On the morning of September 16, while cubicle-bound office workers were likely gulping down second cups of coffee and blinking sleepily at their computer screens, Sophie Blackall and John Bemelmans Marciano were already launching into a discussion of the day’s critical matters in their shared studio in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. Some of the questions at hand: Are mermaids mammals? Do they have belly buttons? Do they hatch from eggs?
“Well, they have breasts,” Blackall remarked, as she and Marciano looked over Blackall’s mermaid-themed works-in-progress. The rain tapped lightly at the window panes of the cheerily cluttered studio as Marciano and Blackall treated PW to a tour and a lively chat about sharing a work space, their recent novel collaboration, and the joys of cryptic humor, among other topics. The 9 Lives of Alexander Baddenfield (Viking, Oct.), written by Marciano and illustrated by Blackall, tells the tale of a boy who is the last of the wicked Baddenfields, who have all met untimely, albeit well-deserved, deaths. After a mad scientist transplants a cat’s nine lives into Alexander, he proceeds to lavishly extinguish each one of them.
Marciano first connected with Blackall through Drawn in Brooklyn, a 2010–2011 exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library featuring illustrators from the borough. “So many of us were living and working in Brooklyn and we didn’t know one another,” Marciano recalled. The event laid the foundation for a more tight-knit community of Brooklyn artists – and what better way to foster community than to work together under the same roof? When Marciano, Blackall, Brian Floca, and Sergio Ruzzier (they would later be joined by Edward Hemingway) first went hunting for a Brooklyn studio space for them all to share, Marciano had already approached Blackall about collaborating with him on a novel that he had initially started back in 1998.
One of its first incarnations was as a picture book in rhyme, a format familiar to Marciano as the author of several of the Madeline books (his grandfather, Ludwig Bemelmans, created the series). But as the manuscript, which was partially inspired by Marciano’s two cats, grew to the size of a novel, he began to look at the project differently. While he wanted the book to be illustrated, he struggled with accommodating the darkly humored aspects of the story through images. “I didn’t like my drawings. I didn’t know how to handle the death sequences,” Marciano said. “I decided I wasn’t the right person to do the illustrations.” He admired Blackall’s work and her ability to illustrate material that is “shocking and macabre but still palpable for kids.” Blackall, who has a great fondness for Grimms’ fairy tales and other dark works of children’s literature, was eager to take on the task of illustrating a boy’s nine death scenes: “Most kids have a very healthy appetite for the grim,” Blackall said. With equal enthusiasm from Marciano’s then-editor, Regina Hayes (also a friend of Blackall’s), the artists launched a collaboration that would become more intimate once Blackall and Marciano ended up with desks in close enough proximity to chuck erasers at each other.
The partnership was a new experience for both Blackall and Marciano. “I’ve collaborated with a lot of people,” Blackall said. But, largely because of geographical distance, most of her collaborations have been “fairly silent.” When she and Marciano first began working together in their studio, Blackall admitted being “a little nervous because A, he illustrates beautifully himself, and B, he’s in the room with me.” And at those moments when Blackall was spending time on projects other than 9 Lives, she said, “I felt like a kid reading comics in class.”
When she turned to their joint project, she was able to find a gratifying balance between freely working on her own interpretations of Marciano’s characters and consulting with the author to make any adjustments. For example, she went back to the drawing board to make Alexander a bit better looking, at Marciano’s request. Though there is no redemption in sight for wicked Alexander, “as a kid, you need to kind of want to be him,” Marciano said. Blackall agreed: “He did need to be a little dashing.” Blackall’s illustrations also informed Marciano’s revisions of the book. Seeing the visual representations of his characters provided him with “an opportunity to be economical [with the writing]. The tone had switched slightly from what had been in my mind. But it’s a very complete package. I can’t see the story divorced from the illustrations.”
For the death scenes that had previously stumped Marciano, Blackall decided to use momenti mori-style compositions that show the Grim Reaper figure and an hourglass, and depict the actual moments of Alexander’s deaths – which include being gored by a bull, drowning in the Hudson River, and being swallowed by a python. “I’m constantly trying to channel children when I’m choosing which elements to illustrate. What do kids want to see? Kids want to see funny, gross, scary scenes. There’s no way that a kid is not going to want to see the deaths,” Blackall said, noting that when her daughter was eight years old, she frequently recited passages from Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
Marciano knew from the get-go that his character was wicked through-and-through and was delighted to find an artist who enjoyed contemplating gruesome ends for Alexander: “Should we show him getting his lung punctured?” they contemplated in public once, before realizing that their conversation might be misinterpreted. They couldn’t help it, Marciano explained: “Once you know there’s no redemption [for a character], you can just have fun.”
While working so closely – literally – may have been unusual, the experience was wholly satisfying for the book’s author and artist. “John was incredibly trusting, patient, and generous,” said Blackall. In fact, the two studio-mates have plans to work together a second time. While the specifics of the project are still under wraps, the artists divulged a few details. The project is intended for younger readers than is 9 Lives, and the story centers on a group of kids growing up in a town populated by witches. “We’ve been working together from the ground up,” Blackall said. “We’re in the very exciting, fun stages.”