Stories aren’t just about communicating actions and informing you about characters; it’s about taking you someplace. A time. A place. And in the recently released graphic novel Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid In The Hudson, cartoonist Mark Siegel takes you to the foggy water of the Hudson river on the way to New York City in the steam-ridden past of 1887. Armed with the titular Sailor Twain (no, not that Twain), a grounded mermaid, a reclusive author and a French nobleman seeking to make a name for himself, Siegel takes you there with his charcoal artwork that might leave you checking for soot on your fingertips after leaving.
Released earlier this month by First Second, Sailor Twain is Siegel’s forth graphic novel and his most ambitious to date. Instead of merely telling a story of the past, Siegel reaches out to tell his supernatural love story with elements of classic American authors like Poe, Hemingway and yes, Twain, but with his shaggy and emotive charcoal artwork that is less about detail and more about feeling.
On Thursday October 25, the New York Public Library Archive will be hosting a special exhibit of Siegel’s Sailor Twain work along with original pages from historical Hudson River maps of the era that will run for six months. Newsarama spoke with the author earlier this month about his graphic novel, and the history he brings to life with his story.Newsarama: Sailor Twain -- where did the inspiration come from for this, Mark?
Mark Siegel: Well, there were a couple of things that started at the root of it about nine years ago. Like many projects, I was kind of grapping with something. Thinking about things, thinking about mid-life, about love, about being faithful, and all that poured into the form of these characters. It all started with a little captain on a steamboat, a mermaid, and a few other characters that were merely voices in my head. Later, as I pushed and pulled at the threads of the idea I began to develop storylines and explore these characters as real people and not just voices in my head.
Through the course of that, the setting kind of asserted itself. New York in 1887 was a very interesting time in American history, as there were many currents running through it: we were on the cusp of the modern age but mostly still running off steam. Steamboats were still the biggest mode of transportations, but they were about to be eclipsed by train. The early feminist movement was also really taking off, but chauvinism that was present in that age was still alive and very interesting. You also had the roots of the civil rights movements.
All of these things really spoke to me. On one hand I was developing this supernatural love story, but then I was also anchoring it in history. I’m totally using history in service of the story, and not claiming to make a historical text however.Nrama: The titular character in this, Captain Twain, has a last name that I can’t help but think of Mark Twain. Who himself was a steamboat pilot for a time. Who is Elijah Twain, and how does he compare to Mark Twain?
Siegel: Elijah is part of a military family with some significant prestige, unlike Samuel Clemons – the real name of Mark Twain. In Sailor Twain people often ask Elijah if he’s related to the author Twain, and he grumbles to them “… it’s not even his real name.”
As for the reasons behind doing it, there were several. One was that all the major characters are meant to have names that resonate in the American psyche. The French steamboat owner, Lafayette, is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, who is a French figure that Americans hold with some endearment (unlike other French figures in some cases).
With Twain, there’s many references scattered through the book – some visual, some in other ways. The name for Twain has deeper layers as well – he’s a conflicted man, a split man. There’s a theme of twins. He’s born in the month of Gemini. Speaking of doubles, 1887 was also the year Jekyll & Hyde came out. There’s a number of little things woven into the choice of Elijah Twain’s name. Some were built in, some accumulated over time, some came to me by research and magic; first I questioned it, but then I found even more.Nrama: Captain Twain meets the mermaid when she shows up clinging to the side of his boat, badly injured and seemingly out of it. How did the idea of a mermaid come to you for this story?
Siegel: I recently found a journal of mine where I had done little doodles in watercolor that had early renditions of Twain very different; he was an old, grizzled captain. He was having dialogues with a mermaid, who was in the story already.
It made me think: What is the concept of a mermaid really? Before Disney made a cute little Ariel in The Little Mermaid, mermaids in texts from Hans Christian Andersen to Greek myths were dangerous. There were about compulsion, and lured you in with this kind of irresistible song. I thought a lot about the nature of this compelling, magnetizing song. So mermaids became synonymous with suggestions and addictions; things that lure us down into downfall. After thinking of mermaids in those terms, I began thinking of the mermaid herself as a character, and what her point of view would be. Her story would be a far different one than her victims. Normally it’s sailors who are helpless before the call of a mermaid; I thought it would be interesting to reverse that and show a mermaid caught in a vulnerable moment. She’s wounded – harpooned, in fact – and Twain essentially saves her and nurses her back to health. Twain’s familiar with the dangers of a mermaid, and makes her promise not to sing to him. Twain is married, so in a sense he’s trying to have his cake and eat it too. He makes her promise not to sing, but always wonders what her song would sound like.
In a way, there’s many different metaphorical mermaids in the story. Different people have different effect on other people and how they lure them to do something else.Nrama: This isn’t your first comic set around the water – your book Seadogs, An Epic Ocean Operetta with Lisa Wheeler was set in the sea. Can you tell me about your predilection for sea-faring stories?
Siegel: You’re right, the evidence is there. I enjoy it. On my mother’s side, my family comes from Brittany, France – sea people. So it’s in my veins at some level. I really enjoy what the world offers when you’re at sea. In the case of Sailor Twain it’s a river and not an ocean, but waterways do figure prominently. On a boat you’re in a microcosm, and I did put in some references to Herman Melville in the book.
Nrama: Although the Hudson River is quite different today, did you visit it during your time working on this graphic novel?
Siegel: A great deal. I visited a lot of historical societies to see old prints and maps. I visited the New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society especially. As for the Hudson itself, I’ve lived on the banks of the river, rode down the river and its one of the views I take in on my morning commute to work.
But like you said, it is different. There’s no steamboats nowadays with their smoke, but there’s a different kind of pollution. Back in the 1880s the Hudson had fish so plentiful that, according to one story I read, sturgeon were served as caviar – Hudson River caviar. [laughs]Nrama: Unlike most graphic novels, you worked on this while you published pages of it online. Was doing it live, and having feedback to your story as you worked on it, affecting your creation of the book in any way?
Siegel: It did. In worked as a kind of incidental, but also in the research. The Sailor Twain online readers really knew their stuff. Some people knew everything about steam engines, and pointed out how in one panel I drew the pistons wrong in the engine room. In another instance, they revealed that the floorboards I drew were too wide for a plank on a steamboat. The level of detail the readers of the online comic provided was great, and I went back and fixed those things along the way and for the printed edition.
What was interesting to me was to watch the conversations that would build around the new pages as they were released. I could tell sometimes if they weren’t asking the right questions, as it made me take another look at the page and figure out if I hit the nail on the head for the scene or not. There were two scenes I re-did after Sailor Twain was serialized online because I felt the emphasis and clarity were off. Also before print I went through the entire book and cleaned it up a little bit. Some of the faces were a little off-model, so I did little patches.
Nrama: People who read this story when you originally serialized it online got a history lesson of the time and places this story takes place in your companion blog. How big a role did history play in your story?
Siegel: A big part, but I was very careful not to let it overtake the storyline. That was something I consciously wanted to avoid.
In comics and in fiction in general you can see when people are showing off their research, and I tried to steer away from that. I cut back on a lot of stuff for Sailor Twain; I wanted to give just enough historical detail to give credibility to the story, to make it feel rooted in that time and space. But I cut out stuff that was too ancillary to the story, about New York, the river, steamboats and the like. That research however, turned to be a kind of attraction of its own with the research blog. It brought in history buffs, poetry buffs, fans of 19th century literature, and even Jane Austen readers. It developed into a whole little community.
Nrama: You’ve shown a variety of art styles in your various comics work, and for this one you chose a moody, charcoal approach --- conjuring the steam and the soot probably evident if you worked on a steamboat like Twain did. How’d you close in on this style to do the book in?
Siegel: It took quite of lot of cooking on the story, writing and re-writing the script. I did about 30 pages in ink washes, and it was coming up too harsh; the characters weren’t quite right. The ink washes were very specific, when I was going for a misty and foggy look due to the times and with the Industrial Revolution going on. Coal and steam powered engines, you know. At a certain point, I managed to pick-up a piece of charcoal and suddenly it appeared. You could smudge it, blend it, and things could appear and disappear in the mist. I felt like once I found that, I could inhabit the world of Sailor Twain and move around it. Charcoal is funny; it’s very messy and not the most practical thing for comics, which is why I think more people don’t use it. It’s both difficult and forgiving; there’s times you can blur things and just hit at something, like just doing an outline of a ship.Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!