The following is an interview with Fabrice Sapolsky regarding the upcoming release of the English-language edition of Classified: The Black Box from FairSquare Comics. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Sapolsky about the genesis of the project, why it has the perfect home at FairSquare Comics, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming English-language release of Classified: The Black Box! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the project’s premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Fabrice Sapolsky: Classified: The Black Box starts with this very simple idea: What if General Lafayette offered a music box to the President of the United States. But instead of just playing music, that box recorded every conversation at the White House for 200 years? Now, this box is uncovered by an historian and, with the help of a political journalist and a sound engineer, they’ll try to reveal the secrets of America’s past.
I came up with the concept for The Black Box in 2010. It was originally part of a line of comics I wanted to launch called “US&A.” That project spun out of a conversation with my friend and talented artist Moritat who asked me that very simple question: “If you could invent the Marvel Universe right now, what would you do, how would you do it?” I thought the concept of, not emulating Marvel’s original series, but mimicking the sequence they were released in, was very appealing. So, I started working on that.
There were three stories, each in a different decade of the 20th century and a fourth one, The Black Box, that would tie them together. That same year, I was approached by French publisher Jungle Comics who wanted to launch a new line of books mixing [imported] American comics and original stories. I pitched all four stories from US&A, but only The Black Box made the cut. So, I tweaked the story to make it a standalone book. I may revisit the other US&A stories at one point. Especially one very dear to my heart.
Now, I’m a History major. There’s History-based fiction in all my series. The past, the present, the future… Everything is connected. So, creating a series that would blend everything in a fresh way was kind of like a no-brainer. Too many people forget about the past instead of learning from it. Keeping memory alive is important to me. Good AND bad memories. I wouldn’t say it’s an obsession, but I keep writing stories that deal with that. One of my latest projects, No Future (currently serialized in Mutiny Magazine and to be released in 2023 as a graphic novel) deals with this question: What if time erases itself and the future is no more, how do you preserve the memory of the world before? Do you even want to? Maybe it’s better to start from scratch? All fascinating questions, right?
BD: You originally created this comic alongside your friend – the late artist Tom Lyle. What can you tell us about your shared creative process when you originally worked on the story with Tom, and what was your experience in revisiting the project for the English-language release?
FS: I met Tom around the time I was setting up The Black Box at Jungle Comics. He was visiting France, where I was living at the time, with a group of students from SCAD (Savannah College of Arts and Design). He asked me what was my next project, as I had just wrapped my second Spider-Man Noir mini-series and there was no sign that there would be a third one. I had been toying with the idea of creator-owned comics for about a year at that point. Tom wanted to find a project to re-enter the comic book scene after years just being a teacher. We liked each other immediately. He liked my story. All was going to be awesome. Except, it ended up being a little more complicated than that (laughs). Mostly, it was fine, but there was tension. I’m not gonna lie. Tom was a very opinionated man. And so am I. We fought, we cried but we never stopped loving each other. About two third into the project, Tom requested I stopped writing full scripts and asked me to switch to “the Marvel Way.” I would just write basic plots and page breakdowns, but he would control the narrative. He said it would be better and more organic for him. I was frustrated by this. I have no problem leaving room for an artist to change the story, but the idea that I had to accept what’s coming without saying anything because “the artist is the director” and just add balloons afterwards was hard to swallow. I did not like it (laughs). But I was also at the beginning of my journey as a creator. I had, what… Two mini-series out? I was “a baby creator.” I needed to learn. So, I let Tom stir the ship. It is what it is. We were also on a budget. The book should’ve been 100 pages. It was cut to 67. Another source of frustration.
Tom and I talked about this for years after the release of The Black Box. We were proud of the book, but knew that we had the potential to make it way better.
In 2019, I was in Savannah, at SCAD, as part of their Editor’s Day program. This is when Tom and myself discussed bringing back The Black Box for real. I was just founding FairSquare Comics, and he wanted to take another shot at it with me. The plan was to re-release the original story, which we got our full rights back to, and to launch a new one, co-written by Tom and myself, with another artist attached and Tom on covers.
We did not get that chance as Tom suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away in November 2019.
Flash forward to 2021. I kept thinking The Black Box deserved another chance. So, I decided to revisit it. Looking at the book with a fresh pair of eyes, I saw all the flaws, but also all the qualities, all the love. Though I write in English and never wrote any script in French, the original version had been lost on my way to living in the US. I only had the final French edition of the book. I tapped my then intern, Liliah Campagna, to translate it into English. And then, after that, I rewrote most of the dialogue, changed captions, corrected some of the mistakes. I also completely re-lettered the book. It truly is a remastering.
The new version that American audiences are going to read is far superior to the original one. It aged well. It’s not perfect. But it’s better. I think Tom would have liked it. The best part was when Sue, Tom’s widow, gave her blessing and agreed to write a little essay as a foreword. We also had Philip Sevy, one of Tom’s closest friends and former student, write a tribute and contribute a variant cover. I even drew a variant cover! My first-ever printed cover… But not my last (laughs).
BD: The comic will be published through your company, FairSquare Comics. What can you share with us about the genesis behind the publishing company, and how what would you say “defines” a FairSquare comic?
