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A Bookworm's Comic Career

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Meg Lemke (BA, English, BS, Psychology, 2001) has a hard time saying “no” — especially when it comes to jobs involving books or writers.

Lemke tried six years ago, leaving a demanding publishing job to carve out more time with her young child. But now she’s busier than ever with an abundance of part-time work, and she’s just added an exciting new role: graphic novel reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.  

Meg Lemke portrait

“I had such amazing opportunities at the University of Washington,” Meg Lemke says.  "So many professors were supportive and took extra time for me.” Media credit: Nancy Joseph

“I basically have three jobs and now I’m taking another one on,” she laughs. “It’s maddening.”

Books have been Lemke’s passion for as long as she can remember. As a child, she stayed up late to read everything from Shakespeare to the Baby-Sitters Club series. At the UW, she wrote poetry and fiction, and had work published in The Seattle Review, a UW-based literary journal. She later worked as a reader for the publication, invited by then-editor Colleen McElroy, professor of English.

“I had such amazing opportunities at the University of Washington,” Lemke says. “Colleen McElroy, Heather McHugh, Charles Johnson, Charles D’Ambrosio…so many professors were supportive and took extra time for me.”

After graduating, Lemke worked at a Seattle literary agency before joining the publishing house Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Boston. It was at Houghton that she turned her attention to graphic novels (or literary comics, as she refers to them). She had read indie comics alongside prose books for years, so as cartoonists began to cross over into the book world, she saw an opportunity to play a role in acquiring and developing their projects. “I began to focus more on comics and learned more and more about them,” says Lemke, who went on to launch the Best American Comics series at Houghton. 

There are so many great comics. ...There are profound works of literature, waiting to be discovered.

When Lemke moved to New York for another publishing job, she began volunteering with the children’s and young adult committee at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Now she also chairs the festival's comics and graphic novels committee, leading a team that selects topics and panelists. She also serves as guest editor of Illustrated PEN, the graphic narratives publication of PEN America, and is a curator for the PEN World Voices Festival

Lemke’s enthusiasm for comics has grown along with her responsibilities. “At first I was kind of stuck up about the mainstream,” she admits. “For a long time, I was less open to reading books that didn’t feel like they came with a graphic novel imprint that identified them as serious literature. I picked up books packaged like MausPersepolis, or Fun Home. That has changed since I’ve started doing programming. As I’ve gotten a better understanding of fan culture and the relationship people have with comics, and as the producers of commercial comics have diversified, I’ve become hooked on more popular series, like the innovative No Mercy and Saga.”

Screenshot of MUTHA magazine

One of Meg Lemke's current roles is editor-in-chief of the online publication MUTHA, an alternative parenting magazine.

After becoming a parent, Lemke left her publishing job but continued promoting comics and graphic novels as a book festival volunteer. Then she was invited by Michelle Tea to help develop an alternative parenting magazine, MUTHA, featuring personal essays, poetry, book reviews, comics, and other writing. Once again she couldn’t say “no.” The opportunity to foster talented writers was irresistible. Lemke helped launch the online magazine as a contributing editor and has been the magazine’s editor-in-chief since 2014, when the founder had her own first child and stepped down.

MUTHA has a very different turnaround than book publishing,” Lemke says. “There’s something very satisfying about getting a post, putting it up, and seeing how people respond to it right away. It’s immediate versus a book publication where it’s often a year before you see the work in print. It’s a different relationship with the published work.”

Although Lemke has written and edited book reviews for MUTHA, her new role as graphic novel reviews editor at Publishers Weekly will provide a whole other level of visibility. In that role, she will choose which of the many forthcoming graphic novels in a given season should be reviewed by the magazine and assign them to reviewers. Her choices will undoubtedly influence the prominence of individual books.

“I read Publishers Weekly religiously,” she says. “It really is very influential in the publishing industry. As the graphic novel reviews editor, I won’t just pick books that reflect my own taste, but instead consider broad representation and what the audience for Publishers Weekly — including independent booksellers, major chains, librarians, and film scouts — will be interested in.”

For the rest of us, especially those new to literary comics, Lemke is happy to recommend some of her personal favorites. (See sidebar.)

“There are so many great comics,” she says. “The field is exploding. It’s not a genre, it’s a medium. There are comics that are fiction, nonfiction, mystery, memoir, poetry, biography…any genre you like to read. There are profound works of literature, waiting to be discovered.”