By Regina Velázquez
It sounds like a panel from a comic book hero’s story: One moment in time changed everything for Kiara Valdez ’16.
It was 2015, the summer before she graduated from Williams, and an editor placed a copy of In Real Life in Valdez’s hands during an informational interview. The graphic novel, by Cory Doctorow and Jen Wang, is the tale of a teenager who spends most of her time on an online role-playing game; but, more than that, it’s a rich story accompanied by vibrant artwork in traditional comic book storytelling frames—something Valdez didn’t know existed in American comics until then.
“I’m sure I read Archie, but I didn’t get yet that American comics isn’t just Marvel and DC. I had forgotten that [they] could be one volume of cohesive stories. So this kind of opened my eyes,” she says.
Now an associate editor of graphic novels for the book publisher First Second, she has found her niche, and she’s aiming to expand the field.
Valdez says she knew from the age of 16 that she wanted to be an editor. Her love of Japanese culture led her to watch a lot of the animated films known as anime and to read manga—comic series—like The Prince of Tennis and Naruto. She began to study the Japanese language, which she majored in, along with English, as a student at Williams. She even had an internship with Kodansha USA, a manga publisher in New York City. All signs pointed to her pursuing a career as a manga editor.
But In Real Life helped shift her focus to American comics by showing her what a graphic novel could be. At the end of her senior year, she went through three interviews with First Second, a graphic novel publishing company—traveling to New York City at night, interviewing the next morning and heading back for classes at Williams immediately afterward. Her endurance paid off, and she was offered the job of editorial assistant.
First Second publishes graphic novels for all ages, but Valdez says she is particularly drawn to middle-grade books, written for readers between the ages of 8 and 12. She’s enthusiastic about offering products that teach kids in a fun way. And she still enjoys anime and manga, which influence her daily work. While she says the job can be tiring, with long hours and virtually no downtime, she loves working with creators and watching a project come to life, even though a book can take more than three years to complete from start to finish.
As the popularity of comic books and graphic novels accelerates—comics industry watchers ICv2 and Comichron released a report in June 2021 estimating graphic novel sales of $835 million in 2020, on a steady climb since 2015—Valdez hopes to make a difference in young people’s lives, particularly those from marginalized groups. She believes the graphic novel industry is making strides in hiring and publishing women and people from the queer community, but she feels it’s still lagging in promoting diversity in terms of race and disability. She looks for the gaps and asks what she can do to fill them in, including acquiring memoirs by people of color and hiring more diverse personnel throughout the book-building process. As an Afro Dominican and a bisexual woman, Valdez says she wishes she had seen herself in a graphic novel when she was much younger.
“I think that if kids see [diversity], they’ll empathize, understand it and maybe see part of themselves in it as well,” she says.
With that goal in mind, she acquired the book Frizzy in 2019, which she calls her biggest passion project. “I wanted a story about a middle-grade girl who stops straightening her hair and embraces her curls, because that’s what I went through,” she says.
Valdez remembers spending every Saturday for 15 years having her hair straightened in the salon where her mother worked—indoctrination, she says, to convince her that straight hair was better than her natural curls. “I could have done so much more with that time,” she laments. For the graphic novel, she signed up a writer of Dominican heritage, Claribel Ortega, to work on the story and Arab American nonbinary artist Rose Bousamra; Frizzy is due out in 2023.
Another of her recent acquisitions, Himawari House, by Harmony Becker, will be released in October of this year. Becker illustrated the actor and author George Takei’s graphic novel memoir They Called Us Enemy, and she brings to this book manga-inspired drawings and four languages—English, Japanese, Korean and Singlish—with a focus on what Valdez says is “the feeling of trying to communicate, the feeling of being an outsider, connection to your heritage.”
Valdez is writing her own graphic novel based on her years at Phillips Academy, where she says she experienced “lots of microaggressions.” A slice-of-life story, it’s about “race, camaraderie and friendship—finding your group that helps you survive in a new environment,” she says. She doesn’t yet have an artist or publisher, but she’s hopeful: “Making someone like me as a kid feel seen—that’s basically my biggest goal.”
Regina Velázquez is assistant editor of Williams Magazine.