"Sailor Twain" and Beyond with Mark Siegel

Mark Siegel's work as the Editorial Director of First Second Books has always overshadowed his career as an artist and writer with numerous picture books to his credit. Siegel spoke with Comic Book Resources in 2011 when he started serializing his debut graphic novel "Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson" on the web. The book is a beautifully illustrated late 19th century tale that evokes the recent past in a mythic way, transforming a familiar landscape into something else.

The story was released in print this month in a hardcover edition from First Second with praise from novelist and journalist Pete Hamill and novelist John Irving. Siegel is currently touring the Northeast to promote the book, visiting places like New York Comic Con and the Center for Cartoon Studies, and less obvious places for a cartoonist like the Mark Twain House. Last week, an art exhibition opened at the Main Branch of the New York Public Library featuring Siegel's pages from the book and pieces from the Library's collection in an event that is open to the public.

Siegel spoke with CBR News about the book and discussed some books from familiar creators set for released from First Second in 2013.

CBR News: I know you've worked on this book book for years and were thinking about for much longer. After all this time, how does it feel to hold a copy of "Sailor Twain?"

Mark Siegel: A bit like shedding something. Letting it go. Sending it out to live its life. Not the feelings I expected to have at this point. But now new projects beckon. I've been "warm" to "Sailor Twain" for the last nine years, and now I find I'm cooling to it. The hope is that readers might now warm to it in my place.

How tightly plotted out was this book? I know you were drawing it as you went but how much had been written before you sat down to draw and how much did it change as you drew it?

The first four years served to work up a tight script. I tried to leave no stone unturned with the mysteries, the love stories, each character, and the historical research. I was drawing all along, mostly exploring character designs, doing tests, that sort of thing. But when I went to finished pages I gave the script a constant work-out. "Plan your work, then work your plan," as the saying goes. So I kept kneading it, pruning it, kicking it around. But the core story was set.

Charcoal is challenging to work with. What did you learn about the media and would you use charcoal for something this big again?

Charcoal was inseparable from this story. Once I tried that I had to ditch some thirty pages I had done in ink, and there was no going back. Smoke and steam and fog and rain. Charcoal is wonderful for that kind of mood. I wouldn't rule it out for future projects, but each story needs its own toolkit.

Did serialization change the book? Not necessarily in terms of the details but did you end up changing anything, trying to make each page interesting and striking in some way, in a way you might not have been conscious of if you weren't posting a page at a time.

Serializing as a webcomic didn't alter my story but it did have an effect. I became a little more conscious of the 'hooks' at every page turn. There were some historical inaccuracies which some history buffs caught (thanks!) and then after it was all done online, there was one key scene -- about the mermaid's heart -- which I redrew entirely. The readers' comments and discussions were the first clues that it didn't quite hit the mark, it didn't scan quite the way it needed to. They seemed to be asking "the wrong questions." And it had to be totally clear, the story depended on it.

As the comic had been going on for a while and the lead you had started to shrink, were you working in a different way by the end and to what degree did you think that was for the good?

I started serializing it with a 50-page lead on what was going online. By the end I had eaten into that lead, and was almost just keeping apace with the new page every Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- a bit pressured! But by then I was warmed up and had good momentum, so it was just a matter of pushing a little harder.

First Second has published a number of historical works over the years, both fictional and nonfictional. What is the appeal and interest in that for you as a creator and as a reader and editor?

Yes, things like Nick Bertozzi's magnificent "Lewis & Clark" or George O'Connor's "Journey into Mohawk Country," which are now staples in many a curriculum around the country's schools. And we have more in the works, notable ones to look out for: "Jerusalem" by Boaz Yakin and Nick Bertozzi, "Templar" by Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland, and Gene Luen Yang's magnum opus "Boxers and Saints." These are all big, ambitious historical projects which I am deeply proud First Second can publish. I love bringing history to life, and I love the way comics can do that in a totally unique, immersive, personal and yet universal way.

Building on that, what do you think that graphic novels can do -- and struggle to do -- in telling historical stories?

Some of the discipline for research and accuracy has to hold a high standard for any scholar. But then there's the personal touch of an artist, the humanizing of historical figures, which can shine new light onto the past. Just take another look at "Journey into Mohawk Country" and see how George O'Connor plays up the unsaid, the innuendo, in what is otherwise a dry journal from a Seventeenth century Dutchman in America. Or for recent history, check out "Zahra's Paradise" and see how the artist Khalil portrays the surreal, Kafkaesque horrors of the Iranian regime. Graphic novels can deepen our insights and connect us to history with an immediacy and with leaps of imagination that are unique to comics.

This is your first graphic novel, and your first serialized project. Does this make you want to start another immediately? Have you started thinking about your next project?

Other projects are cooking! Some picture books first, but yes, there's something brewing for a longer yarn. But mum's the word.

The First Second winter 2013 catalog has come out, and you've mentioned a few upcoming books, but are there any others coming out soon that you want to talk about?

"Boxers & Saints" is far and away Gene Luen Yang's most ambitious and most extraordinary work to date. In Fall 2013, look for this two-volume-in-one-slipcase masterpiece set in China's Boxer Rebellion. By turns hilarious, epic, fantastical, and deeply moving, "Boxers & Saints" proves once again the author of "American Born Chinese" is a major voice for our times, in graphic novels and American literature.

"Primates" delivers a thrilling new work of non-fiction by writer Jim Ottaviani, following on his #1 New York Times Bestseller "Feynman." Together with artwork by Maris Wicks, this work brings to life the missions of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birut Galdikas, and their pioneer discoveries in primatology. That one will be for the ages.

"Genius" is a daring quantum physics fiction from the pen of Steven Seagle, with startling, beautiful artwork by Teddy Kristiansen. A physicist is drawn into a mysterious legacy -- Albert Einstein's great, terrible secret discovery, which he entrusted to only one other person. A true work of art.

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