Last year, graphic novel sales drastically outpaced the growth rate of other print publishing. More and more readers are drawn to the marriage of art and storytelling that goes into books like Sea Sirens, a new middle-grade novel about a Vietnamese-American surfer and her water-loving cat. Spine sat down with Eisner Award-winning illustrator Janet K. Lee as well as writer and co-founder of Alpha Girl Comics Amy Chu to talk about bringing their graphic novel to life.
They may be shelved together, but original graphic novels are not assembled volumes of previously published comic books. Lee explained, “an original graphic novel is a publication envisioned as a single long-form story. That may seem like a subtle difference but, in truth, it changes everything about the way the story is told, created, marketed and delivered.”
Both Lee and Chu have experience working on serial comics, Lee illustrating for Marvel and Chu writing for DC and others. While that experience helped develop their skills, creating a graphic novel is completely different. For a start, working on serial comics, the writer needs to be able to write approximately 20 pages a week, and the artist must be able to draw a page a day, with a new comic book published every month. Sea Sirens took over two years to create.
“Being creator one, creating your own world and your own characters, instead of writing for a franchise is different, too,” said Chu. “The freedom is liberating, but with a franchise your work is always being reviewed by a professional third set of eyes. There is continuity and brain trust with the worlds you’re writing in that has benefits.”
For Lee, illustrating a franchise comic begins after receiving a full script. With a "creator one" graphic novel, the story and illustrations grow together. “Amy is the songwriter, I am the band playing the song,” said Lee.
Chu said, “What I do is the blueprint, Janet creates the building.”
For graphic novels and comics, collaboration is different for every project. It depends on each one's skills, work style and also how far they live from each other. Chu and Lee became friends through conventions long before they worked together. Chu loved Lee’s art and was inspired to work on a story to go with Lee’s unique visual style. As she wrote Sea Sirens, Chu knew the types of things Lee would want to draw. When she didn’t she would text Lee things like, "Do you want to draw an underwater banquet?" The answer: "Of course!"
Chu and Lee are natural collaborators. Chu is a writer with a strong visual bent, having studied architecture at MIT before getting into comics. With her background in architecture, Chu was able to engage with Lee visually, such as during a visit to the Field Museum in Chicago. It was there they both decided the Arts and Crafts style felt right for the book. And the giant whale shark they saw at the museum? That needed to be included, too.
As an artist, Lee is an accomplished storyteller. Her formal training is in creative writing, having not taken art classes beyond the eighth grade. She worked for years as a book buyer for Ingram before eventually dabbling in art as a creative outlet. Her work immediately began selling in galleries and her journey towards being an illustrator full-time began. Her unique background makes Lee an artist who knows how to build a successful book.
Sea Sirens started with Lee. She always loved Wizard of Oz writer Frank L. Baum’s book, The Sea Fairies. Around 2016 she found herself constantly doodling mermaids. Chu was interested in the project and the two began discussing how to adapt it to a modern audience.
“The names are the same, and the underwater battles are inspired by the original, but the storyline is completely different,” said Chu. The original Cap’n Bill was a retired sailor with a peg leg. For a modern audience, an adolescent girl with an unrelated old man for a constant companion created uncomfortable questions. The clever solution was to make Cap’n Bill a surfing cat. The cat retains the surliness and humor, while the intergenerational friendship from the original story is retained through the relationship of the girl, Trot, to her grandfather. Being Asian-American, Chu wanted to represent an Asian-American home in the novel so having a grandparent in the home, which is more common in Asian homes, seemed natural.
Having three generations in the home is one way Chu and Lee modernized the book. Another is the way they addressed Trot’s absent father. In the Baum book, Trot is grieving for her father’s absence. In Sea Sirens, Trot lives with a single mom and grandfather; the missing father is not mentioned and it is the grandfather’s dementia that propels the plot. The completed novel is woven together from parts of the Baum original, the artistic inspiration from Lee, and cultural details and stories from Chu’s own Asian-American life. Chu then used her comic experience to craft a novel with an episodic flow and end-of-chapter cliffhangers that propels readers forward.
The artistic development of the book pulled from as wide a variety of sources. Lee is self-taught and goes by gut when finding the right look for her illustrations. Her heroes are line artists like John Tenniel who illustrated the original edition of Alice in Wonderland. Readers can see that influence in her art, but she also wanted opulence for this opulent fairy tale. She decided to use the same decoupage technique she used for her Eisner Award-winning graphic novel, Return of The Dapper Men. With decoupage, Lee manually cuts and layers her drawings to give it a 3D effect. “I don’t think anyone else is doing whole books in decoupage. Maybe that’s smarter,” Lee joked.
Often with comics or graphic novels, the illustrating is broken into 3-4 parts: penciller, inker, colorer, letterer. For Sea Sirens, Lee did the pencil, ink, and coloring herself. Returning to decoupage, but with more linework experience behind her drawings, Lee was able to make every page of Sea Sirens burst with intricate detail, which she inked with a vibrant pearlescent palette.
In Sea Sirens, Chu’s writing and Lee’s illustrations come together seamlessly. That takes practice. For those interested in getting into graphic novels these experts have some advice. First, for illustrators, learn to do sequential art and also remember that text is part of the graphic design of the book. For writers, practice using less narrative. Sound easy? Chu described it “like trying to go from prose to haiku. It’s harder than you think. There are only 15 words typically per speech balloon, and if it’s middle-grade even less because the font is bigger. You need to write what the artist needs to read, not what the reader needs to read.” More than anything, both agreed creating a graphic novel means learning to trust the team.
Up next for the team, a follow-up to Sea Sirens called Sky Island, coming in the summer of 2020.
Elizabeth is a writer, designer, professor and dedicated bookworm.