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Bringing "Rescue Sirens" to life: a guest post by Jessica Steele-Sanders! July 02, 2015 09:22

Jessica Steele-Sanders, here! I can’t tell you how excited my husband Chris and I are to finally share “Rescue Sirens” with all of you. Like Chris, I’ve always been fascinated by mermaids. I mean, who isn’t? Mermaids are awesome. From the time I was a little girl growing up in Florida, I’ve been drawn to the ocean, and, to me, mermaids represent all the beauty, power, and mystery of the sea. They’re irresistible.

Especially Chris’s mermaids. Seen scattered throughout his six sketchbooks in his trademark style, Chris’s take on mermaids is the perfect blend of fantasy and realism; I love that his mermaids’ tails draw inspiration from real-life sea creatures, since that's how I used to draw mermaids, myself, and I think it makes the most sense. The question was, what could we do with Chris’s mermaids beyond those drawings? In 2013, we saw one of his sketches memorialized as a beautiful sculpture by our talented friend Anders Ehrenborg, but I wanted something more.

People say to write what you know. I know water. Before I moved to California, my jobs in Florida had almost always revolved around getting wet: I helped care for and train dolphins, went diving with sharks for a living, taught marine conservation programs, and spent a summer working as a lifeguard. I got to wondering... what if mermaids worked as lifeguards? Well, then, you’d call them “Rescue Sirens”!

Once I stopped laughing at my own joke, more questions bubbled to the surface. What if these mermaids worked as lifeguards because they were sworn to an ancient vow to protect humans? What if living topside for a time was a requirement for all mermaids as soon as they came of age? What if they had to keep their identities a secret from the humans they lived amongst? I was intrigued and delighted by the possibilities. The more I thought about it, the more things fit together. Far from being silly, it started looking like a world.

I thought up a detailed backstory, rooted in mermaid tales dating back over three thousand years — from Assyria, Turkey, Ancient Greece, and every community near a coastline. I described my mermaids’ anatomy and physiology based on the marine life that I know and love so well, their culture’s mythology, and the “rules” governing their world. I then began writing a short story-within-a-story that laid the groundwork for these mermaids, which I showed to Chris. He loved it, and, with a few tweaks from him, that initial pitch became the prologue for our first book, “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist.”

I’d never written a novel before, so Chris and I jumped into the deep end of the pool together. After I built the outline, we split the work fifty/fifty, dividing up chapters and then going back over one another's work; it went so much faster that way than if either of us had tried to write it alone, and our respective writing styles complement one another well. I highly recommend working with a writing partner, and Chris is the best. He’s known for directing Academy Award-nominated animated films and for his incredibly appealing artwork, most recognizably featured in “Lilo & Stitch,” but a lot of people don’t realize that he also co-wrote “Lilo & Stitch,” “How to Train Your Dragon,” and “The Croods.” Chris’s writing is full of quirky but relatable characters, humor, and heart, and I don’t hesitate to say that all the best parts of the first “Rescue Sirens” book are his! His imagination is truly impressive, and I consider myself the luckiest woman in the world to get to work with him. If you’ve enjoyed any of Chris’s animated films, you’ll find the same sensibilities in “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist.”

On the artwork end of things, Chris and I were privileged to have an awesome collaboration with Genevieve Tsai, who drew all seven of our book’s gorgeous black-and-white interior illustrations. While Chris and I wrote the manuscript, Genevieve and I exchanged lengthy, lively emails about the images we wanted to feature in the book, and her insight was invaluable. Genevieve “got” “Rescue Sirens” instantly and completely, and working with her was a genuine pleasure. I really can't say enough good things about her, both as a person and as an artist. The creativity that she brings to the table never failed to blow us both away, and I get such a thrill thinking about people picking up the book and meeting these characters for the first time through Genevieve’s drawings, which are simultaneously cute, dynamic, smart, detailed, and full of joy. Chris and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect illustrator. She nailed it.

We were really fortunate to work with Edgar Delgado, as well, who we knew from “Ultraduck” and from his coloring work on a variety of projects for Marvel and others; I think I first saw his colors in J. Scott Campbell’s “WildSiderz” comic book, and I was downright giddy when Edgar said yes to coloring Chris's work on “Rescue Sirens.” Edgar took Chris’s linework for the girls in both their human and mermaid forms and gave them all a life and dimensionality that’s striking — and he did so in record time, with the clock ticking! You’ll see his colors on the front and back covers of the book as well as inside in the gallery/sketchbook section. For the “Rescue Sirens” poster, we’re also deeply grateful to skilled illustrator Teresa Martinez, who drew a version of Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive that’s even more fun than the real thing! When we picked up the books from the printer on Tuesday, we saw the proof for the one-sheet poster that we've having made for San Diego Comic-Con, and you guys are going to go crazy. Chris's drawing of the girls, colored by Edgar with Teresa's background, looks cool at any size, but it's truly impressive at 27"x40"!

With the first full day of SDCC just one week away, Chris and I are currently in last-minute prep mode. We can't wait! Over the next few days, we want to share with you more of what you can expect to find when you come see us at booth #4616.

In addition to the hardcover edition of "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" ($20.00) and the 27"x40" poster ($5.00), we'll be offering some rad "Rescue Sirens"-themed freebies (while supplies last!): 1" buttons, temporary tattoos, and a special gift for the first thirty people to buy "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" every day of the convention. We'll also have a new limited edition 13"x19" fine art print showcasing a drawing of one of the Rescue Sirens, Nim, stunningly watercolored by Chris. This numbered print is hand-signed by both Chris and yours truly, and it features an embossed "Rescue Sirens" stamp to prove its authenticity. Add to that more of our open edition 11"x17" prints, all six softcover sketchbooks, Ogo plushes, and -- yes! -- more of the Club Coconut resin figurines from last year.

If you can't make it to SDCC, don't worry -- we have plans to offer "Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist" and a few other items for sale online later this summer, after our usual break to recover and rebuild following the wonderful madness that is our yearly pilgrimage to San Diego.  =)  There will also be an opportunity to get your hands on some of the merchandise that's usually an appearance-only exclusive (like prints), so stay tuned for more information as the month goes on.


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.