FS: Founding FairSquare Comics was the best and obvious choice for me. Initially, when I set it up, in 2019, it was not designed to be a publishing company (laughs). It was just created to be a home for my IPs in case something happened to me, and to help better dispatch revenue from comic book conventions and separate them from my personal income. But 2020 hit. I lost my job. I fought like a devil to get another one in publishing but no one seemed to be interested by my services. I sent over 400 applications though. Say what you want about publishing, but being a male, over 50, an immigrant and a minority doesn’t help your case in today’s economy. But I’m not a quitter. I was not going to go work in another field when I spent 25 years honing my skills in publishing! So, I decided to turn the side job into the main job… Without a penny in the bank! (laughs). What made things easier was the success of the Noir Is The New Black anthology. This book has been a revelation and a little miracle. TC Harris and myself have gathered 40 black creators, put together this anthology in less than six months, and it’s still, to this day, FairSquare Comics’ biggest seller. And after I was done, it was like: “Well, I guess you’re a publisher now. What’s next?” This is where we started looking for a distribution deal. And after reviewing a few offers, we signed with Diamond. They’re not perfect, but they’re people we can talk to and they simply had the better deal for us at this point. I have the feeling that they have our backs. Since then, we’ve published three more titles in 2021, we’re on track to closing 2022 with 9 publications and there’s 23 titles scheduled for 2023. We’re still a boutique publisher. Just a bit bigger than I initially thought.
As to what defines a FairSquare Comics title, well, you have to go back to the essence of the company. We are immigrant and minority owned. So, we’re always going to prioritize content coming from immigrants, minorities, LGBTQIA+, disabled, and any kind of under-represented creators. But we’re not closed to publishing graphic novels and comics coming from other type of creators as long as it aligns with our values.
We’re also super creator friendly. We created a “color-coded system,” for lack of better term, to differentiate our books. And the key is ownership. The green color means we own and control the IPs. Titles like Intertwined or Lady-Bird for example. These are ones I have a direct hand in creating.
With the purple logo, it’s the pure creator-owned deal. We open our doors to creators with a solid project. And we become their publishing partner. I’d say it’s a bit like Image Comics, but… Better. As in, we help with marketing and sales. At Image, you’re on your own for anything that is not pure printing and distribution. Also, we have a level of transparency regarding sales figures and reports that I haven’t seen anywhere else. I believe in best practices. And we don’t treat creators like children. It’s all about being fair… and square I guess (laughs). That’s how we convinced Ibrahim Moustafa with Classified: Jaeger or Bryan Valenza and Henry Barajas to sign with us for their new and ambitious Beyondtopia Legends series. We’re going to start releasing the latter in November 2022, in comic book stores, then as a graphic novel next year.
Then, you have the blue color. And this one’s for content we’re licensing from other publishers from all around the world. We’re currently working with French publishers, but we’re definitely looking at other places. Books like No Kidding (this September) or Breath of the Giant (in January) come from Bamboo/Fluide Glacial and Sarbacane, respectively. And we just started a collaboration with Editions Delcourt for a series of graphic novels that will be available in the United States in 2023 and 2024. Expect some surprises!
BD: At Fanbase Press this year, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Classified’s story will connect with and impact readers?
FS: I’m tempted to say that ALL our stories are designed to have an impact on readers, to connect with them. This is one of the things I keep saying to creators and publishers we’re working with: If readers don’t feel anything after reading our books, then we’re not doing a good job in publishing them. So, yes, with that in mind, all the books of the Classified collection should resonate with audiences. Jaeger and The Black Box have their characters facing moral issues that could impact the rest of the world.
But all of FairSquare Comics titles are like that. Lady-Bird is not just a book about two young women with powers. It’s a story about human trafficking. Intertwined deals with being an immigrant in America. Breath of the Giant tackles a difficult subject: losing a parent. No Kidding is about the right for women to choose whether or not they’ll have a baby. I could go on…
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
FS: I mentioned No Kidding from Vero Cazot and Mady Martin (a.k.a. Marguerite Sauvage) which kicks off the Fall season, this September. Beyondtopia Legends, which starts in November from Bryan Valenza and Henry Barajas plus a murder row of artists.
Then, we’ll publish Breath of the Giant, our first middle-grade title, from wunderkind Tom Aureille. And we’ll kick off the new year with Watson & Holmes, a retelling of the classic set in Harlem with black American characters (under the Noir Is the New Black umbrella), from Bollers & Leonardi with a brand new cover from superstar Khary Randolph.
Then, we’re launching our first ongoing and a superhero book! But it’s a different kind of superhero book. It’s called Photonik: Man of Light and has an early X-Men vibe to it. The main character is a hunchback who gets superpowers by accident and ends up questioning everything this comes up with once the dust has settled. It’s a classic tale from Ciro Tota and one of my childhood heroes. For what’s next, well, please keep an eye on us.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Classified: The Black Box and your other work?
FS: I’m pretty active on social networks. You can find me at @fabricesapolsky on almost every platform. And there’s www.fairsquarecomics.com and @fairsquarecomics (FB/IG/LinkedIn) and @fairsquarecmx (Twitter). Our books are sold everywhere books are sold. They can be ordered, pre-ordered, at your favorite store, on your favorite webstore, too, or on our own store.
We’re also touring a lot. We’ll be at Emerald City Con (Aug. 17/20), Amazing Con Las Vegas (Sept.17/19), New York Comic Con (Oct. 6/10), Baltimore Comic Con (Oct. 29/31), Fan Expo San Francisco (Nov. 25/27) this year and probably at 15 shows in 2023. So, we’ll be at a con near you for sure!