Interview: Harry N. Abrams’ Charles Kochman
Charles Kochman was recently named Executive Editor of Abrams ComicArts, a new imprint at Harry N. Abrams. The publisher rewarded Kochman with the promotion and imprint in recognition of his successful efforts to celebrate comic books and graphic storytelling with best-selling books. Kochman, a former book editor at DC Comics, joined Abrams several years back and has published a wide variety works that have garnered reviews and award nominations starting with Mom’s Cancer. His Diary of a Wimpy Kid has earned a place atop The New York Times best seller list and merited national acclaim.
Recently, Kochman sat dfown with ComicMix to review his career and where things are headed next.
CMix: How did you first get involved with publishing?
Charles Kochman: After an internship at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, my first paid job in publishing was at PlayValue Books, the licensing division of the Putnam Publishing Group. I started there right after graduation from Brooklyn College, in July 1985, working with my mentor and now friend Michael Teitelbaum. Everything I know about editing, and being an editor, I learned working at his side. Besides being a great guy, Mike and I shared a lot of common interests in music and movies and comics. Together we created a modest publishing program for our parent company, MCA Universal.
The first book I edited with Mike was a Back to the Future movie storybook, adapted by Bob Fleming. In addition, we published books on licenses like Photon, The Bionic Six, and An American Tale. I also got to write many coloring and activity books, including ones on dinosaurs, unicorns, and the Universal monsters. It was good training. The dinosaurs coloring book actually hit the B. Dalton bestseller list for some reason, which shocked all of us, including our president. I still have the note he sent me where he wrote “Holy shit! Bravo!” on a copy of the list.
After PlayValue I worked at Bantam Doubleday Dell [from 1987–93], where I edited the Choose Your Own Adventure series. There I also edited books with LucasFilm on Star Wars and Young Indiana Jones, Encyclopedia Brown, and a great karate series called Dojo Rats. Given the complexity of the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I edited on a monthly schedule for five years, I got to sharpen my editorial skills in a way that I otherwise couldn’t have had I been working on other less “interactive” titles. The books were also successful, so it raised my profile in the industry, attracting the attention of some executives at DC Comics.
I guess the highlight of my time there was the novel The Death and Life of Superman by Roger Stern, which was the company’s first New York Times bestseller. This was followed by Batman: Knightfall by Denny O’Neil, Batman: No Man’s Land by Greg Rucka, The Will Eisner Companion, and The Superman & Batman Magazine, among other titles.
I also got to develop a publishing program for MAD Magazine as well. I edited close to two dozen books, including Fold This Book, MAD: Cover to Cover, MAD Art, and Spy vs. Spy: The Complete Casebook, working with many of my childhood heroes like Al Jaffee, Sergio Aragonés, Mort Drucker, and Frank Jacobs. If you would have told me that when I was eight years old, I never would have believed you.
The best thing about my time at DC, however, was the people. Julie Schwartz, Denny O’Neil, Archie Goodwin, Joe Orlando, Neal Pozner, Nick Meglin . . . it was an amazing period to be working there, learning alongside these great editors and writers.
When I was at Bantam my office was right next to Ian Ballantine, the founder of Ballantine Books and Bantam Books—basically the founder of paperback publishing. At this point in his career, Ian was essentially dismissed by the higher-ups. To me, however, he was history. He would take me to lunch at the Top of the Sixes, and when I got back to my desk I would write down everything I could remember about our conversation on yellow legal paper so I wouldn’t forget. It was the same with Julie and Archie and Denny and Joe and Neal and Nick—they were, and are, legends. And I was lucky to be in a position to get to know them, and I never took it for granted. If I were an actor, it would be like working alongside [George] Cukor or [D.W.] Griffith or [Orson] Welles or [Alfred] Hitchcock. You can’t help but acknowledge who they are and what they accomplished, and you also get to learn from them as well. It’s not just an opportunity, it’s part of your ongoing education as an editor. Learn from those who came before you, incorporate what you can, and make what you do and the way you do it your own. Otherwise you’re just going through the motions, and you’re not growing as an editor—or a person.
CMix: I’m under the impression that you are the one who brought Alex Ross to comics. Is this true? If so, how did you do it?
CK: I didn’t discover Alex Ross, but I did give him his first assignment at DC Comics, painting the cover for a young readers novel written by Louise Simonson called Superman: Doomsday & Beyond, an adaptation of the death of Superman story that was happening in the comics at the time. That book came out in August 1993. At the time Alex was already working on his first major work for comics, Marvels, but it wasn’t going to be published until the following year.
