'5 Worlds' Creator Mark Siegel On Crafting Epic Collaborative Comics

Making comics can seem like a complete mystery to those who aren't actively making them, but the conceit is simple: words and pictures tell a story. However, actually understanding how they move from concept to page can be a massive undertaking.

I recently sat down with the brilliant artist and author Mark Siegel (Sailor Twain, or the Mermaid in the Hudson) to talk about his gorgeous fantasy comic series 5 Worlds. Not only did Siegel share the story of how the sprawling epic came to be, but he also provided us with some exclusive process videos which showcase exactly how the lovely middle grade graphic novel series has come together. If you've ever wanted to learn how the proverbial sausage gets made, keep reading and get ready to explore the craft of making comics like never before.

Crafting The Story

The 5W team has regular video calls to check in across nine time zones.5 Worlds is the brainchild of Siegel and his brother Alexis, who'd been inadvertently planning the book for years before it finally became a real thing.

"Alexis has always had an interest, as long as I've known him, in civilizations, classes, and countries, so we came at it from that angle. Imagining these five worlds and thinking what would it be like to have a setup where you have a really deep multi-world building, where you just get dropped into it and have to find your own way? I really liked that idea and that kind of science fiction myself. So we got talking and just started playing with these worlds without even really realizing we were going to work on it ourselves. Though after we really got a handle on the five worlds and the settings, it was all about turning our attention to the characters, and we were having so much fun that sometimes we would meet five or six nights a week!"

Meeting The Artists

Mark and Alexis script together in Google Docs, while Matt Rockefeller, Xanthe Bourna, and Boya Sun work on Visual Development.

Once the pair realized they had something special, they started thinking about who they should collaborate with to draw the book, which took them on an unexpected journey.

Our heroes: Oona Lee from the Sand Castle, An Tzu from the toxic slums, and his fanboy hero, the star athlete Jax Amboy.

"The artists were still in art school when we started, but originally I thought of Sam Bosma, who did Fantasy Sports for this project. But it quickly became clear that we needed a team as the comic began to mushroom into this larger thing. We realized pretty quickly that this would be five big books, around 250 pages each. So I realized that I couldn't draw it because I was running [publishing company] First Second [Books], his and making picture books. So I went to Sam Bosma because I thought he would be amazing and he was like, 'No way, I can't do it!' But he happened to be teaching these kids who he thought would be a great fit. I met two of them at a [Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art] festival here in New York around three or four years ago and we clicked straight away."

Mark breaks the script into panels and does a first rough thumbnail.

"We went into it with one idea of how it would work, and it just started changing really quickly, the workflow really changed. At first they were sort of hired guns and they just did whatever we said – and I still do all the thumbnailing and plotting – but what happened was when we gave them our first working script, there was a really interesting video call that we had. At first they were sort of pussyfooting around and hesitating to say something, and finally it comes out, 'So we were wondering if it's okay if we had some notes and comments and stuff?' They were totally prepared for me to shut that down, but I was like, 'No, please, that would be great!' and then out comes all of this really thoughtful, smart, and inspired stuff, and pretty quickly we realized that we've got partners and we're going to be creating this whole thing together.

So originally we were going to share the royalties, but it was more of a work-for-hire split, whereas now it's split five ways including all movie adaptation stuff and it's really magical. Having five people working on this book, things could go horribly wrong. But it's actually rooted in endearment and value and a wish to make this thing sing and it's pretty special."

Finding a Publisher

Matt, Xanthe, and Boya split up the thumbnail and each of them pencils out different scenes. Here, Boya pencils.

Mark is the founder and Creative and Editorial Director of MacMillans' First Second Books, and has previously released graphic novels there. But for 5 Worlds, the creative team decided to go a different route.

"There was almost a time of letting go, but it also felt like an enhancement. Before we sold it to Random House, we prepared a pitch for First Second as we had the option of placing it there. I'd rather, especially for a big thing, have it under someone else's roof – it's so much easier. So we began to shop it around, and it ended up in auction. What we did was make a little sampler that we ended up redoing completely, but we did around 25 pages."

Building The 5 Worlds

Matt does all the inking/linework, which unifies the three styles.

"Before even the thumbnail stage, we got into a lot of design and development and finding the strengths that each artist had and that was magical. Just in the visual development it was becoming clear that the whole thing was already taking on new dimensions, but when we got to doing the first pages we ended up settling on something really unusual with all three of the artists penciling the comic. So it's not the assembly line at all, they're basically taking different scenes and depending on their strengths, they'll go back over each other's pencils. It's really cool. Like right now, they're wrapping up Book 3, and I have this InDesign file and it's continually updating. Every morning I open it and these pencils are turning to inks, to flat colors, to finished colors, and these sound effects are just appearing.

It's especially cool when you read the pencil stages and you can see three different styles. Matt, for example, he's a bit like our Moebius, he's a bit of a visionary. He'll paint a world or a place and you feel like he must've actually seen it because there's something so convincing about it and you feel like you're there. So he was right away filling an entire sketchbook with all of the key places that we would visit, and suddenly I'm seeing all of these places that I described or a simple doodle that I did come to life!

Boya has this real knack, almost an engineer's mind. For example, with the ships, there are three different technologies that are at play and those ships get designed and they're all there, the essence is there, but when they draw them, they become enhanced with this other person's vision added."

Xanthe designs the key color throughout — different palettes for different worlds, scenes, and moods.

"They're all really strong overall as artists, but Xanthe has an extra something with her 'acting,' the character's inner lives, the expressions and postures that she gives them. Each of them brings something to the book. The characters sort of float on model in a really good way, but afterwards, Matt will go through and do all the linework. We call it inking, but it's all done on [tablet/screen hybrid] Cintiq, so it's digital, and that definitely pulls it together into a more unified thing.

Then Xanthe has the key color. One thing she's been really, really good at has been designing these palettes and not just for each world – because each world has different atmospheric conditions and lighting and color – but within each world, too. It's been really cool because pretty quickly we realized we were doing something that's not really out there yet."

Finding an Audience

Mark & Alexis update an InDesign layout with new artwork at every stage, and leave comments for the art team on it as well.

The first and second parts of 5 Worlds have already been released and have been received really well, finding a vast and passionate audience.

"It's been really cool. It's always a weird thing when you have a project that's really gripping for you and you've poured yourself into it; you never know what it's going to be like, but it's been really rewarding. One of the things we were really worried about was the entry point into the series because it's pretty steep, and for some people it is too much – but not for kids, it seems! We try not to do too much explaining and just want you to discover things for yourself. One of the things that we're trying to do by design is that even though it's a considered a middle grade graphic novel, we went for a really dense plotting and world building approach."

Animation tests by Jessica Mao.

"Something I've noticed from publishing at First Second and seeing my own kids grow up with graphic novels: the ones that really click for them, they will reread and reread and just cycle through. So from the outset we wanted to create something that's going to still keep revealing itself to you on the tenth reading. Each book shines a light on some of what's going on in the previous book, so as you go up into the five books each one should become a richer experience to return to."

The first two entries in the 5 Worlds saga, The Sand Warrior and The Cobalt Prince, are available now. The third, titled The Red Maze, hits shelves on May 7, 2019.