Lisa Brown’s latest book showcases the author-illustrator’s familiar cartoon style, but it’s also a departure. The Phantom Twin (First Second) is Brown’s first graphic novel. Set at an early 20th-century sideshow, the story follows the fate of conjoined twins, who were sold by their parents to a carnival owner when they were toddlers. Now 16, the (slightly) older, bossy sister, Jane, presses Isabel into undergoing experimental surgery so they can lead separate, “normal” lives, something Isabel isn’t sure she wants. Tragically, Jane dies as a result of the operation. Her ghost then haunts Isabel as she struggles with being alone for the first time in her life. Brown spoke with us from her home in San Francisco, which she shares with her husband Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket).
Your style seems well-suited for this format, but is this the first graphic novel you’ve ever attempted?
It is, although I’ve done a lot of comics. The difference is that they are rarely more than five pages long. In fact, I guess I actually started out with comics because in college I did a comic strip for the student newspaper.
It seems like an enormous amount of work. Did it take years to finish?
It is a ton of work. I had been thinking about this story for probably 10 years before I was really ready to embark on such a huge undertaking. I did sort of “investigations” into a lot of the characters to start. I did maybe 10 of those, two-to-three page comics about each one, but then I put it away for a while.
Do you remember where you came up with the original idea?
There was not really any specific incident, but a lot of my work has to do with ghosts and I’ve always loved carnivals and circus sideshow-type things. The more research I did, the more interested I got.
Are some of the characters in Phantom Twin based on real historical figures?
All of them are, pretty much, but they are pastiches, of course. There was a bearded lady who was married to an alligator-skinned man. They ended up opening their own sideshow and then retiring to Gibsonton in Florida, where the laws on having exotic animals as pets were really lax so the town drew a lot of former circus people. I don’t have a giant in my book, but there was a giant who married the half lady, Jeanie Tomaini.
Were the twins based on real people?
Jane and Isabel were inspired by the Hilton sisters, Daisy and Violet, who were huge stars in the 1920s and ’30s. They starred in Freaks by Tod Browning, which was the seminal film about carnival performers because it starred real people with disabilities. The Hilton sisters had a really hard life. They were exploited by people who stole their money. They got married, divorced. They really lost everything in the end except for each other.
But they never underwent surgery to try to separate them?
No. One of the things I tried to explore with Isabel and Jane is the ableist assumption that conjoined twins necessarily want to be separated. Who’s to say that apart is better than together and who gets to make that decision? In this day and age, the assumption is being separate, being “normal” is better, but that’s an assumption that you have to check. It’s akin to intersex people. It used to be that when an intersex person was born, the doctor made the decision at birth about which gender you would be. How is that fair?
After Jane’s death, Isabel wants to go back to the sideshow. Is that because it was really the only life she had known?
The more research I did, the more I learned that some of the performers’ differences gave them enormous agency that they wouldn’t have had if they did anything else with their lives. Some would never have been able to earn a living or leave their homes, but in the sideshow they were full members of a group, even if it was a group of outsiders. It was not true for all of them, but it made me think about those who really wanted to be in the sideshow. What if that was where you felt most at home? So the heart of the book, to me, is not the sideshow but the idea of conquering loneliness and finding where you belong. If you are a conjoined twin whose sister died and you are haunted by her ghost, at least you’re not alone. If you have some sort of difference in a world that objects to that, you need to be in a community of like-minded people. I really thought that idea would work in a book for teens because at that age teens always think everyone is staring at them.
Are there any sideshows still in operation?
There have been sideshows throughout the early 2000s. There was one at Coney Island that had its own bearded lady. I don’t think the appeal is all about exploitation. I read this book, Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination [by Rachel Adams]. [The author] says that the act of going to see a sideshow may actually be empowering to a person who feels different themselves because they see freaks being celebrated for their difference. They’re putting their difference on display and they’re not afraid.
You use the word “freaks.” Would sideshow performers be offended by that?
My impression is that it has been embraced like the word “queer” has. It’s a term that was initially pejorative but has been reclaimed. It’s not an insider term. It’s something like, “We’re freaks and we’re proud of it.”
The underpinnings of this graphic novel are very much rooted in reality, but then there is the ghost. What was behind the choice to add this fantasy element?
Well, I’m into ghosts. And I wasn’t trying to have a realistic story about the history of sideshows, because to talk about any history of that is really problematic. But that doesn’t mean you can’t explore it. It’s a complicated, fraught story. What I hope is that in telling the story of sideshow performers, it’ll bring up stuff for teens to think about and create some empathy not only for these fictional performers but for other, real people, who are different. It feels like maybe it will be really relatable to teenagers because they are all sure they are different from everybody else.
Would you say there’s an equivalent to finding your group in high school? There was a girl in my son’s class who was a bit of an outcast because she wore kitty ears to school every single day. Then another girl showed up with kitty ears and a tail and they became instant best friends.
Yes! I had a student [Brown teaches illustration at California College of the Arts] who wore ears and a tail every day and only drew wolves. Where my son goes to school, everyone has their own thing. It’s a whole school of iconoclasts. Everybody’s an outsider in one way or another.
Do you think you’ll do another graphic novel?
Totally. But they do take a lot of time. If I manage to come up with a series, there goes the rest of my life.
The Phantom Twin by Lisa Brown. First Second, $17.99 March ISBN 978-1-62672-924-7