Review time! with Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson
Mark Siegel’s Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson, which costs $24.99 and is published by First Second, has been getting a lot of love from people, as it seems to be one of those “comics that people who don’t read comics will read,” kind of like Alison Bechdel’s work. That’s certainly a good thing, and Siegel gets a lot of nice pull quotes on the back of this handsome hardcover, and that’s always neat. So let’s check this sucker out, shall we?
Siegel’s plot is fairly straight-forward – in 1887, a steamboat captain on the Hudson finds a mermaid, brings her on board, and has to deal with the consequences. Siegel seems very fascinated by folklore along the river, to the point where he creates an author, C.G. Beaverton, who writes a book about said folklore and whose writings inform a good deal about what’s going on in the book. Captain Elijah Twain, the central figure of the book, is an interesting character who has to figure out the mystery surrounding his ship (the cleverly-named Lorelei), its owners (the star-crossed Lafayette brothers), and C.G. Beaverton. Siegel is very ambitious, as he introduces many characters who are all connected to the mermaid. In folklore, the mermaid’s song mesmerizes people and makes them obsess about the mermaid, and this is at the heart of the story. I don’t want to give too much away, because it’s nice to peel away the layers of the mystery as Twain does. It’s a nicely-plotted comic, with certain events and people at the beginning showing up later in crucial situations. Siegel also isn’t afraid to let the book go into fantastical places – obviously, the presence of a mermaid shows that early on, but it’s interesting how the mermaid is the only thing for a long while that feels out of place. When he does become a bit more “unrealistic,” the mermaid acts as our conduit from the “real” world to a much stranger place. It works quite well.
I don’t love Sailor Twain, though, although like other comics this year that I don’t love, I do admire it. There’s a difference between reading something that gets to you and reading something that you appreciate just because it exists, and this is the latter, in my case. Siegel’s plot, when boiled down, isn’t all that unique or even interesting. Twain and Lafayette are just two of a long list of men who become sexually obsessed with something they can’t have, and the fact that Twain is married seems almost an afterthought to Siegel. Conveniently, Twain’s wife Pearl is an invalid, and while Siegel does show us some of their early relationship and the dreams they had, Twain almost gets let off the hook for treating her, not exactly poorly, but certainly not well. Lafayette, meanwhile, believes that he must have sex with as many women as he can handle (it’s part of mermaid lore, but Lafayette seems to misunderstand the instructions), and when he does meet someone he truly loves, Siegel doesn’t really do much with it, so the actions of the characters aren’t as powerful as they could be. Even the mermaid, who is named “South,” is curious. She seems like a decent character early on, but she also can’t control her nature as a mermaid, and her transition to a more frightening denizen of the deep isn’t all that convincing. When we discover her “backstory,” we figure out why she does the things she does, but it seems like Siegel needed or wanted to turn this book into more of a “good-vs.-evil” kind of story, so the ending becomes more convoluted as South and Twain don’t act like they had for the first two-thirds of the book. Siegel is trying to write about obsessive lust and how it controls people, but when you do that, you run the risk of turning your characters into caricatures. Until the last section of the book, Siegel does a nice job creating characters who seem to have many facets of their personalities and don’t simply slot into stereotypes. In the final act, they start to act as if Siegel needed them to act a certain way so his plot would work, and when you do that, it doesn’t often work. And it’s extremely possible that I’m really stupid, but I don’t get what happens when Twain and South visit the giant chest at the bottom of the river. It’s a crucial moment, and it seems like Twain suddenly decides to stop being a douchebag, but at that point, it doesn’t make sense. He’s committed to being a douchebag – he should embrace it! I also don’t get the final two pages. I don’t think it matters too much, but it’s vexing. Seth – you’ve read this book; help me out here!
Siegel’s art is fairly interesting, although it breaks down in some crucial places. He’s much better at the surroundings than the characters – his steamboat and the Hudson valley are beautiful and haunting, and the fact that it’s raining all the time (it was a tough summer in 1887, I guess!) adds nice atmosphere to the book. When the book becomes more fantastical, Siegel does a beautiful job turning the world less than solid, and the times when Twain hallucinates that he’s underwater in his own cabin are wonderful. South, as a slightly odd creature, is beautiful, as well – she’s the one character who seems to fit Siegel’s style. The characters aren’t terrible by any means, but the cartoony, even simplistic style in which they’re drawn clashes a bit with the more lush backgrounds, and Siegel’s penchant for drawing giant eyes is somewhat distracting. It’s not the worst style in the world, and the black and white helps, but it could be better. Where the art doesn’t work is toward the end, when there’s a big fight. Siegel doesn’t quite have the chops to do action (as I’ve often mentioned, action is probably the hardest thing for a comic artist to perfect, so it’s not surprising), and the big showdown ends up looking a bit goofy, unfortunately. For the most part, however, Siegel’s soft brush strokes and beautiful gray scaling give us a world of gauzy nostalgia, much like our own but viewed through a more cynical lens. Siegel’s characters discuss modernism, racism (it seems Siegel wants to delve into racism a bit more, but he doesn’t), secularism, and sexism, and his art helps create this idea of a modern-ish world even though it takes place 125 years ago.
I would Recommend this comic even though I don’t love it. I enjoyed it, and found the first two-thirds of it very fascinating. That Siegel can’t quite pull it off doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out. For the most part, Siegel does a very nice job building a strange mystery full of interesting characters, and he does challenge the reader in many ways, which is always good to see. I understand why it’s shown up on some “best-of-the-year” lists – heck, it might even be on mine when I get around to it. I just wish that Siegel hadn’t gone down a well-trod path at the end of this book. It denudes the book of some of its power, and that’s too bad. But it’s still a pretty good comic, if you’re looking for something a bit different for your reading entertainment.