Interview: Amy Chu and Janet Lee on Viking Books’ Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure

Writer Amy Chu is known for her work on Poison Ivy: Cycle of Life and Death, Red Sonja, Catalyst Prime: Summit, and much more. The amazing line work of artist Janet Lee has been seen in Return of the Dapper Men, Lost Vegas, Jane Austin’s Emma, and others. Now they come together for Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure, a story inspired by the work of L. Frank Baum. Chu and Lee recently told Westfield’s Roger Ash more about this undersea adventure.

Westfield: How did you two come together for the book?

Janet Lee: I was sort of in love with this old Frank Baum book, The Sea Fairies. It was not his greatest book, but it was lost to time. I loved the visuals from it, but the story wasn’t great. I started telling Amy about it and she had the most fantastic idea of how to improve it. Amy’s the one who made it work.

Amy Chu: We’ve done a lot of conventions together and Janet had started doing these beautiful mermaid portraits. She talked about the inspiration and said it would make a cool book. …not to slam Mr. Baum, but it definitely was not his best work. More importantly, I think it’s just that those stories have not aged well. We can enjoy it from a nostalgic perspective, but they’re really not great material for kids now. It needed to be updated.

Lee: He was trying to not do Wizard of Oz books anymore. He got tired of them like J.K. Rowling got tired of writing Harry Potter stuff. What Amy came up with for the background sort of changed everything. I suddenly got excited about the idea of the project.

Chu: I thought, why don’t we set this in southern California? It would be an updated mermaid book with some of the aesthetic from the original story but with a Pacific Rim feel. As an Asian American, I thought, let’s make it an Asian American themed home. We were looking at a lot of art from the Californian turn of the century arts and crafts movement. It felt very right for this book.

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 41

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 41

Westfield: How long have you been working on the book?

Lee: We started talking about it probably two or three years ago.

Chu: It actually went astonishingly fast. We have worked together, but just on a short story. This is the first time we’ve worked together on a full length graphic novel. In fact, this is only my second graphic novel. Janet, of course, drew Return of the Dapper Men, which was a huge success for her. I didn’t expect this to be so successful so quickly. We got Viking Press on our first pitch.

Lee: We got really serious about sending it out to publishers. The timing was also right, too. It’s got mermaids and mermaids are really hot all of a sudden.

Chu: You put together eight beautiful pages and we got a book deal immediately.

Westfield: How much of this does come from the original story and how much is you?

Chu: It’s mostly us, but most of the character’s names are the same. The underwater battles are, in spirit, the same. The storyline is completely different.

Lee: We’re calling it “inspired by” as it really is a jumping off point. Amy kept some of the core pieces that people who are hardcore fans of L. Frank Baum will enjoy, but she made it into a much stronger story.

Chu: Think Battlestar Galactica original series and the new version. A lot of things are the same, but the storylines are very different. It’s very hard to rewatch the original Battlestar Galactica and I’m a fan. For example, Cap’n Bill is now a cat. It’s kind of hard to have a crusty old guy with a peg-leg running around in the story. It didn’t quite fit.

Lee: The heroine’s 12 years old, so it was a little bit creepy.

Chu: I read the original Wizard of Oz series growing up, but I wouldn’t expect my kids to read it now. It’s so different.

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 42

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 42

Westfield: So who are Trot and Cap’n Bill?

Lee: Trot is a Vietnamese American girl who is normal, but has a complicated family. She has a single mom and a grandpa whose memory is failing a little bit and she has to watch over him. It changes their relationship. She and her cat like to go surfing while grandpa goes fishing. She ends up being grounded and decides to go surfing despite this and that’s where the adventure begins.

Chu: It’s not that Asian American’s have a lock on this kind of family, but it is a very important part of Asian culture that you take care of the elderly. So she’s in this position where she’s responsible. And when her grandfather goes down to look for her, he also ends up in trouble so she has to save him. These are all things that happened organically as we moved along with the struggle between the sea sirens, who are the mermaids, and their mortal foe, the serpent.

Westfield: Who are some of the other characters in the story?

Lee: It’s a story of friendship that Trot forms with some mermaid girls.

Chu: The mermaid girls are also originals. Clia and Merla were in the original story and also King Anko, their mortal enemy, but we definitely changed a lot of their character and interactions. Anko was originally a sea serpent. I made him a little boy.

