So I met the charming Julie Ditrich at MerCon in 2011, where she was premiering a limited edition preview of her brand-new mermaid-themed comic book series Elf-Fin amid all the pool parties and mermaid pageants and general raucousness. (I also dashed off to the Star Trek Convention with her, her friend Katherine, and poetess Matthea Harvey, just to give the weekend that extra dose of nerdiness and glam.) Julie writes the stories and works with artist Jozef Szekeres, with whom she formed Black Mermaid Productions. Check out their cool mermaid blog, which I would secretly like to steal and add to this one because then I’d look smarter and less lazy. The opening story of the Elf-Fin series, the underwater romance Hyfus and Tilaweed, comes out in May, and will obviously change your life. Here is the cover:
Below I ask Julie many penetrating and profound question about Elf-Fin, MerCon, and mermaids generally.
So why mermaids?
I was magically drawn to mermaid art and stories from around the age of three. My family had a huge library, which contained a large collection of art books, and I remember sitting on the floor many a time pouring over images of mermaids. Out of all the fairy tales that were read to me and that I later learned to read for myself, I was particularly drawn to Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Even though the story was poignant because of the sacrifice our heroine makes at the end, I was drawn to her underwater world. I also looked for mermaids in movies. I remember being excited about seeing the mermaid lagoon in Disney’s Peter Pan, and the Little Mermaid ballet sequence in the musical Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye. Although they are not strictly mermaid movies, I also adored Esther Williams films and her water ballet scenes. My love affair with mermaids has continued into adulthood.
What is the significance of the black mermaid?
When artist Jozef Szekeres and I met for the first time in the early 1990s we immediately bonded over our mutual love of mermaids. After we landed our first comic book gig in the USA, which coincidentally featured mer-elves, we formed a business partnership with our friend and co-writer Bruce (who left the partnership in 1993). We wanted the word “mermaid” in the company name so we rattled off a whole lot of adjectives and a whole lot of colours. We settled on “Black Mermaid” because it reverberated with us and evoked a great image and a feeling. Jozef immediately sat down and sketched up the logo, and voila, we became “Black Mermaid Productions.” Later on, many industry people started to call us the “Black Mermaids.” Several years later we launched our website which featured our “Black Mermaid” logo as the hostess through all of the pages. She ended with a fan base all of her own. We received lots of emails and queries about her from all parts of the world, so we loved the fact that other people loved her as much as we did.
Can you tell me about Black Mermaid Productions? How did it start? What do you do?
Black Mermaid Productions is a creative team and publisher of comics. Our niche is mermaid stories. As previously mentioned, we started in the early 1990s. We released two comic book series through two US publishers, which went on to sell 270,000+ copies all around the world. The first series was about a tribe of sea-elves, which included several tailed mer-elf characters. The second series featured a shape-shifting mermaid superhero. We now have three mermaid comic book series planned—Elf~Fin (which is about mer-elves), Surf and Turf (a children’s series featuring mermaids), and Mermist Seas (traditional mermaids in an epic story that is quite Shakespearean and operatic in its treatment).
What is the story behind your Elf-Fin comic books?
Elf~Fin is the first title we will be focusing on in our upcoming books. The opening story is called Hyfus and Tilaweed. Many mermaid stories are devised around fish-out-of-water themes but we wanted this tale to unfold completely in the ocean world so the reader is as immersed in water as much as the characters themselves. In fact, the Elf~Fin are strictly forbidden to swim to the surface for reasons that will become known in the sequel. The story is set in a world called Elf~Threaal, and Hyfus and Tilaweed is a fantasy-romance—an underwater love story to be exact. We released a limited edition Preview in 2011, which sold out around the world. Our readers predominantly come from the USA, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway. Issue #1, which contains 48 pages of story, will be released in May 2013. The entire story is 288 pages. The entire work will also be released as a graphic novel after the comic book series is out.
You run a blog chock full of great mermaid articles. What’s been most fascinating to you—has anything truly surprised you/taken your breath away?
Because our niche is mermaid comics, our blog focuses on mermaids, Australian comics and our adventures in the comics trade. We love finding new angles and stories on mermaids that we’re not familiar with. We’re finding a lot of vintage mermaid comics at the moment, which are fascinating to say the least—they range from child mermaids to man-eating mermaid monsters.
There are also two stories we covered last year that are particularly amazing, and relate to the theme of “black mermaids” in general rather than our specific “Black Mermaid” logo character. Some of our readers wrote to us and said they couldn’t find much information about African or dark-skinned mermaids so we have consciously looked for stories with that angle. One such story that you also covered in your blog, Carolyn, was the “Mermaids and Mermaid in Black Folklore Art Exhibition” which was on show in South Carolina in 2012. It tells a tale about how mermaids sang to groups of shackled and terrified African slaves en route to America in ships. This image reduced me to tears and I still get quite emotional about it.
The other story which guest blogger Vanessa Witschi from Mermaids Dreaming in Australia covered on our blog not long ago, was that of mermaids in Aboriginal folklore. Now, I’m Australian but had never come across this before in Indigenous storytelling. I was surprised at the references in art and Dreaming stories. I also rang up a couple of galleries to get permission to publish the images and I spoke to one gallery owner who was as captivated as I was about the theme and who told me some wonderful stories over the phone. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I do believe that mermaids are as important now as yesteryear because the idea of them existing connects me to nature and something greater. It is this connection that takes my breath away and brings me great joy.
