Mark Siegel on ‘5 Worlds,’ ‘The Red Maze’, and Balancing Work with Family

Reading Time: 8 minutes
5 Worlds book covers
Image By Penguin Random House
“Life is a transformative thing—we aren’t one fixed identity, and especially if we are living fully, then we need to embrace change all the time.”

“That does seem like one of the key choices that life presents us with: to become a heart heavy with fear or bitterness or hate, or to choose the other way.”

Those are just two of the inspiring quotes from my interview with Mark Siegel, award-winning author and illustrator of several picture books and graphic novels, plus the founder and Creative and Editorial Director of First Second Books, the graphic novel arm of MacMillan publishing. He is part of a collaborative graphic novel series called 5 Worlds, along with Alexis Siegel, Xanthe Bouma, Matt Rockefeller, and Boya Sun.

5 Worlds is an epic action-adventure for middle and junior high readers (and up!) about a magical sand dancer girl called Oona in a quest to save all five of her planets from severe weather problems tied to the destructive powers of an ancient foe called the Mimic. The first book, The Sand Warrior, introduced us to Oona and her friends Jax and An Tzu, as they realize the fate of all the worlds relies on them lighting the ancient beacons on each of the planets. The Cobalt Prince showed us more of the worlds that are in danger and Oona has to face her past in order to move forward. In the latest installment, The Red Maze, we travel with our trio even further, meeting new friends and enemies along the way, and each character is dealing with their own, and their friends’ transformations.

To read more about each book, GeekDad Jonathan has enjoyed them as well. Check out his reviews of The Sand Warrior, and The Cobalt Prince.

I wish I could say I sat down with Mark over tea to chat about 5 Worlds, but we had to settle with an email interview. I had many questions and was thrilled by Mark’s generous and thoughtful answers.

GeekMom Rebecca Angel:
First I’d like to ask some questions about the collaborative aspect of the 5 Worlds series. Five contributors to one unified story! You and your brother Alexis were the origins of 5 Worlds. How long were you two tossing it around for fun before deciding to take it seriously as a project? At what stage of development did you bring in the rest of the team?

Mark:
Alexis and I were kicking around this epic, multi-world story idea for some months without a clear sense of what shape it would take. At first, we were thinking I’d be the one drawing the final pages, but as the characters firmed up and the scope of the adventure became clear, we agreed this needed a team if it wasn’t going to take decades to produce. By this time, we had a detailed outline and lots and lots of character and world sketches, so we could immerse our newfound teammates into the story that way.

GM:
You mentioned in a previous interview that the world building came before the characters. Is this true for your previous books? I remember you gave a talk about Sailor Twain and how your train ride along the Hudson influenced that story. At this point in the 5 Worlds series, what aspect keeps you most inspired?

Mark:
This whole 5 Worlds project is unlike anything I’ve ever done. It is true that Alexis and I began with the worlds, the cultures, the ancient histories. As we explored the settings, we came across the ancient beacons, and soon after that, our heroes. That was when the project gathered momentum, emotionally. World building on its own will not make for a compelling story, but great characters can.

This project keeps gaining steam. For its creators too now including Matt Rockefeller, Xanthe Bouma, and Boya Sun—if anything it is getting more interesting, more challenging, and more rewarding book by book. The characters have grown lives of their own, and we’ve come to care about them deeply, even if we keep throwing them into more difficulty.

It feels like each major creative project carves out its own unique path… Sailor Twain was also a unique appearance, with such a different flavor.

Conference call photo for 5 Worlds
Image by Mark Siegel

GM:
You use video conference calls and collaborative online art resources to bring 5 Worlds to life with five creators. Would this project have been possible before the internet? How is technology changing the landscape for graphic novels specifically? What technology do you hope to see in the future that would make projects like these even easier?

Mark:
Alexis is in Switzerland now. I’m in New York. Xanthe and Boya are in Los Angeles, and Matt is in Portland. Nine time zones between us! Without our Google Drive and video calls, it would be logistically tough to keep in sync with each other as quickly as we do now.

For graphic novels, I do see some technologies being put to great use by creators. The new iPads with ProCreate software, for example, are great tools. It’s not so recent, I know, but because everyone has grown up with Photoshop, we sometimes forget what an astonishing, versatile tool that is for an artist. And of course, the internet has made the webcomic possible—in many ways that has joined the ‘zine and the indie self-publishing as a proving ground for young storytellers in the comics medium.

But the flipside is that for every brilliant webcomic like Cucumber Quest or Check, Please! there are myriad others that don’t develop a following, because they’re not very good, or the author was still a bit green. And with Photoshop, the flipside for a time was that artists and designers would rely on easy filters and effects—but there really is no shortcut to creative quality, which usually involves deep focus and dedicated work.

page from The Red Maze
Image By Penguin Random House

GM:
Each world in this series is so dense with cultures, technology, and characters to meet. I can imagine it is tempting to develop side characters (like the Teen Rebels in New Yatta City) or keep them in the story longer. How do you remain focused? Will some worlds or side characters ever have plotlines of their own in spin-off work?

Mark:
I love your questions!

From early on in the adventure, Alexis and I consciously set out to create a graphic novel series that would reward many readings. Could it get even better by the seventh reading? Could each new book in the series shine new light on the previous ones and change our reader’s experience of it?