I first saw Alex’s work in the files of Neal Pozner, the creative director at DC, who supported me in my search for someone fresh and different to paint this cover. It was not an easy sell, since Alex was an unknown and Superman is so important to the company (you don’t just assign him to anyone). But Alex’s work spoke for itself, and in the process he and I became friends and got to work on a number of projects, including an annual six-book-run on a series of oversized tabloid adventures featuring the JLA and DC’s classic super heroes, followed by Mythology, a coffee table book celebrating ten years of his work, which was written and designed by Chip Kidd and published by Pantheon. I think Alex is a tremendous talent, and I’m proud to have been his editor and to be his friend. But I think if I didn’t hire him when I did, after Marvels came out every other editor at DC would have tried to contact him and give him work.
CMix: Why did you leave DC for Harry N. Abrams?
CK: There were a lot of reasons, politics among them. Although restlessness might have played a small part in it, ultimately I had been there for twelve years, and with a change in management, it was clear I was going to be taking some steps back in what I was doing and the way I was doing it.
At around this same time I had licensed the rights to Harry N. Abrams to publish a book called The Golden Age of DC Comics: 365 Days, which was written by Les Daniels and designed by Chip Kidd. After the book came out, Eric Himmel, the editor in chief at Abrams, asked me if I was interested in joining his team and bringing some of my commercial sensibility and comics background to their list. In my mind I said yes before he even finished asking me the question, but it took my girlfriend Rachel to actually help me take Eric up on his offer.
I think it’s hard to make a change when you are doing something for a long period of time and you’ve been successful at it. There’s a certain amount of risk. Ultimately, the opportunities that Abrams presented outweighed any reasons I came up with for staying. Three-and-a-half years later, I can honestly say it was the best career move I could have possibly made. I’ve gotten to work on a number of books that I never could have imagined working on when I was at DC. No longer confined by DC and MAD properties, the opportunities are now limitless. When I first started I edited a book on the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, Windows on Nature, followed by The Jazz Image; Art Out of Time; Cartoon America; R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz & Country; Storm Chaser; Heroes of the Negro Leagues; Kirby: King of Comics; M; Nat Turner; Wacky Packages; New York Dolls; Tall Tales; and Mom’s Cancer—my first acquisition at Abrams, and a book I am especially proud of.
In many ways I feel that my time at DC Comics and MAD Magazine established the foundation that I am now building upon at Abrams. The editorial and industry relationships I formed, the skills I learned editing comics and comics material, are all coming together in a way I never could have imagined. I now get to bring Jon J Muth and Kyle Baker and Al Jaffee to our list, and when Alex’s schedule opens up, he and I, hopefully, will get to work on a project we’ve been talking about for a few years now. I pretty much have the next two years of the Abrams ComicArts list scheduled, but there’s always room to add titles as they develop.
CMix: At Abrams, you publish books in all different categories—kids books, serious graphic novels, histories, coffee-table books. What do you consider to be your specialty?
CK: In college I was an English major, with a focus on children’s literature. There has always been an aspect of children’s books in every job I’ve had. At Abrams, when I ran into Jeff Kinney at the first New York Comic-Con in 2006 and he proposed Diary of a Wimpy Kid to me, we initially conceived it as a book for adults, thinking its appeal was like that of The Wonder Years. When I brought it before our publishing board, the possibility was raised of making it a series for kids. That felt right, and Wimpy Kid came together in the way that it needed to. I didn’t set out to contribute titles to the Amulet list, I just stumbled into it, but it wasn’t a stretch for me to learn how to edit for that age group. I’d done it before.
I think the success of that series is perhaps the single most important thing I have accomplished in my career. We get letters from parents whose kids never read before, and now, thanks to Jeff, their children have become readers. I have also heard from old friends and former co-workers who saw my name in the book that their child was reading, and reached out to share that with me. It doesn’t get better than that. I love children’s books, but aside from Wimpy Kid and the occasional kids comic or graphic novel, my time is going to be spent focused primarily on Abrams ComicArts. You don’t get an imprint and then divide your attention. To make this work, I’m going to have to keep giving it my all. I work long hours as it is, and I just got engaged, so the bar is set pretty high—but I’m confident in what can be accomplished.
CMix: What differences will we see now that you have your own imprint?
CK: Moving forward, I think the comics and graphic novels we’ll now be publishing will have more of a focus, and not just editorially. Having an imprint allows us to sell, market, and publicize these titles in a more focused way. As our backlist grows and the frontlist expands, I expect we will be adding dedicated people to our team. These changes will happen naturally, as the business increases and the needs arise and make sense. A relatively small company like Abrams can respond well to change, and adapt as needed. I’m very excited to shepherd this initiative, and have the full support of everyone here to make it successful.
CMix: Do you have a favorite?
CK: One of the aspects that’s most attractive to me about working at Abrams is that our president and CEO, Michael Jacobs, believes in removing barriers. Thanks to his encouragement, I like that editors at Abrams get to work on children’s books for Amulet, more quirkier books for Abrams Image, comics and graphic novels for Abrams ComicArts, and for Abrams, the traditional art and photography books that we have been known for these past sixty years. Fortunately I don’t have to choose. I expect to continue flexing all of those muscles as ideas come to me and new projects present themselves.