Lee: The heart of the story is the friendship that Trot forms with the princess of the mermaids, Clia. She and Cap’n Bill end up being instrumental in the battle between the mermaids and the sea serpents. Clia is similar to Trot in that they both have family issues. They both have very strong moms who set firm rules. They bond over very human things.

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 43

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 43

Westfield: How do you two work together?

Lee: Amy’s great. She knows that I like to do these crazy, fantastical elements and play with a lot of organic structures. She gave me so many opportunities to do that in an undersea realm. This may be absolutely crazy, but I feel like the entire time I was sitting around going, “This is what I wanted sea monkeys to be when I was looking at comics when I was a kid.” I wanted it to be these fantastic kingdoms with little creatures that swam through it and they all played together and had fantastic stories and battles. It’s definitely not sea monkeys, but it was in the back of my mind that this was the sea monkey kingdom I always wanted.

Chu: That’s hilarious. We should try to find who has the license for the sea monkeys.

I think it was great that we worked on a short story first. Janet’s style is so unique and so beautiful, it kind of makes it easy to write as I write to the visuals. Where I have to be careful is now I know that Janet will literally fill in every millimeter of space. If I say there’s coral, she will fill the entire panel full of coral, because that’s the kind of person she is. It’s magnificent. She’s making life miserable for all other artists because she makes it look so easy and so beautiful. When I thought it would just be two head shots, it’s two head shots with this wonderful background. It’s wonderful, but I worry every time I add something. I’ll say, “You don’t need to draw in every detail of that kelp,” but I know she will do it anyway.

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 44

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 44

Lee: I know it’s not normal. I never studied formally. My absolute illustration heroes were line art illustrators whose work was in books like Wizard of Oz or John Tenniel in Alice in Wonderland. Garth Williams who illustrated Charlotte’s Web. I still get a weird feeling when I see old Rescuers books and things like that. That delicate pen and ink style just seemed to be the right approach. When you think Frank Baum, you think a certain look. It’s fun for me to draw. If you ever talk to my husband, he’ll tell you that he comes by the studio sometimes and I’m halfway through the coral mumbling to myself about my poor life choices, but I love doing it. And I don’t seem to be able to stop. Every hair on a person’s head. Every scale on the fish that’s swimming by. It just seems to be right for this story. We went for opulence because it’s an opulent fairy tale. It was a blast to do.

And I get to figure out what orcas would wear to a party. The sea creatures come to the queen’s banquet and they’re all dressed up.

Chu: In general, I don’t provide a lot of description. I write something like “the ambassador is a codfish.” I never say he’s wearing a hat and has spats. I trust that Janet will go to town on the codfish.

Lee: Another one of my favorite characters!

Chu: I do a lot of monthly books, and I don’t want to slam monthly books, but we’re on such a deadline with those that it doesn’t feel the same. Every 30 days I have to have a new script out. Those artists are not drawing in all the coral because they have to get going. Janet is so unusual in that she does everything. She’s pen and inking and she’s also coloring. And decoupaging. I think she’s crazy.

Lee: For really complicated pages or pages where I wanted to have an “ah ha” moment, I just love the effect of cutting out the pictures and gluing them down. You get this richer effect with the final piece. I’m lucky I get to do that. I’ve done monthly books before and Amy’s right, they’re incredibly hard work. One of the advantages to doing a graphic novel is you get to set your schedule a little bit. You can make an estimate of how much time you’ll need to get something done. So you get some leeway you don’t get when you have to turn in something every 25 days or so. They do incredible work. The very first monthly comic I did was a Jane Austen for Marvel and I had no idea what I was getting into. I said, “Sure, I’ll pencil, ink, color, and do the covers myself.” I’m still disappointed in some of my work because I didn’t get into the panels as much as I wanted to. I didn’t know any better. Graphic novels are a whole different thing. It allows you to do some crazy stuff like decoupage.

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 45

Sea Sirens: A Trot and Cap’n Bill Adventure preview page 45

Westfield: Any closing comments?

Chu: I hope that people read it and like it. We tried to make it as a middle grade book, but something that anyone could read. My parents read it and they liked it.

Lee: I hope that everyone falls in love with these stories, and the idea of these kids going on fantastical adventures, in the same way I did when I was a kid. It’s been a blast working with Amy.