‘Sailor Twain’: Mermaid tale explores murky depths of the heart

Oct. 01, 2012 | 3:18 p.m.

Graphic novelist Mark Siegel intertwines themes of obsession, loss and redemption in “Sailor Twain: The Mermaid in the Hudson,” a new book from First Second. “Sailor Twain” transports readers to the misty decks of the Lorelei steamboat, whose captain finds a wounded mermaid in the Hudson River. He becomes her nurse, and she becomes his secret muse. Meanwhile, the boat’s seemingly lascivious owner keeps a siren-related secret of his own, and an enigmatic writer may hold the answers to both men’s questions. Siegel, primarily known for writing picture books for children, released the nearly 400 charcoal-drawn pages of “Sailor Twain” as a web comic over two years. Hero Complex caught up with Siegel to talk about the book, out in hardcover Tuesday.

HC: This book is nine years in the making. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

MS: On my morning train rides to work in Manhattan alongside the Hudson River, I always doodle in pens and watercolor (a little portable kit). One day, at a time when the voices in my head were especially turbulent and troublesome, a picture appeared of a captain on a steamboat speaking to a mermaid in the water. Day after day, their conversation continued in little cartoons. Then the captain was speaking to a guy who looked like Casanova. Those were the early threads of the story. I kept teasing the threads out, one little doodle at a time, and a rough story framework emerged. Eventually it grew beyond just scratching a personal itch or doing mid-life self-therapy — the characters started having their own voices.

HC: Why do you think mermaid and siren stories are still so compelling?

A page from “Sailor Twain,” by Mark Siegel. (First Second Books)

MS: Mermaids are real. Not the P.T. Barnum version, which was a kind of mummified fish/monkey combo I think. But a song that we can’t resist, even though we know it’s going to pull us down — anyone who’s lived a bit on this planet knows mermaids. Some people can be mermaids to us. We can be mermaids to others, sometimes. And chemical siren-songs too, like crack, or smack, or alcohol, even coffee (not all mermaids spell disaster for us sailors, of course).

HC: Why a web comic? How frequently did you update?

MS: “Sailor Twain” was always a book project first, but it’s New York in the Gilded Age, in 1887, and at that time there was a huge tradition of serialized novels. Many great writers like [Herman] Melville or Henry James were published that way. The web comic felt like our current digital-age incarnation of that tradition. So I tried it out, not knowing whether anyone out there would go for a slow-building, 19th century supernatural romance. As it turns out, a lot of people did. I posted a new page every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It took about two years to release the nearly 400 pages of it, and a community grew around it. The pages were also accompanied by a blog, with some of the background research and connected themes on art, poetry, sex, Victoriana, American history, that sort of thing. A lot of extra work, in other words, but so rewarding.

HC: What were some challenges you faced and benefits you enjoyed as a result of your decision to run it as a web comic?

MS: Typically any long project like this is done in solitude, and then the author tosses the fruit of his or her labors over the wall, into the world, and awaits feedback. With the web comic, the response is immediate. And candid. It was especially rewarding to be “received” with such regularity. Plus all kinds of weird magic surprised me because of doing it like this — from a Hudson Valley winemaker releasing two “Sailor Twain” wines, to scholars sending me 19th century poetry about the Hudson, to a jeweler making the magical pendant that’s in the story, to the New York Public Library creating the “Sailor Twain’s New York” exhibit [which opens Oct. 25]… That and much more, including delightful and sometimes hilarious interactions with readers — none of which would ever have happened if I had just come out with the printed book.

HC: Why the Hudson? Why the Gilded Age?

A page from “Sailor Twain,” by Mark Siegel. (First Second Books)

MS: 1887 was a turning point in the Industrial Revolution. Trains were about to overtake steamboats, the West was “won,” but people spoke a lot about “the Sioux problem,” the women’s suffragette movement was fighting incredible odds for women and for blacks, the Civil Rights movement was in its inception. All of that was such a great canvas. The best and worst of America were on full display (as they always are, perhaps). That was the year R.L. Stevenson’s “Jekyll & Hyde” came out, and the mysteries of the human psyche were also in the air. Steam power, horse power, coal smoke, mist, fog, top hats, bustles, Hansom carriages, all of that stoked my imagination in irresistible and romantic ways.

