Gina Gagliano is nothing less than a powerhouse in the comics industry. Creating a name for herself at First Second, Gagliano has been a force for good when it comes to making sequential storytelling accessible, exciting, and interesting. It was with great pleasure that I chatted with Gagliano about her decade long career, her love for comics, her podcast, and her move to running her very own graphic novel imprint at Random House. In this first part of an extensive two-part interview, Gagliano discusses how she fell in love with comics, joined the publishing industry with First Second, and answered the call to run Random House Graphic.
Like so many of us, Gagliano found her love for comics a little later in life, and it was something that just happened naturally. “I read newspaper strips when I was a kid, but I grew up in a pretty small town where they had a library and they had a bookstore, but neither of them had comics or graphic novels in them. In my childhood, there was no way for me to even know that this was a thing that I was supposed to be reading. When I did get into comics, I then triangulated comic stores from my parents house and it was a 45 minute drive to a large town that I think I’ve been to like twice in my childhood where there was actually a comic store. And I went there a few times and it was great, but it was not the sort of thing where I went down the street and stumbled into.”
Gagliano attended Reed College in Portland, and was hoping to find some great reading material whilst she was there, search that would end up changing her life forever. “I went off to school and I was like, ‘Okay, what is there to read in this library that’s genre fiction?’ because I was a pretty voracious reader. I’ve loved science fiction and fantasy since I was a kid, reading things like Wizard of Oz and Joan Aiken, you know, all of those classic fantasy novels. And the people at the library were like, ‘So this is a small college with an academic library. Would you like some classic Greek literature?’ I was like, ‘I’m going to go insane! There’s nothing here for me to read.'”
Eventually Gagliano discovered the hallowed halls of Reed’s comics library. “They have a student-run comics library which is funded by the student body and it’s run by a student and they’ve been collecting comics continuously since the ‘60s. They have this crazy collection policy where they buy a lot of pamphlet comics and then they send them off to be bound up into these volumes by the same people who bind up the scientific journals that the library does.”
Exploring the library through authors that she recognized, Gagliano started to find her feet in her burgeoning comic book fandom. “I’d heard of some of these authors like Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess, and I’ve heard about comics because, reading those novels, you have authors who are very much advocates of comics, you know, people in your science fiction fantasy novels who are reading comics or make mention of comics in your afterwards. So I’m like, ‘This is going to be for me!’ They had such a great selection of comics in this library where literally they’d been collecting from the ‘60s and binding stuff up in these weird volumes. I went there and they’re like, ‘Do you want to read X-Men from the first issue, which we have up here?'” Gagliano laughed. “That, along with all the Vertigo titles, a lot of the DC and Marvel teen and YA comics—you know, Young Justice and Teen Titans, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane—as well as a collection of manga. So I kind of started out there reading Ranma ½ as well as things like Love and Rockets.”
Immediately realizing she’d found a new segment of literature that she loved, Gagliano dedicated herself to her newfound passion. “I ended up running the library for two years and when I left I passed it on to someone you might also know, Lee Walton, who’s over at Top Shelf now. And there’s a number of other people who also ended up in comics like Lucy Bellwood and Angie Wang who’s working on the Steven Universe cartoons right now and co-wrote the comics. So I’d like to think that library is responsible for starting kind of a geeky community of cartoonish people, all who are people working in comics.”
Though many people dream of becoming writers or artists, Gagliano had always wanted to work behind the scenes, making the books that she loved so much. “I’d wanted to be in publishing since I was a kid. I remember the Mercedes Lackey fantasy novel that I was reading where I was like, ‘This novel has a number of spelling errors and I could be the person who fixes them all. That could be my job.’ That was back when I was still in grade school, so my long term goal with my career since I was a kid was to be in publishing. Once I started reading comics I was like, ‘This seems like a really interesting part of the publishing industry that I could be a part of.'”
As soon as she got the chance, Gagliano began to hunt out work at publishers where she could see herself building a career. “So when I was a senior, I worked over at Dark Horse for two days a week, as well as getting my degree and running the comics library. And people there were really great to me and I had a wildly various set of responsibilities like drawing in the balloons for various comics, assembling the book layout for various compilations, running the whole archival library, and all this sort of stuff. That was really amazing and a great introduction for me into getting into comics and how they worked. My family’s on the east coast, so when I graduated I moved back to my hometown, got a job at the local bookstore, and started rolling out a set of applications to every publisher in New York that I could find.”
It was Gagliano’s persistence that led to her first publishing gig, one that would span a decade and see Gagliano cement herself as one of the hardest working and most vital voices in comics. “One weekend I went to a book festival in New York City and gave my resume to some editors I met there. The next week I got a call from Mark Siegel at First Second to say, ‘My boss’s boss met you at the book festival and I’d love to have you come in for an interview for this job that I have open.’ And I was like, ‘Who are you?’ He ended up hiring me, but it was like six months before First Second had published anything so there was literally no information about this company,” Gagliano chuckled. “I was there for over a decade—moving from my first ever full time job in publishing to running their marketing and publicity to designing their publishing strategy—up until a few months ago when Random House lured me away with Random House Graphic, which is a new imprint for comics and graphic novels for kids and teenagers.”
So what does this new role actually entail for Gina? “I’m the publishing director of Random House Graphic. We’re very much in early days right now, so I’m in the middle of hiring an editor and a designer, which is taking up the vast majority of my job time right now. But in a year and a half when we have books coming out my job is going to look very different. So as a publishing director my responsibilities right now include putting together this team, and then managing the team when they’re here while setting the publishing direction for the company and building all of the systems from scratch so that we have a process for acquiring books, so that we have a process for editing books, for getting in materials. Putting a book through production and managing it and working through the Random House system and getting the book data in there. Working with the marketing, publicity, and sales teams here to really make comics part of everyone’s everyday lives and what they’re thinking of when they’re thinking about the book industry. And, you know, bringing in amazing authors and amazing graphic novels. So it’s kind of a big mandate!”
That currently consists of putting together a group of incredible minds who’ll be able to help curate the line of books, which includes Gagliano bringing her unique experience to her role as publisher. “I’m hiring a team of people who’ll all be putting our heads together to make this happen. It’s not just me—it’s everyone. I know a lot of people who’ve become publishers from different backgrounds. You have some publishers who used to be in marketing and publicity like me or Peggy Burke who also came from that background as the publisher of D+Q. Other publishers came from a more sales background like the publisher of Random House children’s book, Barbara Marcus. But then there are also publishers who came up from editorial or came up from the design department, and everyone kind of puts their own spin on what a publisher is.”
“Someone who came up from editorial might be like, ‘You know, 50% my job is acquiring and editing books and the other 50% is managing this team, building the business, and all this stuff.’ That might be similar to someone who came up from art and design, who might also be like, ‘I’m going to be designing these books.’ And one of the cool things about publishing is that you’re the person who sets that, so you get to decide if part of your job going to be editing or design or marketing or sales or business development or whatever.”
Gagliano is quick to point out that she got into marketing for one reason and one reason alone. “I actually really like marketing and publicity. I think it’s really fascinating to see how books reach readers and to be the person who talks to all the readers and librarians and media and gets people really excited about books that are amazing. So that’s something that I always had a lot of fun with First Second. While I’m going to be thinking over here about editing and acquisitions and that sort of thing, I’m also not going to be losing that piece of interacting with the marketing and doing a lot of stuff like that. But I’ll also be doing a lot of logistics and scheduling and building the infrastructure.”
In part two of our interview we’ll chat to Gina about her radical podcast Graphic Novel TK, her publishing philosophy, and more!