Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 001

I am often asked just how I decide which line of text from Moby-Dick I am going to illustrate, and if I simply read one page each day. Since I have read the book a number of times, I am relatively familiar with most of it (although each reading has revealed more and more to me). Generally, I will read a few chapters at a time and simply marinate on them for a while. Turn them over in my in my brain almost subconsciously. When the time comes, I will re-read a few pages and select a passage that I have an immediate response to. I’m not choosing passage that would simply be easy or fun to illustrate, nor am I necessarily choosing passages that I think will continue to advance the narrative in a visual way. I’m not trying to create a graphic novel version of Moby-Dick, or some sort of storyboard for the tale. I think it would actually be fairly difficult to follow and comprehend the thread of the story simply by looking at my illustrations alone, unless one had already read the novel at least once. That may be a weakness of the project, but to me it is simply another layer in the mosaic that’s been built up around the book over the decades and it doesn’t trouble me.

Once I’ve selected a line to illustrate, I will again let my subconscious go to work. I’m always aware that what I am really doing is channeling all of the visual imagery that I have soaked in over a lifetime of looking at things and reacting to the text from that state of mind. I can see all sorts of influences in nearly every one of the illustrations I’ve made so far. Some are almost obvious while others are more subtle. But again, as I mentioned before, each of these illustrations is an intensely personal reaction to the text and the novel itself, as I see it, as it plays out in my own inner theater. I’m not certain if this is the way I’ve always seen Moby-Dick, but I do know that many of these images are strangely familiar to me so at some point in the past this is what the novel became, visually, to me.

Unfortunately, I have a habit of never planning anything very well. A good example was my choice of the Signet Classics paperback edition of the novel, which uses Roman numerals for the “Front Matter” and begins Chapter 1 on page 1. That edition has 552 pages, meaning I would have to create 552 daily pieces of art. I have since learned that the Dover Giant Thrift Edition has only 464 pages, some of which are introductory material and that if I had done just a bit of searching and chosen that edition I would have saved myself almost 4 months of labor and obsession. Ah, well.

So we come to the first page. The first illustration. The first step on this 18 month (at least) voyage. To be blunt, the choice of text was a no-brainer. “Call me Ishmael.” One of the most well-known lines from the novel. Indeed, one of the most well-known lines in literature.

In a sense, my illustration again demonstrates how I don’t necessarily always think things through. We all know that Ishmael is the narrator, and that in many ways it is his voice we hear throughout the novel. He is never far from the reader, a constant companion on the waves, and I mistook that constant narrative voice for a constant visual presence. One of the many tricks one learns when illustrating a comic book is to make the main characters as simple to draw as possible. This is especially necessary since the artist will be drawing them again and again and again, panel after panel after panel, page after page after page. While it may be a thrill to create some incredible vision replete with all sorts of fiddly details like folds and pleats in the clothing, belts and pouches, wildly colorful patterns and so on, those details can become sheer misery to draw so many times. So mistaking my Ishmael for a constant visual in this series, I depicted him as simply as possible.

In retrospect, I have absolutely no regrets. This image actually turned out perfectly, just the way it had to be. Ishmael, a vaguely whale-shaped mask. A cipher. A perfect stand-in for the reader. The man with the sea inside of him.

I had been thinking a lot about the simple, almost abstract art of painters such as Yuichi Yokoyama, Paul Klee and Joan Miro and the way that, for them, identity is often expressed through almost totemic masks. Ishmael, for me, became a mask. A symbol. Which I felt appropriate because even though his voice is our constant companion, we know next to nothing about him, even after the nihilistic fury of the novel’s climax has been spent. Ishmael is the one character everyone is aware of but nobody knows. This kind of symbolic, mask-like representation was something I had been thinking about for a long time, and something I would explore again and again with every one of the characters in the novel.

Beyond that, a few simple details remained. The first chapter and its first page are largely Ishmael’s thoughts alone as he half-drifts through a reverie of ennui and aimlessness. Best, to me, depicted through the vaguely ominous, bruise-yellow storm clouds gathering above. As for the name, well, honestly, how could that not be included? Again, a nod, perhaps, to many many years of reading comic books, but for me the word as a design element is something I would return to again and again. Perfectly suited, I think, for a novel like Moby-Dick, where the white whale himself is often compared to a kind of book.

