Produced over the course of nine years of research, writing and drawing, Sailor Twain, the story of mysterious doings on a 19th-century steamboat plying the Hudson River, is a debut. graphic novel by Mark Seigel, author of graphic nonfiction as well as children’s books, who also happens to be the editorial director of First Second Books, Macmillan’s graphic novel imprint. Besides founding the First Second imprint five years ago, Siegel is also a highly regarded illustrator and designer and the author of previous works of graphic nonfiction as well as children’s books. PW talked with Seigel about the upcoming release of Sailor Twain and the road to its creation.
Can you outline the story of Sailor Twain?
It’s 1887. We’re on the steamboat Lorelei and during the very rainy summer, a steamboat captain finds a wounded mermaid hanging from the side of his ship. He takes her onboard. He’s 37 years old, and everything seems to be going well at first. Of course, you can't really keep a mermaid in your cabin without your life taking a turn for the strange.
Who are some of the principal characters in Sailor Twain?
There’s the Frenchman, Lafayette, who owns the steamboat. C.G. Beaverton is a bestselling author who’s kept his identity hidden—his latest book is about the folklore of the Hudson River and it seems to have secrets in it about mermaids. A number of secondary characters come into play, but basically there’s three major love stories intertwined through the tale and, of course, the Lorelei is a doomed ship, there is kind of a gothic mood.
What was really fun was taking stylistic chances by using charcoal [to draw the story], which gives me the ability to do very realistic settings and the characters range from realistically drawn to almost manga-like and cartoony. You've got an American captain and you've got a French owner so I got to play a little bit with these two world-views and these two different moralities and their moral arcs kind of cross. The Frenchman starts out as the cad and libertine but he may end up being the most faithful and loyal lover, while Captain Twain is more the anglo-saxon morality. He sees the world a bit like he's drawn--in black and whit--but he's going to become increasingly conflicted and torn in two, hence his name, and so that’s kind of the premise of the book, the set up.
Can you talk about the Web comics model you’ve used for several books at First Second.
Sailor Twain was always a book project. There was some idea about serializing, maybe on paper, and that was because [Sailor Twain is set in] 1887 and its the Gilded Age and it’s a time when the serial publication tradition was huge. There was Charles Dickens and all the great writers at that time, Mark Twain, and, I think, Herman Melville also were serializing novels. They’d appear in Harper’s monthly, so I had a sense that it would be a fun experiment to serialize the book, but also that the incarnation of the serial today is the Web comic. I didn’t know if anyone was going to go in for it, and it turned out that there was an audience there and a loyal audience, and they followed it for over two years
You’ve tried this approach before, launching books as Web comics, on other First Second publications.
Some of them have gone really well, we did Zahra's Paradise by Amir & Khalil that way and basically we were able to sell foreign rights to the book before the first chapter was even up online. Then we got Faith Erin Hicks’ Friends With Boys, which already had a following online and now there’s Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine’s their Tune series.
We’ve also had a few Web comics that didn’t take off quite as much as we hoped. But putting Sailor Twain online was like the beginning of a whole bunch of unexpected magic, and I hooked up with all kinds of unexpected people, like scholars of the Hudson River.
By “magic,” you mean the wealth of people fascinated by the topic—the Gilded Age and the Hudson River?
Yes, some of them were history buffs and there were also many Jane Austen readers. There were basically a lot of people that don’t normally read comics, let alone Web comics, and they were drawn by my charcoal drawings—it was a different mood and look from a regular comic. A whole different set of people suddenly appeared; some of them were like steamboat geeks who would correct the placement of the pistons in the engine room and stuff like that.
You essentially crowd-sourced some of your research for the book.
Yeah some of the research was exactly that. That was fun and the conversations that developed around the story were really interesting and for me it was a chance to get almost live feedback from readers; to know if this scene is hitting the mark.
Is the design of the Lorelei taken from a real ship?
I actually built a model of a steamboat so I could take shots and see different angles. The Lorelei is an original design based on a famous steamboat called the Robert E. Lee, which was a Mississippi steamboat, which were very different from those built to sail on the Hudson. On the Mississippi, the boats have shallow drafts so they have flat bottoms; the Hudson is a deep river, so I cheated a little bit there. I doubled up the decks and I doubled up the smoke stacks so it’s kind of a mega-steamship. It looks authentic, but it’s impossible; there was never a steamboat that big. Later, I added a conservatory on the back of it and so it basically grew into this kind of impossible ship.
So it’s kind of the Titanic of the Hudson River?
Yeah, a mythic steamship. And the thing about steamboats: accidents and explosions were actually very common. They would blow up. They made racing steamboats illegal because of the accidents that used to happen. There’s the famous explosion of the Slocum in 1903, which was a huge tragedy. I had a lot of news clippings, I did a lot of research in libraries and in historical societies along the Hudson and I'm using history to build credibility to anchor it all in time and place. But whenever it was needed for the story I would bend facts.
What drew you to do a story about the 19th-century Hudson River?
1887 represents a really interesting shift. The effects of the Civil War are still being felt, but then the modern age is actually kicking in—we’re in the Industrial Revolution and just at the point where steamboats are still sailing the Hudson, but they’re about to be eclipsed by the train. So you’re at this kind of funny cusp between two ages. There’s two underlying threads running through the story: one is the birth of what will become the civil rights movement and African-Americans, and the feminist movement with the suffragettes. Those two threads I found to be really compelling because I think they speak to where we are today in America.
There’s also a sense of romance to the Gilded Age that I wanted to play on. You know when you look at history books, the Hudson River is not really shown as a romantic river, its shown more as the mighty river of commerce. But I feel like I’m doing what Washington Irving was trying to do with both Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hallow, he was trying to create a new American mythology centered around the Hudson River. I felt like, let’s take that and see what that might look like for today. I felt like this was a very fertile and rich [storytelling] broth.