Sailor Twain: or, the Mermaid in the Hudson by Mark Siegel is a graphic novel from First Second Press that collects the installments originally published at SailorTwain.com (available October 2, 2012).
Set in 1887 New York, it opens with a cloaked woman finally tracking down the title character to a waterfront dive. He doesn’t want to talk to her, but she offers him a mysterious amulet in exchange for his story about what really happened to a man now dead. Reluctantly, Sailor Twain agrees to relate the chain of events that began to unspool the day he rescued a mermaid from the Hudson River.
Up till then, Elijah Twain was your average riverboat captain, soberly running his steamship, the Lorelei, and looking forward to the days when he could visit his land-bound, invalid wife, Pearl. Earlier that spring, the owner of the Lorelei, Jacques-Henri de Lafayette, disappeared from the ship. Since then, his reprobate younger brother, Dieudonne, has taken over day-to-day operations, but seems more interested in pursuing the fairer sex than in helping with the paddlewheel vessel.
One night in late May, Twain sees a figure clinging to the railings of his ship. He rushes to extract from the water what he thinks is a woman but discovers, to his fascination and horror, a badly injured mermaid instead. He takes her to his cabin to recuperate, binding her wound and, for reasons of his own, telling no one about her.
They begin to bond, and he finds himself neglecting his duties both to his ship and to his wife as the mermaid inspires him to continue with the art and writing his disapproving father long ago sought to stop him from creating. As time passes though, it becomes clear that the mermaid’s influence is spreading further than the captain’s cabin, and not entirely for the good.
The God-fearing first mate, Pike, finally musters up the courage to complain but, ignorant of the mermaid, lays the blame elsewhere:
“Something’s not right, Captain. In the engine room, six heat gauges broke last night. We’ve had fights almost every day among deckhands. And two passengers fainted at the same moment this morning . . . Well, here it is, Captain: Some of us think Mister Lafayette is bringing us bad luck. It’s no secret he’s immoral, but have you seen some of the books he’s reading? This occult literature, it all smells of sulfur, if you ask me!”
This “occult literature” happens to be the leavings of Jacques-Henri, which have spurred Dieudonne to initiate a correspondence with popular (and controversial) writer and mythologist, C. G. Beaverton. Dieudonne secretly believes that mermaids may have something to do with Jacques-Henri’s disappearance. Twain’s discovery of this arouses his protective and—when the mermaid disappears—vengeful instincts. Things begin to spiral out of control as Twain and Dieudonne each press their searches for the mermaid and Jacques-Henri, as the reclusive Beaverton finally decides to make a first public appearance aboard the increasingly troubled Lorelei.
Despite being a comic book aficionado, I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much when I began to read Sailor Twain. I soon discovered, however, that this isn’t just a fable of mermaids and sailors, but a deeper exploration of the conflicting demands of love and duty, and the horrors of obsession. Beneath the compelling plot and dialog is an acknowledgement of the greater psychological truths mythology has always stood for, archly delineated, for example, in this passage from the hand of Beaverton:
“The cure for mermaids? Would that not depend on the mermaid? The myth being ubiquitous, of which mermaid do we speak? The lure of drink? The fatal attraction of mad lovers? The perennial lust for war? Or how about the magnetic pull of fame? Life is full of mermaids, is it not?”
As I came to appreciate the genius of the story being told, I also came to see how such depth and whimsy could only be properly conveyed in illustrated format.
Mark Siegel’s lush charcoal art is heavily influenced by 20th-century European animation techniques. He eschews photorealistic faces and figures in favor of a fluidity of movement that he complements with painstaking attention to background detail. Even the chapter titles benefit from this attention, with each title printed on a plate overlaying a tableau of newspaper clippings, handbills, and notices relevant to that chapter. In addition, the title pages are usually faced with darkly rendered topographical maps of the Hudson River, charting the path of the Lorelei and adding to the beauty and complexity of the finished product.
And while many graphic novels feature thought-provoking story and glorious art, what makes Sailor Twain one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read is Siegel’s ability to have his art set the pace and flow of the novel, using his panels and detailing to catch the eye from running onward too quickly. His layouts enhanced the suspense and heartbreak of the narrative more masterfully than any other comic I’ve had the privilege of reading. My only complaint is that there is clearly more of this tale to be told, and I can hardly wait to find out the rest of this marvelous, excellently crafted story.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
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