David Foster Wallace once wrote that "Every love story is a ghost story." Which sounds awfully pretentious, until you come across a book like Mark Siegel's graphic novel Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson and you realize just how intertwined the two genres really can be. It's a tale of lust, desire and lost hearts, wrapped in a shivery otherworldliness.
The book is framed as a tale told in a tavern by a broken man. Elijah Twain was the captain of the Hudson riverboat The Lorelei. He runs a "Christian" ship, despite his French boss's libidinous ways. But things are not what they appear to be on board, and Twain suddenly becomes the caretaker for an injured mermaid. Twain lusts after the mermaid, while attempting to remain faithful to his invalid wife, who's back on shore. As Twain nurses the mermaid back to health, Siegel slowly reveals mysteries and heartaches surrounding the steamboat and life on the river in 1887. As each chapter leads us deeper into the watery heart of the story, we encounter stowaways, mechanics, saloon singers, and the author of a peculiar book of folktales. None are entirely who they seem to be, and their roles in the story are often unexpected.
The mermaid, whose unpronounceable name means South, is a strange and savage character. She is part magpie, part muse, part queen of the underworld. The few pages near the middle of the book that give her history are an example of myth creation at its finest. Siegel uses just enough elements from Greek mythology and a dose of Wagner's Rhinemaidens to create a new mythology that feels ancient and organic. Naming the two riverboats in the story Melusine and Lorelei, after European mermaids, also adds to the story's mythos. But Siegel isn't interested in revealing the answers to all the mysteries – plenty are left unexplained – as an even greater mythology for the Hudson is hinted at.
Siegel's black and white illustrations pack a strong emotional impact. While Twain's time with the mermaid has the soft haziness of a dream, other moments are heavily detailed and harder lined, as if reality has a cutting edge to it. His drawings easily capture environmental effects — light, dark, murk, mist, fog — and keep them firmly entrenched in an emotional context. Love, it turns out, is truly radiant. Whole sections of the story are wordless, letting the drawings shine through, particularly in action sequences. His use of black silhouettes and figures in the dark adds another ghost story level to the images. The character design owes something to manga, with characters' eyes as saucer-like as any Osuma Tezuka illustration. Siegel seems to particularly love drawing interesting noses.
The best graphic novels accept that they are narratively shorter than novels, with the same number of pages. Instead of piling on plot twists — though Sailor Twain does those quite well — they build their up their story with repeating themes and motifs, the way songs do. Song is a theme throughout Twain, and Siegel plays with this idea, calling the prologue and epilogue the "overture" and "coda". His illustration of sound, from hymns to explosions, fit the visual grammar comics use. But the visual repetition and transpositions, as well as the way the way the theme of sounds plays out in the narrative portion of the story adds emotional heft to a single note of whistling or someone pounding on a door. I suspect an entire essay could be written on the way the idea, word and images of "chains" plays out on across the book.
Sailor Twain was originally published as a webcomic, but the story feels quite at home in a book. Perhaps the best testament to the atmosphere of the book is the feeling that I'm writing this on what must be a rainy winter evening with a steel gray sky outside. In fact it's a gorgeous early fall day and I can hear children shouting in the sunshine outside. The images and emotions evoked by Sailor Twain linger, leaving the reader just as imprisoned as the brokenhearted, the enchanted or the mermaid herself.