Ahab was a monster.
I was afraid of him the instant I started this project. Even more so than with the white whale itself, I knew that whatever choices I made in depicting Ahab would loom large over the entire series. I was quite literally terrified, and I lived in dread of illustrating him. I knew the day would come, but the less I had to think about it the better. The pressure was staggering.
Perhaps that was because I knew Ahab came with expectations. Many are familiar with Gregory Peck’s turn playing the role. Less, perhaps, know Rockwell Kent’s Ahab specifically, but enough have seen it in various editions that I knew I had to battle against that as well. Beyond those two examples, books and movies and comics and paintings and prints and all sorts of other ephemera, whether they cluttered the pop culture landscape or filled the drawers of museums and archives, bore Ahab’s image and like a kaleidoscope filled the world of the novel with a fragmented panorama of monomaniacs.
As always, I began with the details. Delightfully, Melville doesn’t skim with these regarding his lunatic captain. After pages and pages of whispered rumors and half-myths, Ahab finally appears in the flesh in chapter 28, after this incredible line of text…
Reality outran apprehension; Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck.
That possessive touch, “his quarter-deck,” is a brilliant touch foreshadowing just how much control Ahab now has over his sailors’ lives. And deaths.
There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded. Whether that mark was born with him, or whether it was the scar left by some desperate wound, no one could certainly say.
There was enough, indeed more than enough, in that one passage for me to begin. And in spite of my terror, I did have my own ideas. There was some madness there, yes, but above all, there is a great unknown quality about Ahab. He appears strong, robust, “made of solid bronze” and yet he looks “like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.” A paradox. Ahab is both brutally vibrant yet curiously and almost invisibly wasted and desiccated.
Continuing to explore my own visual vocabulary of imagining these whalemen as ship like constructs themselves, I saw Ahab as some kind of an avatar. The ideal, perfect whaleman. Even here, nearing his own unknown and unexpected death, consumed by hatred and vengeance, he was shrouded in power and glory. His image had to reflect that might and the drawing itself had to show fealty to the man. I knew I would need to spend much much more time than usual, but I felt immediately that an ornate border needed to decorate the drawing, creating the feeling of an icon. In a bit of visual foreshadowing, I decorated the corners of the border with a blood-red quarter circle enclosing the shape of a fleeing white whale-tail presaging Ahab’s deadly pursuit of the unreachable and unconquerable Moby Dick. Also, in keeping with the grotesquely baroque designs of his ship the Pequod, Ahab was decked out like a barbarian king with a great belt, a massive spiked belt buckle depicting (again) the white whale, and a great coat swirling with the colors of the sea. A thick and brutal harpoon jutted from his right shoulder, seemingly encased in his body and ready to be fired forth as if from the cannon of his chest. Finally, Ahab’s great head sat on his body like a turret. I felt that I absolutely had to push the curious and slightly disturbing image of that “lividly whitish” scar to the fore as an outward, obvious symbol of Ahab’s inner maiming…
This first image of Ahab was grand, as suits the man. All perfect lines and curves delicately shaded and lavished with care. But I knew Ahab himself would undergo a drastic transition throughout the novel and once I had settled on how to depict him, I relished the thought of showing his deepening madness and steady unraveling. This I would show in the choice of media and the fury of the brushstrokes delineating him. First, and almost immediately after appearing on “his quarter-deck,” Ahab savagely rebukes Stubb, advancing on him with “overbearing terrors in his aspect.”
Next, one of the most definitive lines from the novel, Ahab’s cry of “I am madness maddened.” I began to experiment with subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Ahab. His head, somehow, in my mind had become a great scale-armored helmet. The eye, once so perfectly and geometrically rendered now grew and bulged and leered. The head was now riven from above, not by a simple scar but by a great bolt of divine lightning. His unmoored, maddened head seemed to float, sprouting wires and circuits and pipes rather than veins and sinews and blood.
Here, Ahab in an almost reflective moment, scrutinizing his charts and maps, obsessed with the hunt for Moby Dick while the lone lamp in his cabin swings and sways over his head.
Finally, what has come to be not only my favorite image of Ahab, but my favorite of the series of illustrations this far. Ahab, at the gam with the Goney (or Albatross) looking over the side of the ship at schools of small fish which had suddenly darted away from the Pequod and arranged themselves near the Goney. The line illustrated here is “’Swim away from me, do ye?’ murmured Ahab, gazing over into the water. There seemed but little in the words, but the tone conveyed more of deep helpless sadness than the insane old man had ever before evinced.” This is perhaps the only instance in the novel where Ahab’s madness and hateful thirst for vengeance gives way and reveals the agony and pain he labors under. Ahab is heartsick, dying inside, forever removed from joy and numb to any feelings of warmth and kindness. Some part of Ahab truly is aware of his own sickness, of the death inside of him, and at this moment, with this one line and this longing look at the fish fleeing from him, Ahab shows that “deep helpless sadness.”
How do you “see” a novel? When you read, are you giving faces, costumes, and audible voices to the characters? Is the narrative played out in your head as your eyes scan the words? Or do you concentrate on the deeper levels of meaning, turning the characters into vehicles that exist only to convey ideas or act as a mouthpiece for the author’s worldview? I think it’s a fascinating line of inquiry, and one which I have long been obsessed with. How do we read?