On Friday, a nameless “old hunks of a sea captain” and “the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.” As always, comments and critiques are always deeply appreciated, even if they are negative. I value honesty far more than praise.

8 thoughts on “Illustrating ‘Moby-Dick’ – page 001

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston May 26, 2010 / 4:09 pm

    Absolutely fascinating, Matt. I think I’ve said elsewhere that I do tend to favor the more intricate drawings in the set, but seeing the sort of thought process that goes into such an (apparently) simplistic drawing makes me want to give that preference more consideration, makes me at least want to attend more carefully to the simpler pieces than perhaps I have so far.

  2. Dan May 26, 2010 / 4:32 pm

    Matt–Thanks for sharing your work! This project sounds great, and the mask does a great job of capturing Ishmael’s “damp, drizzly November” of the soul.

    I’m curious about what motivated the background to the drawing–is that an electric circuit?

  3. Joan May 27, 2010 / 7:28 am

    I agree – getting an insight into the process is fascinating. I love Ishmael as a totemic figure. Your description of the clouds struck me – I interpreted them in a very different way. My gut reaction was that it was the voice of God coming out of the heavens to announce Ishmael. It reminded me of paintings and illustrations of the beams of heavenly light breaking through clouds and I loved it. Has a Monty Python-esque feel to me too and to me that feels really appropriate. Don’t know why, but that’s my take!

  4. mattkish87 May 27, 2010 / 9:20 am

    Daryl, I think that slow but inexorable transition (back?) toward more detailed pieces has been an important process of this artistic journey, so quite a few of those will be featured in the coming weeks. You rather nicely articulated the challenge of creating powerful yet simple art as well. Some of it does involve viewers with little or no preconceived notion, but the greater part of the burden rests on the artist. Anyone can scribble down a few lines, but to put those few lines in just the perfect place, to do “more with less,” is an incredible challenge and one I wrestle with daily.

  5. mattkish87 May 27, 2010 / 9:25 am

    Dan, thank you for the kind words. This piece was indeed created on a TV repair diagram from the mid 60s. The reasons for using found paper are multiple. First, much of my previous art had been intensely and almosy fussily detailed, always executed on pristine white Bristol board. I began to feel really trapped by that method of working, and fascinated by the idea of layering colors, textures, and images. Additionally, I have always been deeply intrigued by the intrusion of random elements and chance into the creative process, so rather than layer everything in an illustration myself, I began experimenting with found paper to see how the visual information already on the page would interact with the layers of paint and ink I would create.

    When I decided to begin this “Moby-Dick” project I decided to pursue that wholeheartedly and thought it especially apt because the novel itself has so many layers and functions on so many levels. At the surface, it really is just a thrilling sea yarn, and my illustrations could be viewed on a purely surface level as well. But for the reader willing to dig deeper, entire universes of meaning and symbolism are revealed and I wanted that element in these illustrations.

  6. mattkish87 May 27, 2010 / 9:29 am

    Joan, that is an absolutely excellent take, and I am grateful to you for sharing it. One of the quandaries of any kind of creative process is that in the end it is the reader or the listener or the viewer that determines what the work means to them. I may intend a certain kind of impression, but someone else may see my illustration in a completely different light due to the context in which they see it, their own personal experiences, and so on. Rather than pull the typical “No one understands my work!” that some temperamental creators engage in, I have actually always been deeply fascinated by the wildly varying ways in which others see my work. It means a lot to me, and it often reveals facets of the art I may never have seen since I am so close to the process.

    The Monty Python analogy is certainly not far off the mark though. I have always adored those odd little animations Terry Gilliam contributed to their films, and one of my illustrations (for page 38) was a direct homage to his work.

  7. Monique Comte June 4, 2010 / 10:13 am

    Paul Klee deserves a great thank you from all the painters he inspired (including myself).

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