Images of a crowded New York commute summon up fervid visions of panic and road rage rather than romance. Author Mark Siegel changes that with his graphic novel Sailor Twain, set when the industrial revolution was just revving up and the brackish waters of the Hudson River were as crowded with sailboats and steamships as Gotham’s modern thoroughfares are with cars. Mark was kind enough to talk with me over the phone about the setting and inspiration for Sailor Twain.
- “For me that time period and that moment, New York’s Gilded Age as they call it, it’s a fascinating time because the Industrial Revolution is in full swing. There is steam power and horsepower and coal power and then the fog and mist. There is a whole mood that comes along then. Then of course the Hudson as the setting is itself gorgeous. So there is a whole romance to both the time and the place that I felt was really a delight to explore.”
Siegel uses charcoal and pencil to breathe life into the billowing steam and soot-filled streets of this era.The book follows the story of the steamship Lorelei and its captain Elijah Twain. Captain Twain is drawn into the slowly unwinding mystery surrounding Lafayette, the French playboy who inherits the Lorelei after his brother’s apparent suicide in the river. Lafayette never leaves the decks of the Lorelei, no matter where the port, and soon both captain and owner find themselves tied to a deadly river legend that neither man may escape, of a mermaid whose siren call has caused vanishings along the river for generations.
The roots of that legend have a uniquely American literary heritage. “I had been reading Washington Irving and when you see what he was trying to do with Rip Van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow, which is all set in the same area, he was trying to create a new American mythology. In his case, it was centered around the Hudson River Valley. There was some of that inspiration. In a way it’s me sort of co-opting history and using it for my own purposes of storytelling. I use history to try to build credibility for my story, but in the end there is this story of a captain slowly being lured away to his doom by this mermaid.”
Readers may be unable to resist the siren call that wells up from the page through Siegel’s artwork and storytelling. Though it should be noted that despite its origins as a web comic this is a book geared for adult readers with themes of sexuality and desire explored both in the text and art. If readers do heed the sirens call and pick up the book they will be reawakening a legacy of American myth making and magic in their own journey down the Hudson.