The College Comic Final -- Sailor Twain
Sailor Twain by Mark Siegel was the final book assigned for my college course on comics. In a class heavy on superhero origins, I thought a modern graphic novel would be a good add to the mix—plus it was a top book of 2013. Sailor Twain is a love story…no, wait, it’s a mystery, or a tale of the occult, possibly a history lesson—a theme-heavy tome that can even be described as a noir fairy tale—talk about postmodern.Sailor Twain is the story of a Hudson River boat captain who rescues a wounded mermaid, nurses her back to health, and becomes embroiled in conflicts that can only be resolved by true love. The romantic conflicts are many. The innocent-seeming mermaid can be described as a femme fatale in scales as she lures her victims to the depths, while the owner of the riverboat seeks his lost brother, and the captain seeks his muse—all characters seemingly seek release through true love.
But what did this class of twenty-somethings think of Sailor Twain and, more important to some critics, can a comic be studied at the college level? When telling academics that I teach comics, I am often met with rolling eyes or, as I was recently told, “That’s the trouble with college today.” My reply, “You can do anything with comics you do with traditional texts. You can examine a comic using any theory, theme, or structure you would use for any piece of literature.” I find comics make teaching theory easy --- students are receptive to examining visually heavy works through specific lenses. But as they say, “The proof is in the pudding.”
The comic final for this class consisted of a few essay choices in relationship to feminism, psychological theory, social justice, and theme. Most students wrote on feminism and its psychological impact, but one student described the book’s main theme as “duality and the conflicts duality can cause. Everything from identical twins to the yin and yang seen in the characters Captain Twain and Lafayette, who were opposites in inner conflict.
“Captain Twain, as the main character, has the most doubles. Twain doubles in on himself—starting out as a good guy, but completely switching by the end. Twain begins as a faithful, hard-working good guy, ends up cheating on his wife, ignoring his duties, and lands on the wrong team. He wants to double Mark Twain, the writer, who is much better known, and by the end he is literally split in two.
“The mermaid is a double for Captain Twain’s wife. Both are unable to walk on dry land, and both need the love of Twain. They are both prisoners; one to a wheelchair, the other to the Hudson River. The mermaid and Mrs. Twain can both move people through song; the mermaid literally splitting people in two, one to exist in the underworld of the Hudson River, the other on the surface.
“C.G. Beaverton, the woman author of the fictitious book on the mysteries of the Hudson River Valley, posed as a man and is a double for Lafayette (the ship owner) in intelligence. Beaverton also exposes the duality in the society they live in. Everyone loves his writing until she reveals her true self. Some critics even say they would not have reviewed the book if they knew the author was a woman.”
The essays written about Sailor Twain disproportionately looked at the work through a feminist lens. One young woman in the class took issue with the disparate conditions of women in Sailor Twain’s diegetic. “The real theory in question in Siegel’s work is the issue of feminism on the old Lorelei; Lafayette and Twain are both guilty of objectifying women and falling into the stereotypical habits of the poor treatment of women. Unfortunately, Siegel did not depict the women of his story very strongly either, with women constantly undermining themselves just for a sneaky sexual encounter with a rich man aboard a nice boat. Siegel’s beautiful artwork helps to see the women as the men aboard the Lorelei do, with accentuated female parts exposed and vulnerable.
“When Twain rescues the injured mermaid, the classic ‘damsel in distress’ situation is impossible to ignore. Drawing the mermaid with a healthy, bare bust is both slightly erotic and completely typical of the depiction of women. The mermaid also has the classic mythical ability to mesmerize a man with the beauty of her song. This is yet another trait of women in the story, having the ability to make men lust for them, but not respect them.
“One woman who has gained the men’s respect is the mysterious author, C.G. Beaverton, and that is only because everyone thinks she is a man. When she arrives aboard the ship, men and women are making comments like ‘I’d watch her talk all day on anything she pleases.’ Immediately men are judging her, not by her words, but by her appearance—her words are no longer valuable to the men.”
Does a feminist critique mean that Sailor Twain is guilty of some misogynistic sin? No, on the contrary, a work that exposes those differences helps students to examine their own lives and the real world in which we live. But it wasn’t just women who took up the feminist lens. One young man wrote, Sailor Twain “is filled with the ideas of traditional gender roles, which helps reinforce the patriarchal mindset. Captain Twain abandons his wife most of the year to earn money for him and his wife. This gives him the power to completely neglect her emotional needs.
“The ideas that men are strong and breadwinners and women are dependent and sexual objects helps aid the idea of patriarchy. Even with the male patriarchy starting to fade, these stereotypes are so imbedded in our daily lives that when books, movies, or even comics go against stereotypes they are looked down on. Out of all forms of mass media, comics have the best ability to defy the patriarchy and still succeed.” There’s the point. Over and over again in this class, which, by the way, contained 12 women and 19 men, students were quick to point out that comics offer them female role models they admire. From characters like Martha Washington in the 21st Century, Buffy, and Batwomanto female authors Lyndy Barry and Alison Bechtel, students see how comics are changing and they like it.
Students understand that Sailor Twain reflects the values of its diegetic—19th century America. “The women often seem at first to be shallow and stupid, as women were believed to be at the time this book was set, but upon closer inspection, they reveal a deeper side.” This young woman believes that “South, the mermaid, is a woman who, despite being a fearsomely strong woman, still needs the love a man to rescue her, but eventually escapes to the Hudson River.
“Even though it may first appear that Mark Siegel is rather dismissive of his female characters, I believe it to be quite the opposite. They are all fully formed characters who are simply dismissed by the male characters.”
Feminism comes in many forms and varying degrees. In America women feel pretty comfortable about their future—politically and financially, but the classes I teach contain international students, predominantly from China. One young Chinese woman believes “Feminism is the idea that women should be equal socially, economically, physically, etc. in society. Comics are a great way to find a reflection of society, and upon analyzing Sailor Twain, I find that it closely relates to the battles that feminists are trying to fight.
“The mermaid’s father locked her heart away and banished her to faraway lands, far from home and friends. For what? Sure, his daughter broke a law, but he could have had a less harsh punishment. This just shows you that if males have power they would not hesitate to use it—even if it would mean a horrible life for his daughter.” This resonates with me as a college instructor of international students where Chinese men outnumber Chinese women five to one.
When writing an essay final for a comic book class, student answers were comparable to those written for a traditional literature class. They display understanding of theory, theme, and critical thinking. In fact, I find essays about comic books a bit more direct, succinct, and concise, possibly because students have to interpret a text-deficient work. They can’t just load up their answers with quote upon paraphrase upon summary, sans analysis.
I also have to ask myself why all the feminist theory? Students had the option to write about ethnic communities, social justice, psychological theory, or themes. Do I give off a completely feminist vibe in class? Maybe. Historically, comics feature scantily clad damsels in distress rescued by a superhero where female subservient roles are obvious. It is a fairly recent phenomenon that readers can find strong female characters like Sailor Twain’s C.G. Beaverton, and that’s the beauty of this work. It is a graphic novel of romance, mystery, unrequited love, AND social problems set in the 19th century. It may just be that the men and women in my class find male/female roles easier to recognize—and therefore to write about—than psychological theory or themes. Or perhaps we haven’t come as far along the feminist path as we’d like to think. Each student enters the classroom with their own set of experiences from which to read, discover, and analyze any text and their voices are worth hearing.
-- Doré Ripley