~by Mark Siegel
I've been aware of Mark Siegel's Sailor Twain: Or, The Mermaid on the Hudson for quite some time. It was initially released as a webcomic beginning in 2010 with the goal of being collected into a single-volume graphic novel, which it was by First Second in 2012. I have never read any of Siegel's previous works, but I do know him as First Second's editorial director. Despite all of the great buzz I had heard about Sailor Twain, I never quite got around to reading it while it was being serialized. Perhaps it's because I've never had a particular interest in mermaids. (This actually strikes me as a little odd considering that I have a great interest in legends and mythology and a tremendous love of water.) Still, I was excited to see review copies of Sailor Twain offered through Library Thing's Early Reviewers program and was thrilled when I was selected to receive one of them. I was looking forward to finally getting around to reading Sailor Twain.
Responsible for the steamliner Lorelei and it's excursions on the Hudson River, Captain Twain runs a tight ship. But things begin to fall apart when Jacques-Henri Lafayette, the ship's owner, mysteriously disappears. Twain is left to deal with the younger Lafayette brother Dieudonné who isn't so much interested in the Lorelei itself as he's interested in the liner's female passengers. Matters become even more tenuous when Twain rescues a wounded mermaid who seems to have a strange connection to the Lafayettes. The mermaid has an odd effect on Twain and he can't help but be drawn to her. His work on the river has already caused him to start to drift away from his ill wife Pearl and their shared dreams. The mermaid's alluring presence only seems to be hastening the seemingly inevitable demise of their relationship.
Siegel's artwork in Sailor Twain is a marvelously fit for the story that he is telling. Done in charcoal, the illustrations are almost seen through a sort of fog. The artwork captures the dirty reality of the engine room just as well as it conveys the otherworldliness of the mermaid and her influence. The mood that Seigel's artwork creates is wonderfully effective as Sailor Twain becomes increasingly ominous and atmospheric as the graphic novel progresses. The younger Lafayette's trysts and dalliances on board the Lorelei are handled tastefully and incorporate a light touch of humor. Perhaps more provocative is the portrayal of Twain's attraction to the mermaid. What begins as mere curiosity evolves into a source of inspiration, eventually leading to desire and obsession. This progression isn't only revealed through Sailor Twain's words, but through its artwork as well.
Although Sailor Twain is a modern narrative, in some ways the story felt like a classic fairytale, especially in its exploration of the mythology and superstitions surrounding the mermaid. The story is somewhat dark and there are lessons to be learned--in the end, everyone is held accountable for their actions. I liked all of the characters a great deal. The younger Lafayette isn't as disgraceful a person as he might first appear. Twain's descent into obsession as he struggles against his impending doom, trading one dream for another, is utterly fascinating. The overture and coda of Sailor Twain seemed a little forced to me, as if attempting to give the story more closure than was absolutely necessary. But overall, Sailor Twain is a well written and engaging graphic novel. I enjoyed it immensely.