret with later volumes, which was like espionage on a high level. You know, it was a really fun project to work on, because they're great reads. All the people that worked on it with me and Mary, it just came out the way that I wanted it to. It feels good that there's this cultural legacy of the bookmaking part of Harry Potter as well as the cultural significance of [the books].
I know this is like asking you to choose a favorite child, but are any there big projects from your time at Scholastic that you hold special in your memory?
Harry Potter is one of them certainly. Working with John J. Muth has also been a great pleasure. We worked on the Stillwater books together. Zen Shorts was the one of the first books we worked on together, and it was interesting because John Muth was a comics artist originally. When I saw his work I was blown away, and I met his agent and I met John in New York, and we all became good friends as well as collaborators, but they were very much in the comics world. Taking someone who had been doing comics for years and then having him do picture books was a really great experience and that he had such a knack, such a facility for working in picture books doesn't surprise me. I think, because comics artists have to distill imagery down to tell a story with their artwork, I think it's natural for a lot of comics artists to do picture books.
But gosh, I've had the pleasure of working with so many amazing people like Walter Dean Myers is amazing. I'm just trying to think of the highlights but I feel like I've had a lot working with Brian Selznick has been been incredible. You know, when he won the Caldecott for the Hugo Cabret book, which was such a breakthrough at the time that was really a really special moment, for sure.
My last question, and this is very broad, so you can answer this however you'd like— since we've looked into the past of kids comics, what do you think is in the future for kids' comics?
I think that it's wide open. I think it's going to be a very bright future. At least that's what I'm imagining. I feel like me and all the people that have been publishing into this category have really changed everything, changed the dynamic. I think it's going to continue to grow because I think that as comics and graphic goals have become a more accepted part of children's literature, even winning major awards, there's going to be room for more and more and more stories and great storytelling that's going to come our way. And people, kids, for example, that grew up reading Bone, or Raina Telgemeier are now producing their own comics. So I'm super excited to see what the next generation of books are going to be from kids in a teenagers and young adults, who read all those comics that are now making their own comics. I really want to know what they're going to contribute.
I think what's great about comics is that you can do anything, you can tell any story that you want. There's still so many stories to be told out there. And so many things that I think that the market can hold or that people are eager to read about.
I've said this for a while, but I feel like we're in sort of a golden age of kids comics right now, which has been happening for probably about 10 years or more. But I do think this is an incredible golden age of amazing creators doing really brilliant work, and I'm just excited to see what the future brings, because I think it's honestly wide open. There's more chances to publish, there's more students that are going into sequential narrative art storytelling, there's so many schools that now have programs for kids that are interested in creating comics and graphic novels.
I think it's going to be a great five, ten years and more and beyond.