Do you have any favorite mermaid art/literature/film, etc?
My favourite mermaid artist is John William Waterhouse. I have several of his mermaid prints lovingly framed in my bedroom, which is looking more and more like an art gallery every day. I love waking up to them in the morning. They are romantic, beautiful, sensuous and feminine.
My favourite mermaid book is A Book of Mermaids by Ruth Manning Sanders with illustrations by Robin Jacques. It was printed in 1968 and contains 16 mermaid fairy tales from around the world. I used to borrow it from our local library time and time again when I was growing up. Many years later I wanted to add it to my collection but found it was out of print. The Internet wasn’t around then so I had an antiquarian bookseller track it down for me. It took him about 18 months to find it and I paid a fortune for it. Now it’s one of my greatest mermaid treasures.
In terms of films, I think the quintessential mermaid movie is Splash. Darryl Hannah was perfect in it, and her orange / red tail seared itself into my memory. I always wanted to see more of her underwater city, which we just glimpse in the ending. Although it’s a romantic comedy and not a mermaid movie per se, I also loved seeing Doris Day playing a fake mermaid in the opening scene to Glass Bottom Boat.
Is there a mermaid community in Sydney? And/or is there any significance to being a mermaid in Sydney/Australia?
I believe Australian mermaids are just coming out of the water so to speak. They’re just beginning to establish themselves. That’s why Renee Chidiac from Shimmerbaby Mermaids and I started an “Australian Mermaids” Facebook page and group last year so we could all connect. Geographically, Australia is surrounded by water so the beach is very much part of our culture. Kids learn to swim very early, we have a long annual swimming season, we LOVE Olympic swimming events, we have public pools everywhere, we have lifesaving programs for children and adults… you can see a theme emerging. I believe most Australians are water-babies… maybe we’re a nation of reincarnated Merpeople (half Angel and half elemental) that Doreen Virtue identifies in her book Earth Angels. Oh, in case you’re wondering… some of the signs that Doreen points to are that reincarnated Merpeople like to live near the ocean and are fierce about protecting the marine habitat and its animals, especially whales and dolphins. Merpeople also like to drink water.
Do you yourself identify as a mermaid?
Yes and no. I love mermaids and am a water baby but I have some contradictions between my human self and my fish self so I may not embody the true mermaid. I love the water, and have been drawn to bodies of water since I was young—pools, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, the ocean. I learned to swim very early and am an excellent swimmer. In fact, I was even a swimming age champion at my high school in four of the six years I competed. I also love snorkeling and have done a little bit of scuba diving. Having said that, I am terrified of deep open water, which is a block I need to and want to get over. I think my personal mission is to accept my humanity and all the challenges it encompasses before exploring the mermaid part of myself by donning a tail.
What was your experience of MerCon?
I had a lovely time meeting the mer community who attended and I’ve made some wonderful friends from all over the world. We’ve kept in touch through Facebook. I loved meeting the Weeki Wachee mermaids in particular. I visited WW when I was a kid and would dearly love to return so it was a genuine joy to meet some of the past and present mermaids from that special place. In general, I found the mer community to be warm, generous, compassionate and very genuine.
I was also privileged to meet Hannah Fraser, who to me epitomises the spirit of the true mermaid. I particularly admire her courage in confronting the Japanese fisherman who slaughtered and continue to slaughter dolphins during their annual roundup, which was captured in the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove. I have not seen the movie in full because watching just 30 seconds of footage completely traumatised me and caused me to buckle over in emotional pain. I was weeping so much that it took me several days to recover. I have tried to support the cause from afar since then. That is why I must express my public admiration and respect to Hannah and everybody else who is on the mermaid frontline of marine animal and habitat conservation and who have to witness these atrocities first hand to help save these beautiful creatures.
What do you think peoples’ fascination with mermaids is all about?
Mermaids are elusive yet enchanting, athletic yet graceful, free spirits yet benevolent towards others. Mermaids can also be fierce about protecting nature and the ones they love. Mermaids can also go where no human can go—into the deep unexplored realm of the ocean. There are so many mysteries there and we’re discovering new things every day. As an ex clinical hypnotherapist, I wonder whether the ocean realm symbolically represents our deepest subconscious selves with many treasures and secrets waiting to be brought to the surface. If so, then mermaids have access to multiple levels of our inner and outer worlds.
And finally, do you have any advice for aspiring mermaids?
Accept both the human and the fish part of yourself, and find the right balance. You need to make peace with who you are first as a person before exploring and celebrating the mermaid part of yourself—otherwise you could get lost and never find your way back.
Learn from those who have gone before you. If you are starting out, find a mentor or connect through a mermaid network to help guide the way through your mermaid journey.
If you want to start wearing a tail, make sure you are a good swimmer and are aware of safety issues before taking to the water. Enjoy yourself but be responsible.
Names are important in mythology as they have an energy of their own so find a mermaid name that resonates with you and distinguishes you from others.
Don’t steal somebody else’s tail designs. Mermaids are creative creatures so be original, respect other mers’ ideas and find your own expression of your mermaid self.
Laugh, swim and have FUN!