A history of American folklore is a history of trickery, of con artists, hucksters and untrustworthy travelers; our gods are nomads with myriad aliases, our heroes regular old human beings whose abilities are measured in sharp tongues and fast wits rather than brute strength and incredible durability. Mark Siegel has an impressive understanding of that in Sailor Twain, but this isn't just an American story, it's an immigrant story, where that contemporary con artistry merges with Old World romanticism, with trickery of an altogether more supernatural sense.
Set in an era when America was really and truly forging its identity on an international scale, Sailor Twain moves up and down the Hudson River in the distinctly American method of travel known as the steamboat. Captain Twain is our guide, a young man surrounded by loss and grief, from the sick wife he's too guilt-stricken to spend much time with to his benefactors, a pair of French brothers who appear to be polar opposites: one is haunted and missing, possibly dead, while the other is seemingly incapable of living through anything other than vice, urging on Twain's distrust through his apparent lack of grief for his brother's state. The brothers are also connected to Twain through the arrival of a mysterious and mysteriously wounded mermaid, a silent, beautiful creature that Twain stumbles across and saves one evening.
Twain isn't sure of how the mermaid is connected to his French bosses, and that mystery forms the basis of the bulk of the story as Twain retreats further and further into her world and her salvation. But it also forms the basis of Sailor Twain's unique spin on the immigrant story, merging Old World folklore with the New; where the former is built on betrayal, morality and following strict yet vague rules, the New is about upending all of that, spinning loyalty and morality as twisty things that aren't so easily defined or followed and ignoring rules altogether. It's worth noting that Sailor Twain's other big mystery is the true identity of a world famous folklorist who just so happens to be an expert on mermaids and also happens to have found fame by similarly grafting the Old on top of the New.
Siegel also integrates Old World illustrative styles into his story, his shading reflective of woodblocks and his characters resembling the minimalist yet highly expressive work of the great French cartoonists. Likewise, there's a distinctly European sensuality to the work, the mermaid herself a wonder of river softened curves and seductive glances who possesses a beguiling, seemingly naive charm that masks literal eons of experience and hard knocks. She's a Greek tragedy and a fairytale haunted beauty all at once, and loving her is loving the art of story and lyricism.
Siegel travels effortlessly through all these influences and styles like a graphic novel Johnny Appleseed, happily planting seeds of inspiration. At its heart, Sailor Twain is a love story, but depending on how you read it, that declaration of love is either to the Hudson River itself or the culture that has grown up around it, built on the flotsam and jetsam of Europe. In Siegel's hands, the Hudson is as worthy of prose as the Nile, or the Styx, or whatever ancient, possibly mythical waterway springs to mind for you.
Siegel's love for that scenery, and those cultures and people and myths, is visible in every panel of Sailor Twain, marking him as a true American talent with a phenomenal gift for breathing new life into otherwise well-traveled elements of our nation. Sailor Twain easily proves that the history of our folklore is ever shifting and ever vital, capable of obtaining new meaning and identity each generation, and after all, isn't that what good tricksters are all about?
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic who has contributed to Spectrum Culture, No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover