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The Refreshingly Murky, Mysterious, Mist-Shrouded 'Sailor Twain'

Cover, <em>Sailor Twain</em>
Mark Siegel
First Second Books
Cover, Sailor Twain

Mark Siegel's new graphic novel, Sailor Twain, is a dark, allusive, satisfyingly knotty work of fiction.

Siegel anchors his fantastical main story — that of a Hudson River steamboat captain who rescues and falls in love with a mermaid — in exacting historical detail and deft character work. But the book's secondary storylines roil with ideas darker than those immediately apparent in his central, high-concept fairy tale — ideas about social mores, literary culture and sexuality.

Such roiling is only fitting in a story beset by undercurrents. The action takes place both above and below the river's surface, and Siegel's moody charcoal drawings capture both the oppressive haze of soot and fog that chokes the upper world and the dark, insidious beauty of the river depths, where a strange village lurks, aglow in ghost-light.

Siegel's story explores certain affinities these two worlds share. To reveal more about the nature of those connections would spoil the novel's twisty story, but let's just say that love, monsters and doppelgangers (Sailor Twain, get it?) figure largely.

50 Shades of Gray.
Mark Siegel / First Second Books
First Second Books

You'll notice, by the time you close Sailor Twain, that the book's disparate storylines come together at oblique angles and resolve with a disarming quietness, so that a sense of mystery, of something uncanny and unknowable and vaguely sinister, lingers.

And that? Is great.

In Praise of Murk

There are times, upon finishing a given novel or film or piece of music, when we sense that it hasn't surrendered its secrets to us. A pleasant ambiguity lingers, a murkiness that resolutely defies the cursory encounter. It's this feeling that compels us to re-engage with the work more avidly and intimately, so as to plumb and illuminate its depths.

Yet there persists, in far too many "serious" or "literary" comics, a maddening need for order, a penchant for full and careful explication and artificial thematic tidiness that turns narrative into insular, overdetermined clockwork. I've closed hundreds of graphic novels with a sense of frustration at their resolutions, in which the infinite and agreeable messiness of human experience gets reduced to something so much smaller, and schematic, and quickly forgotten.

Who's to say where this impulse to connect every narrative dot comes from, or why it seems to bedevil so many graphic novels? Perhaps the visual demands of comics, where page and panel layouts require such precise planning, naturally encourage a reductionist steak in storytelling that nudges allusiveness and ambiguity aside. Maybe it's a regrettable example of the degree to which the sensibility of genre comics, which rely on the iconic and familiar and steel-trap plotting, still manages to pervade the medium.

Thing-a-ma-bobs? She's got twenty.
Mark Siegel / First Second Books
First Second Books

Whatever the reason, those graphic novels that embrace complexity and contradiction, that map the shifting emotional landscapes of human interaction, stand out. With Sailor Twain, Siegel joins creators like Cathy Malkasian, Rutu Modan, Chris Ware, Gabrielle Bell, Adam Hines and others — artists whose work testifies that the comics medium can and must tell complex, layered, intricate stories that are strung together by emotion and allusion, not simply the cold mechanics of story structure.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.

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