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A Fable to Remember: Mark Smylie on Publishing Marjane Satrapi's The Sigh

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Today is a big day for Archaia Entertainment as the company releases The Sigh, the English-language version of a fable by Marjane Satrapi, the widely-lauded author behind the international bestseller, Persepolis.

Unlike Persepolis, The Sigh is not a graphic novel but an illustrated short story. For a publisher that prides itself in bringing fine European comics to US shores, translating and publishing Le Soupir, as the story was originally titled in French, is quite a coup for Archaia.

BF spoke to Archaia Publisher Mark Smylie about landing the rights to The Sigh and what this means for the company. We also discuss what looms on Archaia’s short-term horizon in terms of foreign material coming to US audiences. But before we dive into all that, here’s the solicitation copy of Satrapi’s fable:

Rose is one of three daughters of a rich merchant who always brings gifts for his girls from the market. One day Rose asks for the seed of a blue bean, but he fails to find one for her. She lets out a sigh in resignation, and her sigh attracts the Sigh, a mysterious being that brings the seed she desired to the merchant. But every debt has to be paid, and every gift has a price, and the Sigh returns a year later to take the merchant’s daughter to a secret and distant palace.

BROKEN FRONTIER: As someone with a keen eye for great international works and talent, how big of a coup is publishing The Sigh for you?

SMYLIE: We’re very excited to be publishing The Sigh from Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis is obviously iconic, groundbreaking work, particularly in attracting readers outside of the traditional comics market; we are very much admirers of Satrapi’s writing and excited about being able to bring something of her work to the US that her readers have not seen yet.

BF: Why did you want to publish this book, given that its original French release dates back to 2004 and it not being a full sequential story?

SMYLIE:  The Sigh is not a graphic novel like Persepolis, it’s more of an illustrated fable or short story, and I can see why mainstream publishers in the US might have been hesitant to bring it over. They tend to want more of the same, so when an author does something different they can meet with resistance.

For us, the fact that The Sigh is not a graphic novel was actually perfect; we’ve been looking for ways to add to our foundation in comics and graphic novels, and branching into illustrated stories — such as Conspiracy of the Planet of the Apes, out this past summer, and Tales of the Macabre, an illustrated set of Poe stories coming out this fall — was a logical next step for us. The Sigh fit us very well in terms of its subject matte and its style. And in presentation it’s a great stocking-stuffer for the holidays.

BF: Satrapi has made a name for herself not just as a cartoonist, but as a vocal advocate of women and human rights. Does her activism come to the fore in the parable of The Sigh?

SMYLIE: The feminism in The Sigh is subtle but pervasive; it reminds me a bit of Angela Carter’s feminist takes on fairy tales, perhaps mixed with a bit of Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights. The main character, Rose, goes through a series of experiences that touch on crime and penitence, labor and servitude, love, betrayal, loss, and reunion.

Fairy tales and fables are always at root about the human condition, about morality, about the ways we make our way through the world, and The Sigh reflects the best in that tradition with a touch of modernity. It’s magical realism of the García Márquez school, and Satrapi’s humanist concerns shine through.

BF: What was the negotiation process like? Did it take a lot of effort to get the book to Archaia?

SMYLIE: No, the process was fairly easy. The rights to The Sigh are represented by the Spanish publishing house Norma Editorial. We’ve worked with them before — they publish the Spanish and Catalan editions of Mouse Guard, and we’re doing the English language edition of a book of theirs called Black Fire this month — and Sylvie Poulain, their rights director, brought The Sigh to our attention. Once we were aware that it was available the rest was pretty simple.

BF: Have you ever met Satrapi herself, or spoke with her directly as part of bringing The Sigh to Archaia?

SMYLIE: Alas, no.  We were dealing with Norma Editorial in Spain and Editions Bréal in France, the original publishers of Le Soupir. All very corporate, I’m afraid.

BF: Does this deal mean you'll be releasing any future work of Satrapi, or are those rights reserved for other publishers (such as Pantheon Books, the publisher of Persepolis)?

SMYLIE: I believe there are a couple of other works by Satrapi that have not yet found a US publisher (Sagesses et malices de la Perse, Ulysse au pays des fous, and Adjar, for example) and if we do well with The Sigh we might try to get the rights to those as well.  Persepolis obviously remains with Pantheon. Since The Sigh, I believe Satrapi has been mostly concentrating on the film adaptation of her story Chicken With Plums, which just debuted at the Venice Film Festival, so I am not aware of any forthcoming graphic novel work from her.

BF: When you announced the publication of this story, you hinted that it is only the first in a new wave of foreign titles coming from you. Can you lift the veil a bit on what else you've got up your sleeve?

SMYLIE: We’ve got a few new titles debuting this fall and winter. Amongst them will be Billy Fog: The Gift of Trouble Sight, from Guillaume Bianco. It’s the story of a young boy and his recently deceased cat, kind of Calvin and Hobbes as done by Edward Gorey (in the words of our translator). It’s part graphic novel, part illustrated story, part bestiary and gazetteer of the weird and bizarre, as it looks at death and the beyond through the eyes of a very imaginative and impressionable youngster.

Also out this month is the previously mentioned Black Fire, a horror graphic novel by Hernán Rodríguez, which follows a group of French soldiers who stumble across a cursed Slavic mining town during Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Even Tales of the Macabre, our collection of Poe stories, has a French connection, in that the illustrations are all done by Benjamin Lacombe, a French illustrator of children’s stories.

Soon after will come the first of the Siegfried trilogy from Alex Alice; Judge Bao, from Patrick Marty and Chongrui Nie, about the famous Chinese magistrate-sleuth; and Last Days of an Immortal, an award-winning science fiction story from Fabien Vehlmann and Gwen de Bonneval. And still more to come after that!

The Sigh, by Marjane Satrapi, reaches comic shops today, December 14 2011. The 56-page illustrated fable retails for $9.95.

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