Beyond Superman

By Lawrence Goodman / September / October 2006
November 15th, 2006

No doubt about it: we are living through a golden age of the American graphic novel. Author-illustrators like Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, and Harvey Pekar have reinvented a form typified by Marvel comics and have shown not only that it can handle such topics as the Holocaust, the existence of God, and neurotic self-loathing, but that it can handle them as adroitly as any novel or movie. The Web site ICv2 estimates that sales of graphic novels rose 18 percent last year, to about $245 million. Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, about a young girl’s life under the Islamic Revolution in Iran, made it to seventeenth on the New York Times’s nonfiction hardcover best-seller list in 2003; it has since sold more than 500,000 copies.

“Some of the best writing right now is happening in graphic novels,” says Mark Siegel ’89, whose two-year-old company, First Second, specializes in publishing literary comic books.

Siegel’s interest in the form is not just financial. He also illustrated To Dance: A Ballerina’s Graphic Novel, which was written by his wife, Siena Cherson Siegel ’90. The book, which is full of graceful chiffon swirls and drawings of lithe ballerinas prancing and pirouetting, is the story of a young girl’s quest to become a professional ballerina. Although aimed at younger readers, it also provides a beautiful example of graphic novels’ strength. More accessible than poetry and less dense than prose, the novel combines carefully paced, minimal text with illustrations of various sizes to evoke mood and emotion that a more conventional novel would require many more pages to approximate.

The Puerto Rican–born Siena based the story on her own experiences studying under George Balanchine at the famed School of American Ballet in New York City. The young Siena must cope with the divorce of her parents, her worries that her breasts will grow too big for her to dance, and the searing foot pain that results from nonstop practicing. “There are so many pressures on aspiring dancers that they often lose their love of the craft,” Mark Siegel says. “This book is about rediscovering that love through all the hardships.”

Mark and Siena met as undergraduates at Brown when she starred in a play he’d written and directed. After graduation, he became a successful children’s book illustrator, but a serious ankle injury kept Siena from ever dancing professionally. She remains in the field, however, and now runs the training program for teenagers at New York’s American Ballet Theatre. “Dancing fills a space in me,” declares the young protagonist of To Dance.

If you’re unfamiliar with graphic novels, they can take a bit of getting used to. At first, you can feel as if you’re reading a comic book, but the experience soon takes on a more nuanced feel. The words comment on the pictures, and the pictures on the words; it’s this interplay that gives rise to an entirely different kind of reading experience. “There’s just this incredible level of subtext in a graphic novel,” says Mark Siegel. “There’s this third voice somewhere halfway between pictures and words that’s doing the storytelling.”

The excerpt on these pages combines two chapters from To Dance. In the first, nine-year-old Siena goes to a Bolshoi Ballet performance of Swan Lake and resolves to become a ballerina. The second chapter finds Siena buying her first toe shoes. In between, she has taken ballet lessons in Puerto Rico and the family has moved to New York City so that the child, now eleven, can study at the School of American Ballet. The school had been started by Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine, or Mr. B., as the students know him. Balanchine has recruited many teachers from Russia, and thanks in part to the constant arguments of her soon-to-be-divorced parents at home, his school has become Siena’s demanding refuge, a reminder of the Russian ballerinas whose images have been an important part of her childhood fantasies.

To Dance will be published by Simon & Schuster in September.

Text © 2006 by Siena Siegel, illustration © 2006 by Mark Siegel. Printed by permission of Atheneum Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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September / October 2006