Sailor Twain is a graphic novel that is heavy on the novel half of that term. The book draws from the romantic authors of the nineteenth century, from the sirens of the Odyssey, and from the emotional and carnal explorations of modernist literature.
On a riverboat churning through the Hudson, we meet two very different men. One is the serious, contemplative Captain Twain. The other is the more freewheeling boat owner Lafayette. They are about to become ravaged by the same obsession: mermaids.
Twain is just trying to do his job right, make ends meet, and ignore the multiple simultaneous affairs that his business partner Lafayette seems to be having with every woman on the boat. The ladies' man has a particular number of conquests in mind and is writing letters to a mysterious author who has an expertise in the latest cryptozoological happenings of the year 1887.
For all of the Twain's good intentions, he is emotionally neglecting his wife while trying to provide for her. He sees her only once every few weeks. His mind is adrift and alone. One night, he finds a wounded woman in the river, a woman with a fishtail. He decides to nurse her back to health. Mermaids are a dangerous thing, however. A person should never hear one sing.
Twain and Lafayette are about to confront their fears and most intimate desires, which intensifies all the more when our cryptozoological expert arrives—a very different person than Lafayette expected. All of this is examined in a flashback of wonder and sorrow with complex characters at the helm.
The intricacy and subtlety of the book lies much more in the story rather than the artwork. The pictures are a varied collection of grays, which adds to the mysteriousness of the narrative. Our characters have cartoon-like eyes and Lafayette's nose is practically the size of a harpoon.
Still, the art is not slapdash and Siegel is able to convey much information and emotion with his drawings. Sailor Twain is an American mythic tragedy that offers much to look at and even more to think about.