That meant we were deliberately packing these books very full—full of plot, full of character arcs, full of world-building. For some, that’s the beauty of 5 Worlds, not for others.

We’ve already been getting requests for a spin-off story involving those teen rebels from The Red Maze! And after Boya posted a sketch of the plant lady Meadow as a young plant-girl, I’ve had a number of requests for that, too. We have notes and sketches, and the possibility is there—but as you say, it’s vital to stay focused if we want to deliver our story with any real power. So we keep returning to Oona’s quest, and to her relations with Jax Amboy and An Tzu.

GM:
Oona is suddenly a new race- Toki, with blue skin and dark hair. An Tzu has strong prejudices that reflect much of the problems of the 5 Worlds- different groups distrusting the other. What is your goal for having race relations a major theme in this series?

Mark:
There isn’t a moral to the story, in the sense of a message or a lesson. There are definite values and things we love, underlying it all, though. We are exploring some of the challenges of living a human life, as we see them—and that includes confronting the things that divide us, and the forces that profit from fear and ignorance. Our heroes aren’t perfect, but they learn and grow from their missteps and their flaws; that’s what makes them heroes.

Great SFF can hold up a mirror to various aspects of our present-day world, but it’s also true to its own world, its own universe. And having set up tensions between the 5 Worlds and their cultures, it’s natural to see them play out in our characters. Many young readers discuss that with us, and clearly, the story opens a door for all kinds of good conversation.

GM:
Environmental themes are also prevalent. Saving the climate of the worlds is the primary reason for lighting the beacons, the main plot line for Oona and her friends. How did you and the creators decide on this and why?

Mark:
In some ways this too mirrors our own world, although the mechanics are not the same as Earth’s global warming. In 5 Worlds, there are some great natural transformations happening, and then there is the environmental damage wrought by greedy exploitation of the worlds. This aspect grew more resonant with today’s world affairs without our intending it.

GM:
Besides Oona, Jax and An Tzu also experience transformations, with hints that there are more to come. This reflects the worlds transforming with the beacons. What do you hope readers take from this? Will there ever come a time when transformations are too much for the characters to process, and keep their friendships?

Mark:
Yes! From book to book, our characters undergo massive transformations. Life is a transformative thing—we aren’t one fixed identity, and especially if we are living fully, then we need to embrace change all the time. And interesting you should ask about how that may test friendships… Yes, it is bound to, isn’t it?

page from 5 Worlds
Image By Penguin Random House

GM:
The mimic seems to enhance the worst qualities of people and change them further than they would have wanted on their own. Will we ever see the true form of this creature? Does it even have one?

Mark:
Indeed, the Mimic attracts and brings out what is most rotten in people—unless they take a clear stance against it… The one thing it cannot abide is the Living Fire, which is a mysterious part of the 5 Worlds saga, and the force that lights up Beacons. Interestingly, in the presence of this Living Fire, the Mimic has a hard time maintaining whatever form it is mimicking. Perhaps that is what will reveal it in its truest form.

page from 5 Worlds
Image By Penguin Random House

GM:
By The Red Maze, Oona has lost much, and everything keeps changing while the stakes grow higher. Yet she remains open to learning and caring about new people like Etta Zelle. It is a beautiful scene when we see that her joy in sand dancing comes from remembering all the people she loves. How does she keep going? How does she keep her heart open?

Mark:
Reaching question #9, I’m pretty sure this is the best interview ever. How does anyone keep their heart open, and not shut down in adversity? In ancient Egypt, there was this idea of the Weighing of the Heart against the Feather of Truth, in the afterlife. Why was it so important to them to keep a LIGHT HEART? That does seem like one of the key choices that life presents us with: to become a heart heavy with fear or bitterness or hate, or to choose the other way.

GM:
Gender! Kudos on having characters that do not always conform to standard norms of gender in both roles and physical characteristics. However, for those that I could tell where clearly male or female, I kept track of speaking lines. In The Sand Warrior, there was 33% female speaking characters, 40% in The Cobalt Prince, and 45% in The Red Maze. Do you keep track? Can I hope there will be 50% gender equality with the upcoming books?

Mark:
Fascinating statistics, thank you. But no, we haven’t consciously kept track in terms of lines of dialog. I’d also consider that there is the unspoken voice of dancing, and action, and presence, which may put it over 50% for female characters… I certainly would like for us to journey towards a balance of weight and importance to the story.

GM:
How do you balance work and family life? How do you prioritize creative projects?

Mark:
Right now I’m working on this interview at home in the evening, and my daughter Clio is standing beside me, telling me about her day. I try to pause and give her my full attention. She knows her dad’s mind is often given to work and to projects, but I hope the moments we have together have the extra potency of being full-hearted.

And creative projects—I’m not even sure! There are many garden plots I till every day. There’s almost always one project that asserts itself in my foreground at any given time. But others beckon all along.

cover of The Amber Anthem
Image By Penguin Random House

GM:
When does #4, The Amber Anthem come out?

Mark:
5W4: The Amber Anthem comes out May 2020! A new 5 WORLDS every year, and it had to be in May—the fifth month.

GM: Thank you, Mark, for taking the time to answer my questions. Like many of your fans, I look forward to The Amber Anthem and the continuing story of 5 Worlds. I highly recommend this series for middle-grade readers and up.

Here’s an animation test of 5 Worlds by Kami Areopagita. © Antzu Pantzu, LLC

GeekMom received copies for review purposes.

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