Siegel on "Sailor Twain"

Wed, February 2nd, 2011 at 9:58am PST

Digital Comics
Alex Dueben, Staff Writer
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"Sailor Twain" is a charcoal-written love letter to the Hudson River

Mark Siegel is best known as the Editorial director of First Second Books, which after just a five years, has become one of the major comics publishers in the United States. He is also an artist. He’s illustrated a number of children’s books including "Seadogs," "Long Night Moon" and "To Dance." "Moving House," a new children’s book he wrote and illustrated, is coming out this fall from Roaring Brook Press.

His latest project, which he’s both writing and illustrating, is "Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson," a comic that he’s serializing three days a week at sailortwain.com. Set in 1887, the comic tells the story of Captain Twain of the steamboat Lorelai and the mysterious events surrounding the ship’s owner and an injured mermaid. It’s also a love letter to the Hudson River. CBR News spoke with Siegel about the comic, serializing on the web, working in charcoal and offers a glimpse at what’s in store for First Second Books in 2011.

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CBR News: How long has the idea for "Sailor Twain" been floating around in your head?

Mark Siegel: When I launched it online I thought it had been a few years. But then looking back through sketch journals, the story clearly started turning up in 2003. So at least seven years.

Now correct me if I’m wrong, but this is your first writing credit, correct? In all your kids books like "Seadogs" and "To Dance," you were working from other writers’ scripts.

Yes, it is my first writing credit, published, after some ten years of rejections from some very respectable publishers. Before Sailor Twain comes out as a book, though, I have a picture book I just turned in for Roaring Brook Press, called "Moving House." I wrote and illustrated that one, too.

"Sailor Twain" marks Siegel's first published effort as a writer

You’ve worked as an artist for years, but how comfortable do you feel as a writer and how much of "Sailor Twain's" multiyear gestation is a question of finding your legs as a writer (to use a nautical metaphor)?

Feeling comfortable in any medium can be a sign of stasis or stagnation. It’s healthy to let every new project put us back in the beginner’s place, don’t you think? Having said that, I’ve been doing both all my life. Professionally I got a break as an illustrator first, but I’ve been messing with words and pictures together since I was five. In college I majored in Creative Writing and Fine Arts, both.

What is it about charcoal that you like and what made it the right medium for "Sailor Twain?"

Charcoal is a forgiving medium, it hints at more than it describes things. Not for the highly detail-minded. I tried inks and watercolors, but when I did a first test with vine and willow charcoal sticks, I suddenly saw the industrial revolution, the age of coal and steam, the perpetually rainy, foggy atmosphere I wanted for Sailor Twain’s Hudson River. It could be nothing else. But charcoal in comics is tricky, since it can go soft and mushy, which isn’t good in a graphic novel. So I had to find a punchier visual handwriting for characters, in a heavier line, even if backgrounds fade out in smoke. That’s probably where the manga/"Scott Pilgrim" influence came in.

Charcoal, as you mentioned, is a very suggestive medium. Do you think that because of that, it’s a medium that lends itself to historical and fantastic stories?

I suppose so, yes. But whatever medium you’re working in, the comics form is very interesting for its ellipses. The way images can stay with you after reading, but not just images you saw on the page, also images in between the panels, or suggested just outside the picture. What I love with charcoal is, like Chinese ink, the space you leave can be full of life, mysterious but pregnant with possibility. Shapes in the fog or in the rain, that sort of thing. It can be hard like a black ink line, or soft and blurry like a wash.

Why did you decide to serialize this story online?

I was curious about the possibility of serializing in print at first, but there aren’t any real vehicles for that any more. The spirit of serialized novels conjures Dickens, R.L. Stevenson, that Samuel Clemens fella. Then I found this explosion of webcomics, some very talented people out there, and suddenly that looked like our present-day incarnation of the old-fashioned serial. So it was a natural fit for an 1887 New York mermaid yarn.

How long is the book? How much was done when you began running the strip at the beginning of the year, and how far ahead are you now?

About 350 pages, maybe more. I had fifty pages advance on the live post, at first. Now I’m down to about thirty.

People read the strip one page at a time and are reading that single page in isolation. Does that affect how you think about the comic?

It does inform the pacing, but it’s first conceived in chapter units, to be read whole, and then in spreads, which is the basic scene unit for comics. It’s fun to see how some page breaks have a good hook, though!

The story takes place in 1887 aboad the steamboat Lorelai

There’s that great page that opens Chapter One of the stag swimming across the river, which you mentioned came about because you saw deer swimming in the river. How many of those small details, the quiet moments, come about as a result of just living beside the river and it being a part of your life that the story was projected into?

That stag image, there are a few like it, these images that turned up, and on reflection afterwards seem to contain the whole story. I was on a train going to Grand Central Station, down the Hudson, when the conductor suddenly pulled on the brakes. All the passengers saw a deer in the water who had just leaped across the tracks in front of us, but then it evolved. I also read an old steamboat captain’s journal that mentioned a winter trip upriver with snowy ice banks on either side of the boat, on which deer were running, and passengers would throw food at them. The Hudson has become a love affair for me these past years, and yes, the many moments of pause, or mood, I hope will add up to a paean to the river.

