Mentioned by several media outlets (including GNR) as one of the best graphic novels of 2012, Sailor Twain is a mesmerizing and haunting story. Writer and artist Mark Siegel spent years creating the story, while also serving as publisher of First Second Books. We went behind the scenes with Mark to see what led to the creation of this starkly beautiful mermaid tale.
How did you find the time to do this book while balancing all your duties with First Second?
I actually started Sailor Twain before starting First Second! So it's always been a balancing act. Fortunately in comics, it's not uncommon for editors or publishers to take turns as authors, too. But it does have a price. I designed my life to guarantee some daily progress in the studio, and for me that meant early mornings, rather than evenings with whatever was left of me after a demanding day at work. But that also means I'm useless late evenings and hence I have no real social life.
Was it difficult to keep this book going over such a long period of time?
In the past, after a couple years on any project, I'd suffer mental fatigue, or get bored and just want to be done. With Sailor Twain it only got more interesting, more gripping, with every passing season. Eight, nine years in, the project kept surprising me and revealing itself to me.
I imagine it was very tough to let go of the book after spending that much time with it. But now that the book has been out for a while, how do you feel about it? Do you find your emotions toward the book and the story evolving?
It might sound odd to say, but Sailor Twain was a kind of shedding for me. In some ways it's where I no longer am. By the time it finished, I felt a sense of freedom. It has a life of its own; it escaped me. Sometimes I look at a scene in it and wonder who did that. I think when you work at something with high intensity for long enough, you switch into a different state where things are possible that you can't normally do. Then you go back into "ordinary life state" and you know it's not your usual consciousness that was at play.
How long did it take you to create those beautiful charcoal illustrations? They’re really involving and perfectly suited to the story.
There was a good deal of trial and error, at script stage, at character designs, and finished pages. I made several rounds of the first chapters in inks, in pen, and none of them quite matched the atmosphere I was hoping for. I had worked in charcoal for a picture book I illustrated called Long Night Moon by author Cynthia Rylant some years ago. But I had ruled out charcoal for comics, because of how messy it is, and hard to fix, scan, all that. But then I was doing little studies of the Hudson, and I picked up a piece of Willow charcoal, and suddenly there was the mood! Steam and smoke, coal, the industrial revolution, a rainy, stormy summer—a steamboat vanishing in the fog…. I knew it had to be done that way.
How much research went into making this book? And did that research change the story’s initial direction in any way?
I spent many long hours at the New York Historical Society, the New York Public Library, various local historical societies along the Hudson—quite a lot of research, over the years. The project caused me to steep myself in 19th century images, in New York's Gilded Age, in Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Pete Hamill's wonderful different eras of old New York, Luc Sante’s unique and brilliant Low Life, riverboat captain's journals, with endless surprises at every turn.
The research filled out the story, gave it an anchor of credibility; the subtext of feminism and black history certainly grew from reading about the times, and the kind of scorn that was heaped on the women's suffrage movement, the seemingly impossible odds against any kind of racial equality. These things run through the heart of Sailor Twain, even though they're not being telegraphed in obvious ways. So as my own perceptions about 1880s America deepened, so did my story. And the longer the research unfolded, the more those times echoed with our own, for me. The terrible polarization of America, for instance, is hardly new.
What drew you to a mermaid story? What do mermaids symbolize for you in this sense?
The idea of a mermaid's song is ancient…. It's something so attractive that you cannot resist its compulsion, something you would gladly follow down to a watery grave. I think we know mermaids in our own lives. Obsessions, fixations, for one. Addictions, chemical or emotional or other kinds, for instance. It caught me that Ulysses knew the power of mermaids, but he wanted to hear their song, so he tied himself to the ship's mast. That intrigued me. In Sailor Twain, the captain makes the mermaid promise not to sing—and yet, he keeps wondering what her song might be like. And of course, you know she will have to sing, don't you? Just like hard drugs, you can't just flirt with a mermaid. But in the story, there isn't just the one mermaid; there's her—the actual fish-gal—but you'll find different characters have a "mermaid effect" on one another... "The Mermaid Effect"—that was the slogan on posters for the Disney musical a few years ago. I became very interested in the mermaid effect.
What was the most difficult part of the story for you, the part you struggled most with?
There were technical struggles, problems to solve—how to parse out certain mysteries in the story, what to spell out, what to keep a little veiled, you know, storytelling struggles. And there were my own development struggles within this project…. As it moved from being a kind of personal therapy project to finding a life of its own, I learned to treat the characters not just as voices from my head, but as separate entities with their own voices. That took a few years. Hopefully it can happen faster next time.
What do you find fascinating about the history of New York? What mysteries and legends about it draw you in or compel you?
There's a ton of fascinating folklore all up and down the Hudson, and New York brims with amazing history and legend. Washington Irving was consciously setting out to develop a new American mythos centered around here, with Sleepy Hollow and Rip van Winkle…. I'd love to think I'm taking a few steps in those footprints.
What are you working on next?
Picture books will be coming out first, and something longer, for adults, is already brewing….