SITKA - Sitka Soup publisher Will Swagel was not sure who would respond to his ad on Aug. 28, 2008, seeking a "cartoon/artist with wry (or pumpernickel) sense of humor ..."
Swagel was looking for someone with his storytelling sensibilities, an off-beat sense of humor and just the right artistic capabilities to illustrate "The Bight ... Before Christmas," his take on the classic Christmas poem.
"I responded to his ad without knowing it was Will," said Colin Herforth, local watercolor artist and gallery owner.
Swagel shared his vision for a Christmas book, Herforth made a few sketches and showed Swagel what he'd done. Swagel had already worked with a few other artists on possible ideas for the book but hadn't found the right mix of skills, humor and chemistry in any other artist.
Herforth remembers Swagel's enthusiastic reaction to his first sketches.
"He said, 'Yes, yes, yes. This is what I've looked for,"' Herforth said.
A year after the ad appeared, the book is being released, just in time for Christmas.
The book includes Swagel's "Bight" poem and 18 original watercolor paintings by Herforth. The poem and artwork are inspired by the Sitka fishing scene. The language and art should be familiar to any local:
"The swabbies were nestled all snug in their berths/Dreaming of crewshares they would soon be worth./ And Mom in her Hellys and I in my Tufs/Had just set the hook where it wasn't too rough."
St. Nick makes his appearance in the form of a Sitka fisherman, which Herforth said was influenced by legendary local fishermen Porkchop and George Hicks. The home that Santa is visiting is actually a fishing troller. And Santa's sleigh - skiff actually - is pulled by sea creatures one could find in area waters:
"Now, Coho! Now Humpy! Now Ling Cod! Now Orca! On Herring! On Dolphin! On Gumboot! On Tuna!"
"Bight" first appeared in the Sitka Soup in 2002, when Swagel was running up against a deadline for his Our Town column in the bimonthly publication.
"I've been making my own lyrics since I was a kid," said Swagel. He used the rhythm of "The Night Before Christmas" to create his own Sitka version.
"It was very successful. People started reading it around town," Swagel said. "Everybody said, do it again, do it again." The poem ran for several Christmases, when he started thinking about it as a book.
Swagel also remembers his first meeting with Herforth, whom he knew but only in passing although both have lived in Sitka for more than two decades.
"Colin got it right from the beginning," Swagel said. "He took it and ran with it, and it's been a great experience."
The two worked all fall and winter on ideas for illustrating the book. Herforth painted two to three hours a day during that time to complete his work, and catch up with Swagel in weekly meetings.
"He was on fire," Swagel said.
"I didn't have any more reins to hold me back," Herforth said. "It was a steep learning curve, never having illustrated a book before. It was pouring out of me, and it reminded me that's what I spent hours and hours and hours as a kid doing."
Herforth remembers creating illustrated stories, including one about himself and his brothers and their path to rock stardom.
"This kind of brought me full circle, how I spent my childhood time, escaping reality," Herforth said. "It was an epiphany to realize that. In a lot of ways, I've thought of myself more as an illustrator than a fine artist."
Herforth's work in "Bight" was also informed by his years as a commercial deckhand: he knew what types of gifts a fisherman might enjoy, including salmon spoons and fish hooks.
Swagel's wife, Suzanne Portello, and friend Rachel Ramsey helped with the design; and local artist D.J. Robidou performed initial layout work.
Swagel also showed a rough copy to his daughter, Hannah Portello-Swagel, who works in marketing for the Development Studies Center, an Oakland, Calif., a nonprofit with a focus on enrichment education and disadvantaged youths. Portello-Swagel consulted colleagues and provided design advice at the 11th hour, which took the appearance of the book up a notch, Swagel and Herforth said.
The book is being printed by Alaska Litho in Juneau. With the writing, illustration and printing done in Alaska, Swagel is hoping the book will qualify for a "Made in Alaska" designation.