You grew up in France, and First Second can be said to have a much more European sensibility than many comics and book publishers. I can’t help but feel that the artwork in Sailor Twain has more of a Japanese influence, especially after you posted some comments about a few Chinese artists and calligraphers. I’m curious what is it about their work that draws you to it and how their approach has affected "Sailor Twain."

First Second’s first couple years betray my soft spot for those European comics, I know. But as it’s been maturing these last five years, you’re seeing on the First Second list a large core of homegrown American talent that’s pretty stellar -- and gaining fans here and in Europe.

The Chinese and Japanese classical brush painting and calligraphy are fascinating... The skill, the art, the understandings that belong there run very, very deep. The mood of the Chinese landscape though, especially when it’s spare, and leaves much to the imagination, that seemed like a great feeling to try and absorb for "Sailor Twain." There’s as much if not more unspoken than spoken.

The companion blog seems to have started as one thing but it’s really become something entirely different. Was that planned at all?

No! That was originally a place to stick little bits of unused history research, for those who are into that. The conversation aboard has been incredible, and has drawn all kinds of very interesting people. There are a few categories to the "Sailor Twain" blog entries, some about New York in 1887, some about the river, some about great masters of black and white. But the blog really has become part of this unfolding journey, and no less the comments beneath it. These three streams -- the comic page, the blog entry, the discussion -- often intertwine and make the Sailor Twain experience something pretty unique, I think.

Doing the serial has helped me meet research buffs, art and history lovers, romance, mystery and comics readers, and strike up real friendships which have grown over the course of this first year. I swear I had no idea that would happen, and it just warms my little heart.

How did Sailor Twain end up on a wine label?

Sailor Twain readers have appeared in surprising places. I heard from some of the crew of the Clearwater, Pete Seeger’s amazing ship, that they were reading "Sailor Twain." Or there’s a professor at Vassar in Poughkeepsie who has shared with me a treasure trove of Hudson river poetry. So I’ve enjoyed all kinds of fascinating connections, and among them was the Millbrook Winery -- which makes some of the best, award-winning Hudson Region wines -- and I’ve long dreamed of making wine labels. So there they are, and you should ask your liquor store to carry them -- Rivermaiden and Secret of the Hudson, from Millbrook Winery.

In addition to "Twain," Siegel spends his days at First Second and occasionally designing wine labels

With regards to the forthcoming picture book you mentioned, is there anything you’d like to say about it?

"Moving House" will come out with Roaring Brook’s Fall catalog. I’m very excited, that’s been a delightful process through and through. A thirty-two page picture book is a remarkable constraint, and I do love that format.

How do you find the time to draw and post three pages each week? Seriously, you're Editorial Director at First Second, you have kids, and you're doing this. It puts the rest of us to shame. What's the secret?

Not much of a secret really: I believe fifteen minutes count. By that I mean fifteen minutes daily, without exception, really adds up to a lot after a month, two months, a year. Doing it daily means your project stays warm. One of the hardest things to wind up is momentum, so once you have it, it’s vital to keep it. So that’s how it started. And fifteen minutes easily became half an hour. And then an hour, now two. Now I just wake up very early, but I do it because I want to, it’s my pleasure to.

Shifting gears a bit, let's touch on your day job. What has the experience of serializing "Sailor Twain" and seeing the audience form around it been like? I know that First Second is also releasing "Zahra’s Paradise" online right now, but has it made you think more about the future of publishing, about how creators can work online, whether you should be doing more of this in the years to come at First Second?

I love the possibilities with this, when a project becomes a community. target="_blank">"Zahra’s Paradise" is a great example, a totally different voice, a different need, and a connection to the events in Iran right now. We also have "Americus" and soon, an original new work by Faith Erin Hicks -- each of these for a unique audience, a different kind of interactivity, and of course a different kind of book. I don’t know that there’s a formula. Each book develops an online life that fits its unique signature. And if that’s the way it is, then yes, I see us doing a lot more.

First Second has a big year coming up. What can you tell us about the plans for 2011?

This year marks First Second’s fifth anniversary since we first appeared in stores! We are celebrating, and without hyperbole I think this year is across the board, our strongest yet. There’s a phenomenal line-up, hang on: Nick Bertozzi, Ben Hatke, Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick, Gene Yang, Thien Pham, Vera Brosgol, Carla Jablonski, Leland Purvis, George O'Connor, Dave Roman, Sara Varon, Derek Kirk Kim, Stan Nicholls, Joe Flood, MK Reed, Jonathan Hill, Glenn Eichler, Joe Infurnari, Amir & Khalil (the authors of the Iranian "Zahra’s Paradise") -- and the books showcasing these extraordinary talents are beyond my high hopes.

Oh, and there's our Nursery Rhymes book in the mix! By fifty of the world's most beloved cartoonists, including a number of First Second names, plus many others: Roz Chast, Jaime Hernandez, Richard Thompson, Mike Mignola -- the list goes on and on.

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TAGS:  first second, mark siegel, sailor twain

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