Nobody really gets scared of mermaids. I mean, yeah, there are much more frightening things underneath the surface of the sea, like sharks, octopi or stingrays. But that doesn't let mermaids off the hook. (Why, yes, that pun IS intentional.) When you get down to it, they're a slightly disturbing myth. We may be pretty sure that tempting fish-women don't exist—they don't, right?—but in the 19th Century, folks weren't so sure. A great new graphic novel gets at the heart of the fascination with the women who supposedly live under the sea, and why they're so dangerous.
Published by McMillan imprint First Second, Sailor Twain focuses on a New York steamboat captain who finds out in 1887 that the Hudson River has a seaborne siren all its own. The book's title character finds himself struggling between the pull of his land-dwelling wife and the temptations of a water-breathing half-human. Sexy, smart and unexpectedly funny, Sailor Twain expounds on the mythos of mermaids and uses the seafaring life as a metaphor for the political and cultural upheaval that America was experiencing after the Civil War. I e-mailed writer/artist Mark Siegel to ask him about the themes and inspirations that went into Sailor Twain.
Kotaku: Are mermaids monsters? What makes them monstrous? Is it the idea of illicit sex?
Siegel: The fascination for mermaids is somewhere in the half-human, half-other. Kind of like the fascination Cylons or Borgs might exert. There's a tension, an impossible contradiction between their lower and higher parts… Sex with a mermaid is problematic at best. I played with that all over Sailor Twain, because I find it intriguing that they're so sexually attractive and yet "down there," it's never going to happen. In one scene, the captain is asleep and dreaming that the mermaid suddenly shape-shifts and has human legs . . . only to realize his own legs turned into a fish tail! So there's something in all this about fertile/sterile or potent/impotent…
Kotaku: It's hard to imagine nowadays how important steamboats were to the 19th Century. What would you compare them to today in terms of importance and/or symbolism?
Siegel: Until the train overtook and eventually replaced steamboats, they were one of the wonders of their age. In 1887 on the Hudson, when Sailor Twain unfolds, there were hundreds of paddle-wheelers plying the river. They transformed industry, commerce, and tourism, and they were seen as things of beauty, icons of progress in the new Industrial Age. In a short time they were everywhere in people's lives. I think the iPhone, the Blackberry and such might be today's equivalent. If you stop in any busy street or on a crowded train, the transformation in the world's appearance and behavior is startling.
Kotaku: What were the weirdest variants of the mermaid myth that you discovered in your research?
Siegel: We'd have to take a look at the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island, for that!
Kotaku: What do you think a culture loses when it stops believing in the supernatural? I mean, as recently as 150 years ago, people still used to think mermaids and other creatures might have existed. When that belief wanes, what changes does that kind of breakage wreak on a society?
Siegel: With the Industrial Revolution we entered an age in which the modern mind puts all its belief in science. The scientific method is best for exploring the mechanics of the physical realm, but has limits beyond it. Mythical thinking (not superstition) isn't incompatible with science; it just explores different dimensions. In his book Iron John, Robert Bly explores this in a fascinating way, how mythical thought can still reflect truths about the human journey, and help us plumb different depths of our existence.
In some cases, whether it's the Hindu pantheon, or the Greek, the Egyptian, or the Native American White Buffalo Woman, there are extraordinary, invaluable insights into the universe and our psyches, but the scientific method has a hard time reconciling that as anything other than primitive faith.
In the case of the mermaid, I think that myth belongs among cautionary tales-a warning about some of the lures we might run into in our lives, that some compulsions are dangerous and powerful.
Kotaku: You riff a bit at the changes in media culture from the 1800s to now, with having an author character whose true identity is a secret. Is there any artform today where the creators are ciphers like they were centuries ago?
Siegel: In the 19th century the public life of celebrities was a bit different—no constant Twitter feed of what Herman Melville had for breakfast, for example. Nowadays there are reclusive authors, but less and less. J.D. Salinger comes to mind. In other artforms? It seems rare, in our more exhibitionistic age, to retain real mystery around a public persona.
Kotaku: Did you set the book around the Civil War to home in on the idea of twoness that's a subtext in the book?
Siegel: Great question! Captain Twain's name is no accident (no relation to Mark Twain, as the captain grumbles when asked about that)… His birthday puts him under the sign of the Twins, and one of the side-effects of the mermaid's song-for most of her victims-is a kind of splitting. 1887 was the year R.L. Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde came out in America… So yes, there's a flashback to the Civil War at the heart of the story; there's a Civil War in the outer world, and there's a Civil War within, in the human battleground that we can become, when we are torn apart by opposing forces.
Sailor Twain [First Second]