Introducing Jessica Steele-Sanders' and Chris Sanders' "Rescue Sirens." July 01, 2015 09:35

To introduce this blog post, I have to go back a couple of weeks to when I was in Colorado -- Boulder, to be exact. This is a place I return to every now and then, for varying reasons. In this particular instance, my wife Jess and I were both there for my brother's wedding. But that's not what this is about. It concerns the morning after the wedding, when Jess and I were up early, having oatmeal and coffee at our favorite breakfast place on the Pearl Street Mall.

We were the first people there, sitting out on a patio. As the sun rose, a few scant people drifted past, taking advantage of the warm Colorado morning. A couple passed by with two little girls in tow. Sisters, we're sure. And those two little girls were having an argument. About something very specific. Something not unusual to little girls.

Not unusual to older ones either.

Jess and I smiled at each other as they passed -- the subject of those girls' argument had been very much on our own minds for a while now. Years, in fact.

If you’ve spent any time looking through my sketchbooks, you’ll be familiar with my fondness for mermaids. A couple of years ago we even partnered with Anders Ehrenborg to introduce a mermaid figurine unlike any ever made. Fact is, I’ve long been interested in going beyond designing mermaids; I’ve wanted to build a home for them. Create a world that they could live in. I tried to crack the code for years without finding anything that had the right energy, spirit, and scope. I didn’t want a pond; I wanted an ocean. I wanted depth, if you will.

It was my wife Jess who kicked in the door. In 2013, she pitched a concept that I went crazy for. To be fair, I think she cheated a little by becoming a lifeguard when she lived in Florida. Her concept was simple, unbreakable, and limitless. She started with the title: “Rescue Sirens.” In solving the problem, Jess combined several things, all of which I love. Mermaids, Miami, beaches, old hotels, and vast underwater realms. Her pitch, in short: mermaid lifeguards. I signed up immediately.

Since then, we’ve been very quietly working on it. There were a lot of things to do, and this is where my time at animation studios came in handy. The first thing was to build the mythology, the landscape, and the characters. Jess handled that while I wrestled with finding the right designs — harder than I expected. Many nights and weekends were spent drawing, inking, and then throwing it all out and starting again from scratch. We worked in parallel, and I adjusted my characters as their descriptions came into focus. I even storyboarded the opening title sequence for the show. At this point we had compiled a complete bible for the world. Then we made the biggest decision of all: we chose to actually write the first book.

For Nim, lifeguarding is more than just a summer job. She and her friends are Rescue Sirens, mermaids sworn to an ancient vow to watch over and protect humans — and the best way to do that in today's world is by hiding in plain sight as lifeguards. When the Rescue Sirens receive word that a special human — unwittingly possessing the rare power to turn into a mermaid — has made her way to Miami Beach, it's up to them to find her before she transforms on her own and is either discovered... or lost forever.

How long would it take to write? Jess and I weren’t sure. We set the deadline at the end of June so we could bring the finished book to San Diego. We divided the chapters and dove in.

Now, oddly, this was a very welcome extracurricular activity for me. I spend quite a lot of time writing, entire screenplays in fact. And believe it or not, some of them I don't even get paid for. So why would I want to do even more writing in my precious free time? As many of you may already know, when it's something you want to do, you find the time. And "Rescue Sirens," I really wanted to do. So I wrote every chance I had. Mornings, evenings, weekends. And every time I opened a chapter I lost myself in it. George R.R. Martin has said that writers are either gardeners or architects. You either lose yourself inside the writer's equivalent of a narrative rabbit warren, following characters down tunnels and digging new ones for them till they find where they want to go, or you build an orderly structure and then send the characters to work within it. Jess is the architect; I’m most decidedly a gardener.

Most things I have written, I swear the characters either said or did all by themselves. I'm just reporting on it all. At one point, I was so focused on following one of them I forgot that that particular chapter wasn't even about them, and I got quite a ways into it before realizing my mistake. I had to start that one over again, but I found an angle into the chapter nonetheless. Writing is never really wasted. I loved the characters and the world in this story, and actually felt let down whenever I had to leave it. Usually I’m thinking about mermaids from the outside in; this time I was working on them from the inside out. Jess and I were on target to finish the words by our deadline, but there was no way I’d be able to get the illustrations done as well. For that we'd need a power hitter. Enter Genevieve Tsai.

We were familiar with Genevieve’s work from the prints and books I'd found at Comic Con, and I immediately suggested her for the task of visualizing key moments from the story. I felt her strong draftsmanship and inherent appeal would match the vibe of the book perfectly. Jess was in agreement, so we located Genevieve, pitched the idea, and in no time she was on the job. Genevieve worked while we wrote, so she didn’t have the completed manuscript to refer to. Just the character designs, and verbal descriptions of the scenes she’d be visualizing. She immediately went above and beyond expectations, delivering what seemed like thirty roughs for every single finished image! From the first set of roughs she sent in, we knew we’d found the right artist. Genevieve's drawings glowed with the youth, energy, and optimism that Jess and I had labored to infuse the story with. With time short, we opted to leave the illustrations in this first edition in black and white, and after seeing Genevieve's finished shading, I can’t imagine them any other way.

With the book complete, we still had to color the drawings I'd done for the front and back covers, but we needed to go to press soon and we were nearly out of time. That's when Jess suggested Edgar Delgado, who we knew from "Ultraduck" and from his fine work as a colorist in the world of comic books. He colored each girl in both their mermaid and lifeguard forms, and it's those colors that you'll see on the covers as well as in the full-color gallery/sketchbook section in the back of the book. His vivid but subtle color captured the feel we were hoping for, and created the beautiful,  smooth volumes of their tails in a way I could never do.

So as it is with these things, after long months and even years of brainstorming, sketching, writing and re-sketching and writing, gathering a small team and watching them do their magic, all the pieces suddenly fell together. "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" was done. The hardest part this whole time may have been keeping it all quiet until we received the books from our printer. Which we did yesterday. We're really thrilled with how they came out -- Maskell Graphics, whose precision work you've seen in our sketchbooks, did the printing, while Roswell Bookbinding bound each book in Arizona.

Oh, and what were those sisters arguing about outside the cafe in Boulder? Both insisted to the other that they were the real mermaid. Apparently in their family, there can be only one.

So there it is, or rather here it comes! The first place "Rescue Sirens" lands is San Diego, specifically next Wednesday for Preview Night at Comic-Con. Jess and I will be there, of course, but we also expect Genevieve Tsai to drop by on Thursday to say hi and sign the "Rescue Sirens" merchandise that we'll be bringing with us. We'll have hardcover books -- 8.5"x5.5" in size and 185 pages long -- as well as one-sheet posters, limited edition prints, and other goodies. Until then, we'll be sharing more images and details from "Rescue Sirens" so you can finally meet our mermaids. We hope you enjoy diving into their world as much as we have.