HC: Can you talk a little about your process? What kind of research was involved?

MS: Several years went into making a working script, and designing the characters, finding the right medium, asking questions of the story. I spent many hours in the New York Public Library, especially in the Old Maps Division, and also the New York Historical Society and other places along the Hudson. I pushed and pushed on that side of things because I wanted the mermaid tale to be anchored in a credible setting. The other side of the research was exploring the Hudson itself, its folklore, its special places. By and large all of that dissolved into the fabric of the story. Anywhere in my script where I was showing off or giving history lessons ended on the cutting room floor.

HC: Is the mermaid in the Hudson a myth that you created? Or something you discovered in your research?

MS: No, I haven’t come across any Hudson mermaid stories. The closest is Henry Hudson himself, whose logs do record a mermaid encounter, but not in the river — a few years before he first entered the river with his Half Moon ship. I can’t say I was ever a mermaid geek. She first appeared as the voice of compulsion, obsession, addiction, these sorts of things. Not really your Disney’s little Ariel. Mermaids sing these beautiful songs that overwhelm men’s reason. That’s what interested me. Later she grew other dimensions; I had to consider the events from her point of view, and she became more than just the doom of a middle-aged man.

HC: There are so many little details — the stationery, the jewelry, the news clippings. Can you talk a little bit about how you created such a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere?

A page from “Sailor Twain,” by Mark Siegel. (First Second Books)

MS: Yes, as I mentioned with the web comic, many “Sailor Twain” artifacts spilled into the real world. Within the story, I tried to give every element its due, so nothing would be flippant or random, not in the mysteries of the plot or the details of life aboard the steamboat. The only way for that was to take time with it all. I think the atmosphere in the book owes a lot to using charcoal, which is hardly recommended for comics. It’s incredibly messy to work with and to scan. But I love how charcoal allows rich dark shadows but can almost vanish into white like a ghost ship in the fog. I had done about 30 pages in ink when I figured that out, and had to ditch them all then and there. Plus I found that charcoal allowed me to combine characters in different styles, yet model and shade them in a realistic way, in realistic settings. Twain himself is almost a cartoon, sort of iconic and black and white — like his worldview — whereas the Frenchman Lafayette is stylized differently, all in shades of gray.

HC: Much of your experience has been writing for children. How was this different?

MS: Children’s books are one of my abiding passions. I want to continue with that. A picture book is one of the hardest, most challenging formats I know. With any project, I try to make the book I want to read; sometimes it’s my 5-year-old self that wants to read it. With “Sailor Twain” it was my adult self. Love, faithfulness, sex, obsession, being whole-hearted, being true to one’s many inner lives — I was exploring adult things in an adult way, so this isn’t a children’s book, clearly. Speaking of adult content, going into a mermaid story I should have realized I was going to be drawing a lot of breasts. That alone should set it apart from my other work to date.

HC: At its heart, Sailor Twain is a romance. Although your readers can’t actually hear a siren song, you’ve captured these universal feelings of obsession and longing and loneliness and love. How did you go about developing these relationships?

MS: Yes, I suppose at core it is a romance. Or three intertwined romances. There were two things guiding me: One was to push and push and plumb the depths of every character, as far as I could. The other was to keep remembering what was real about it, and not fall for my own storytelling hooks, meaning not to lose track of real feelings, real emotions, even if I’m working on a scene in an underwater village filled with mermaid victims. Same thing with characters. I kept peeling off any dialogue that didn’t feel like they actually spoke it. Eventually I could sense just how key players were in each other’s presence — what unspoken, unseen things were between them, and how that changes in the course of the story. Then the challenge was to enact all that in the drawings.

“Sailor Twain” graphic novelist Mark Siegel. (First Second Books)

HC: What have you learned from this project?

MS: Like any worthwhile project, I’m not the same man today as I was when I started it. I think I learned to be patient with crappy, cliché-ridden first drafts, and trust that pushing past that will yield something true. Never perfect, but if it’s true, it has a chance at connecting with others in a lasting, meaningful way.

HC: What’s next for you?

MS: A couple picture book projects on the table, which I’m delighting in. There’s another long story emerging too, but I don’t expect that to be ready soon.

– Noelene Clark

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