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There’s a stunning journey in Matt Kish’s Moby-Dick in Pictures and an equally fascinating journey that resulted in the book. Kish—a self-taught artist—reveals that’s he has been obsessed with Melville’s masterpiece most of his life. On his webpage, he writes of himself, “I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life. I used to cut the grass at a pretty big hospital, and that was my favorite job. I still like mowing the lawn an awful lot. I find it peaceful. I have also been a paperboy, a short order cook in a college cafeteria, a high school English teacher, a dishwasher in a pizza joint, a retail bookstore assistant manager, a DJ in a strip club (for one thrilling night only), a computer lab monitor, a hospital patient registrar, and now a librarian.”
His first exposures to Moby-Dick were in the mid-1970s, when he saw “bits and pieces” of the John Huston movie version of the novel, with Gregory Peck, and then later as a freshman in high school, in 1984, when he read the novel—an impressive undertaking, since the novel was not part of an assignment. How many high school freshmen today pick up Moby-Dick and read it without it being prompted? Even when it is assigned (rarely, these days) I’m pretty certain it is mostly unread or replaced with the Cliffs’ Notes version. Subsequently, he’s read it eight or nine more times—always with the same interest—and then in August of 2009, he began creating an illustration a day for each page of the Signet Classic edition, until he completed the entire sequence of 552 illustrations.
Shortly, after he started working on the illustrations, he began posting them on his blog, surprised that he received so many responses. In the Foreword to his book, he confesses that early in the undertaking, he was discouraged: “There were many late evenings when I was exhausted, doubtful of my ability to go on, and full of regrets about what I had gotten myself into. I thought about giving up. Sometimes I hated the whole thing. But after the first hundred pages, the burden seemed lighter, and when I was feeling crushed by the weight of the task, I would look at all of the illustrations I had made so far and that gave me the drive to continue.” So he persisted, as the entire project became “deeply personal,” with the added incentive that before the process was completed, arrangements were made for the publication of the entire sequence.
And what a wonder it is, as thrilling—in many ways—as a first-reading of Melville’s novel itself. In his own words, Kish states, “I see now that the project was an attempt to fully understand this magnificent novel, to walk through every sun-drenched word, to lift up all the hatches and open all the barrels, to smell, taste, hear, and see every seabird, every shark, every sailor, every harpoon, and every whale… It was a hard thing, a very painful thing, but the novel now lives inside me in a way it could never have before.”
Most remarkably of all, Kish states, “I do not consider myself an artist.” Few would agree. Moby-Dick in Pictures is sui generis, to be certain, since Kish has both an abundance of talent and the undertaking itself a stroke of genius. And as for categorization and influences on his work, they are the most remarkable. But first the specifics of the pictures themselves: mostly acrylic paint, colored pencil, pen and ink, and ballpoint, they gravitate around 7.5” x 8.5” or 11”, though some are smaller (3” x 6”) and several large enough that they take two pages in the book, which itself has an 8” x 10” format and weighs in at a hefty 4.7 pounds (yes, I weighed it).
Many of the early illustrations are with the materials I have already identified, usually on “found” papers—official documents, newspapers, pages from other books, diagrams and explanations of scientific experiments, but Kish also uses spray paint, charcoal, cut-outs, and an occasional collage. Since the characters in Melville’s novel are international and the subject of the story is the world’s largest creature, the inspirations for so many of the pictures are non-Western and non-human. The first whale illustration doesn’t appear until plate 35, and then it’s a startling image in acrylic paint and black ink against the background of what appears to be an electrical circuit. But the most jolting aspect of the illustration is the stick figure of a human being trapped inside the whale’s stomach, colored red and tiny in relation to the whale itself. Jonah and the whale? Perhaps, but an apt precursor to much that will follow in this illustrated story of man’s bloody warfare against the majestic leviathans.
Thereafter, every few pages, an image seems to leap off the page, render an electrical charge to the reader, such as image 48 (with the quotation from that page of Melville’s novel: “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed,”) Melville’s homage to the South Sea Islander whom Ishmael came to admire as much as any Western icon. And the illustration itself? Black and white mostly, except for blood dripping from a dollar bill, with Washington’s image largely obscured by Queequeg’s mark, a meshed piece of metal, and a harpoon. Quickly thereafter, a number of illustrations suggest primitive motifs (Maori especially), the squiggles of Paul Klee, the slurpy running objects in paintings by Salvador Dali, and—increasingly—by Sam Ash, the Canadian artist, from Sioux Lookout, in Ontario. In short, a hodgepodge of ethnicities and identities.
It is this eclecticism which is so powerful in Kish’s pictures. Haunting, disturbing, whimsical, plus a host of other qualities, Moby-Dick in Pictures is a book to savor, to examine in bits and pieces, rather than flipping through quickly. I am reminded of my first exposure to Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s larger-than-life photographs, originally published as Earth from Above. I didn’t discover those photos in a book but as an outdoor display of the photographs, blown up in to huge poster-sized images (and displayed outdoors in Reykjavik, Iceland). I would love to see a similar display of Matt Kish’s work, not in book form, but in a gallery, with all 552 pictures side-by side. Such an exhibit would more accurately reveal the “running” nature of his journey than the individual pages can.
In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for Moby-Dick in Pictures, as it is: awesome, unforgettable, profound, wonderful, and human—an audacious new “reading” of the Great American Novel.
By coincidence, almost simultaneously with the publication of Moby-Dick in Pictures, Viking has published Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick? Taken together, the two books hopefully herald renewed interest in Melville’s novel. I do not mean to imply that Moby-Dick has been forgotten, even ignored, but outside of academic circles I fear that the novel is a difficult sell. As I asked earlier, how many high school students read the book without being prompted? I confess that I did not read the novel until I was a senior at the university, but it was one of the books that convinced me to become a professor of English, with the intent—at that time—of teaching American literature.
Which I did, initially. And I can even remember a student asking me more than forty years ago how Moby-Dick, with a setting outside of the United States, can even be considered the great American novel. Sounds like a conservative argument today, but I do not intend to go there, though Philbrick clearly understands the political overtones of Melville’s novel which he describes as a kind of genetic code or metaphorical blueprint of our country. Melville shows us, how susceptible “ordinary people are to the seductive power of a great and demented man.” All one needs to remember is the deceptive sway Ahab commands over the crew of the Pequod, no matter that he’s a crazy, one-legged old man.
Why Read Moby-Dick? is part literary criticism, part biography of Herman Melville, part imaginative interpretation, part historical analysis of the whaling industry, part ethnographic study of cultural differences but, above all, as good a brief commentary on the novel for today’s readers as I can imagine. Therefore, I’ll let Philbrick have the last word: “Moby-Dick is a true epic, embodying almost every powerful American archetype as it interweaves creation myths, revenge narratives, folktales, and the conflicting impulses to create and to destroy, all played out across the globe’s vast oceanic stage.”
Time to re-read Moby-Dick. I’ve just loaded it on my Kindle, for my voyage around Tierra del Fuego.
Moby-Dick in Pictures
By Matt Kish
Tin House Books, 552 pp., $69.95; paperback, $39.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.