First Second editorial director Mark Siegel, a critically lauded cartoonist, children's book illustrator and designer in his own right, is launching an original web comic, Sailor Twain or the Mermaid in the Hudson, that will begin serializing January 28 at with new material posted three days a week. And in an unusual move for a traditional book publisher, once completed Siegel’s web comic series will also be published as a book collection by First Second. The print book deal was negotiated by agent Tanya McKinnon of the Victoria Sanders Literary Agency.

Siegel has been working on the project for nearly five years and has completed about 80 pages or roughly a quarter of the projected work. He emphasized that Sailor Twain is directed at adult readers, not children. The drawings are done in charcoal and the story is set in 19th-century New York City among the steamboat lines that plied the Hudson River between New York City and Albany. Describing the new series, Siegel said, “It is 1887, and the depths of the Hudson River hold the unfathomable secrets of two men: the owner of a steamboat, who throws a bottled message overboard each morning, and the boat's captain, who saves a wounded mermaid. Into this comes a famous writer whose love for one of them will keep both men from taking their secrets to a watery grave.”

While it's not unusual in independent comics and the small press for a publisher or editor to self-publish, it’s a bit unconventional for the editorial director of a mainstream book publisher to issue his own works through his publishing house. Of course, First Second was launched to be an unconventional part of Macmillan Publishing, its parent company. The imprint was cofounded by Siegel and Roaring Brook publisher Simon Boughton, and it is devoted to publishing a diverse and literary line of adult and children’s graphic novels under the editiorial and creative guidance of Siegel, an accomplished cartoonist and picture book author. Siegel is the author of four books, among them Sea Dogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta (S&S, 2004), To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novelalong with his wife, Siena Cherson Siegel (S&S, 2006), andBoogie Knightswith writer Lisa Wheeler (S&S, 2008).

There were long discussions between Siegel and Boughton about whether it was appropriate for him to self-publish his work at First Second. “There are pitfalls to publishing it here at First Second and pitfalls taking it elsewhere,” said Siegel, noting that “comics publishing has a history of publishers doing their own books and Simon Boughton supported me and wanted the book.” Indeed Roaring Brook is also publishing a picture book by Siegel in 2010.

While he acknowledged a major benefit of debuting the book as an online comic—the ability to steadily build an audience for the completed print work—Siegel also emphasized that serializing Sailor Twainwould give him a chance to “experiment on myself rather than on my authors.” Siegel also said that First Second would have other online projects to announce in the future.

The project has spurred Siegel to do an extensive amount of research into 19th-century New York and the steamboat business, and he noted that serializing the comic online “is really a kind of new version of the 19th-century practice of serializing stories in newspapers and magazines. Web comics are the natural extension of the serial done today. I’m tapping into that tradition.”