It is richly layered with myth and legend, but Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain, Or the Mermaid in the Hudson is not really a work of fantasy. It is a ghost story; a Christian tale about obsession and temptation, love and lust; and a romantic novel—all at once. Siegel’s monochromatic, charcoal-styled drawings display subtle variations of shade and lines as they take the reader through parallel realities (or parallel fictions), sometimes ghostly and nebulous, and at others, finely detailed. The text is sparse and completely done away with at times (like it is in the best graphic novels).
The narrative of Sailor Twain is reminiscent of Moby-Dick, although its canvas isn’t as large as that of Herman Melville’s classic (and this similarity is understandable, because both books are, in some way, about obsession with a water creature). It is also not the first book to deal with the love between a mortal and a mythical creature.
One of its protagonists, Captain Twain, is in love with a mermaid—who is herself a puzzling combination of a helpless victim and a cold and selfish villain, albeit with a tragic backstory of her own—although he is torn asunder (literally) by this and his feelings towards his consumptive wife.
Another is immune to the siren song of the mermaid and throws himself into a wanton bout of dalliances as he seeks a way to kill the creature. And a host of supporting characters, including a deaf engineer seemingly untouched by the mermaid’s song and a woman writer of fabulous stories about mythical creatures, push the graphic novel (structured akin to a song with an overture and a coda) towards an end that the reader knows will be tragic, unfulfilling and incomplete. Siegel deserves special credit for not wanting to tie up loose ends.
The author sprinkles his story with elements from Greek and German myth (for instance, the steamboat captained by Twain is called Lorelei) to create his own modern mythology.
Told in flashback by Captain Elijah Twain or what remains of him after his encounter with the mermaid, Sailor Twain is set in the 1880s and first appeared as a free Webcomic that went near-viral and made Siegel famous long before First Second Books published a handsome, 400-page hardcover edition in October.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.