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.

One illustration for every page…

On August 6th of last year, my lifelong obsession with Moby-Dick reached what may come to be its zenith. That was the day I decided, almost on a whim, to embark on a project to create one illustration each day for every one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback edition of the novel. You know, the blue one with the amazing Claus Hoie painting on the cover.

I have never considered myself an artist. My undergraduate degree is in secondary education with a focus on English and my master’s degree, earned over a decade later, is in library and information science. I haven’t taken an art class since community college in 1987. I have no MFA, not even a BFA, to bolster my credibility or lend authentication to any “artist’s statements” I might hope to one day display on a placard pasted to a well next to where one of my illustrations hangs. And yet, in spite of this, I have been making pictures for my entire life.

My earliest memories of reading, of the thrill of being able to pull books that I myself had selected off a bookshelf and to read them at my own pace, on my own time, are of illustrated stories. Mostly myths, fairy tales and folklore. Collections by Andrew Lang and Padraic Colum, illustrated by the likes of Willy Pogany, Kaye Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and others. And quite honestly, for good or ill, I’ve never really grown up, whatever that means, since then. Sure, I’ve read plenty of books without pictures, whether for school or for pleasure or to keep up with my mature friends. But for me, there is absolutely no thrill compared to that of journeying through a fantastically illustrated story.

Those early experiences led to a childhood, and adolescence and even adulthood immersed in imagery. Definitively lowbrow imagery. Silver Age Marvel comic books, pulp science fiction paperback covers, Saturday morning cartoons, prog rock LP covers, Heavy Metal (the comic, not the music) magazines, action figures, 8-bit videogames, and Dungeons & Dragons books. Often my memory of these things eclipses my memory of actual events, relationships, and experiences.

So, in spite of never considering myself an artist, of having no formal artistic background or education beyond the ordinary high school classes and the aforementioned community college Art 101, I’ve been almost obsessed with making pictures ever since I was old enough to look at them. Like most, I imitated what I loved and aped the style of my heroes. I drew mostly monsters – dragons, sea serpents, and dinosaurs with the occasional robot or alien threw in. And I did that for years. Years and years and years. Well into adulthood, really.

Actually, I still do it.

I’ve tried my hand at making comics, mostly to Xerox and staple and give to friends, and over the years I’ve slowly developed a personal mythology that I’ve taken stabs at illustrating when time allows. But I’m always being drawn back to books and stories and that sense of narrative. Late last summer, taken with that (simple?) idea of creating what I’d like to see, I decided it was time to take everything I’d learned, everything I’d seen, everything I’d done and made and give life to my own vision of Moby-Dick.

The pace, one illustration per day, every day, for 552 days, was a deliberate conceit and the only rule I set. Many of my drawings had become almost overwrought with obsessive detail and the act of drawing was beginning to feel like a prison to me. I dreaded that. I thought that by forcing myself to complete one illustration per day, every day, I would be forced to step back from my overreliance on details, my close personal partnership with rulers and circle templates, and my own very real horror vacui. I would have to learn to work quickly, to do more with less, and to explore other media beyond colored pencils, pens and ink.

Beyond that, there were no rules. I would create each illustration in any media I chose, whether it was ballpoint pen, collage, cheap craft paint or magic marker. After years of working in used bookstores, and taking home the detritus of what customers didn’t want and the bookstore couldn’t sell, I decided to create each of these Moby-Dick illustrations on “found” paper, or paper I had harvested from these old books and encyclopedias and manuals. I was especially drawn to diagrams, maps, and anything with a pictorial representation of information. While I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, I know now that my use of this found paper, which allows me to layer paint and ink and color over other layers of imagery, is a deeply personal response to the layers and layers of meaning and narrative in Moby-Dick itself. The book that is at once a story about just about everything there is or ever was. I spend very little time specifically selecting the paper and media to use, relying primarily on my own intuition and gut instincts. Fascinatingly, on many occasions I have seen elements revealed through the juxtaposition of my own art and the elements already on the found paper that seem to almost eerily mirror the tone or content of the line of text from the page of Moby-Dick that I am illustrating. It has been both unsettling and thrilling, both.

In every way possible, this project of mine is astoundingly self-indulgent. Yes, I have seen the Moby-Dick illustrations by luminaries and giants such as Leonard Baskin, Boardman Robinson, Rockwell Kent, Barry Moser, Frank Stella, Bill Sienkiewicz and Gilbert Wilson among others. I am certain I have internalized some of that. And I am even more certain that I have and will continue to at times pay homage to that, sometimes overtly in my own paces. But more than anything, this is my Moby-Dick. This is how, over the years and all the many times I’ve read the novel that I have come to see the men, the ships, the whales, and that world.

I still don’t consider myself an artist, but I do like the pictures I’ve made and I am looking forward to sharing some of them with all of you as well as some of what went in to how each was made.