March 15, 2014

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Sailor Twain: Or, the Mermaid in the Hudson

Sailor Twain
Written and illustrated by Mark Siegel
Published by First Second, 2012 

Sailor Twain begins in December of 1887, in an ferryman's tavern by a busy pier on the Hudson River. A woman in a white cloak has summoned the reluctant Captain Twain to a meeting. She offers Twain a glowing necklace in exchange for the story of what really happened aboard the Lorelei. Twain, it unfolds, used to worked aboard the Lorelei- one of two steamboats run by a smart French businessman, Jacques-Henri Lafayette, and his layabout brother, Dieudonne. But Jacques-Henri went missing over a year ago. The remaining Lafayette locked himself in his quarters pouring over strange old tales of the river. When he emerged he seemed interested in little more than seducing all of the available female steamboat passengers and reading.

Twain thought that Lafayette's womanizing and a pair of stowaway children were the worst of his problems. But that was before he saw a beautiful woman struggling and bleeding in the river. He pulled her onto the deck and was shocked to discover he had rescued an injured mermaid. Add to this a mysterious author's first public debut, a curse and an underwater city and you will have some idea of what to expect in this story of passions and obsessions, muses and myths.

This book was designed with the utmost attention to detail. My hard cover copy has a mermaid embossed in the cover, chapter break pages covered in details from historical river maps and lovely thick pages which give a pearly brightness to the river mist and a velvetiness to it's inky depths. I don't believe I have ever read a comic illustrated in charcoal before (I can't even imagine the patience the media must have demanded) but Siegel handles it exquisitely throughout.

Much care has been given to the backgrounds, particularly any panels showing the ships. The amount of historical research that went into this book is immediately obvious (and well documented on the book's website). Siegel has made the interesting choice of drawing his characters, particularly the title character, in an exaggeratedly simple style. Twain's nose, from the front, is a triangle and his eyes are often perfectly round circles with equally round wide pupils. For the most part the story was too engaging for this to bother me, but every now and then I was struck by the impression of Twain as a muppet standing in the middle of a delicate black and white photograph. I know this character design must have been completely intentional, but I occasionally found it very jarring.

Sailor Twain was serialized online as a webcomic from 2010-2012. It is probably one of the best looking webcomics in print form I've ever seen- not that I would expect anything less from the man who founded First Second Books and now serves as one of it's head editors. Sailor Twain made it to the Times best seller list and won numerous awards the year it was published. Many other reviewers of the book have remarked on it's literary qualities- not only does it reference a wide array of authors but it reads like a novel in some ways. It has elements of both a mystery and a fairy tale. But most importantly it is just a really good comic, well made and very fun to read. Mark Siegel still has the overture and the first five chapters of the book up on his website- if you want to sample the book you can do so at sailortwain.com.