For me, since the earliest books I can remember reading were lushly illustrated fairy tales, collections of myths, and dinosaur books, the visual elements has been inseparable from the narrative element of reading. When I eventually graduated to books without pictures, I would devour the cover images, looking for any kind of clue as to what the characters might look like. Often, I simply resorted to elaborately visualizing them in my head, creating details where they were lacking and quickly growing frustrated with authors who refused to acknowledge this lust for visual detail in their readers. Which, I know, might make me one in a small minority.
All of these issues were brought to the fore when I began my project to illustrate Moby-Dick. Once I began, I marveled at how inconsistent my own visualizations were but after careful thought, this began to make sense. If I think back to how my wife looked last night walking out of the airport concourse after her trip, I see her complete figure, largely in silhouette, but whole and complete. If I think back to how she looked when I showed her last night’s Moby-Dick illustration, I see the top of her head mostly, her short glossy black hair shining as she peers down at the page, and perhaps I see a bit of hands as she holds the illustration. Gone is just about everything below the torso. It just doesn’t exist because it doesn’t have to.
One of the greatest challenges in illustrating Moby-Dick has been creating images of characters that I knew would appear again and again and again, in drastically different situations, affected in all sorts of ways by what was currently happening in the narrative. In casting these whale men and mates and harpooneers as almost ship-like constructs, this problem became magnified. How to show emotion? How to demonstrate action? How to show them changing? In this sense, relying on the illustrations to be highly symbolic has been crucial.
So, when it came to the three mates, Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, I knew that I wanted to capture something unique, instantly recognizable, and deeply symbolic (at least to me) for each. I knew I would have ample opportunity to revisit them again and again throughout this project, but as is the case with any drama, first appearances mean the most. Fortunately, Melville is generous with his prose, and gives enough descriptive detail to get even the most uninterested reader started on a good visualization. First, Starbuck…
The chief mate of the Pequod was Starbuck, a native of Nantucket, and a Quaker by descent. He was a long, earnest man, and though born on an icy coast, seemed well adapted to endure hot latitudes, his flesh being hard as twice-baked biscuit. Transported to the Indies, his live blood would not spoil like bottled ale. He must have been born in some time of general drought and famine, or upon one of those fast days for which his state is famous. Only some thirty arid summers had he seen; those summers had dried up all his physical superfluousness. But this, his thinness, so to speak, seemed no more the token of wasting anxieties and cares, than it seemed the indication of any bodily blight. It was merely the condensation of the man. He was by no means ill-looking; quite the contrary. His pure tight skin was an excellent fit; and closely wrapped up in it, and embalmed with inner health and strength, like a revivified Egyptian, this Starbuck seemed prepared to endure for long ages to come, and to endure always, as now; for be it Polar snow or torrid sun, like a patent chronometer, his interior vitality was warranted to do well in all climates. Looking into his eyes, you seemed to see there the yet lingering images of those thousand-fold perils he had calmly confronted through life. A staid, steadfast man…
Those who have read the novel before know that Starbuck is the one man most qualified to stand against Ahab, to block his mad, monomaniacal mission and thus save the lives of everyone on board the Pequod, and yet he fails repeatedly to do so. Starbuck is no coward, yet he seems to lack the vision necessary to see beyond his narrow role as first mate, as Ahab’s subordinate, and as a crucial cog in the orderly running of the ship. While Starbuck almost takes that final step, and even contemplates murdering Ahab, he stops short. Not only does he lack the support of the crew, he feels bound by his duty to the ship and to Ahab and sees breaking those obligations as perhaps a crime worse than the mad pursuit of what he feels is a dumb beast. Starbuck was, for me, the easiest to see, and the easiest to illustrate. Beginning with his “long, earnest” lines and his almost perfect subservience to Ahab, I saw Starbuck as Ahab’s sword. A lean blade of a man, there to further the captain’s will. A perfectly forged tool, balanced, lethally effective, and yet lacking in any real independence. I gave Starbuck the sober grays and blues of the stormy New England sea, an odd radio antenna to signify his near total control by Ahab, and two forward looking eyes on his blade-like face to demonstrate his blindness to alternatives.
Stubb was more complex, and more personal. To me, Stubb’s near constant joking seemed something that masks a deep fear, a terror of accepting reality. At his heart, I have always thought of Stubb as little more than a coward. Melville writes…
Stubb was the second mate. He was a native of Cape Cod; and hence, according to local usage, was called a Cape-Cod-man. A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. He was as particular about the comfortable arrangement of his part of the boat, as an old stage-driver is about the snugness of his box. When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair. What he thought of death itself, there is no telling. Whether he ever thought of it at all, might be a question; but, if he ever did chance to cast his mind that way after a comfortable dinner, no doubt, like a good sailor, he took it to be a sort of call of the watch to tumble aloft, and bestir themselves there, about something which he would find out when he obeyed the order, and not sooner.
What, perhaps, with other things, made Stubb such an easygoing, unfearing man, so cheerily trudging off with the burden of life in a world full of grave peddlers, all bowed to the ground with their packs; what helped to bring about that almost impious good-humor of his; that thing must have been his pipe. For, like his nose, his short, black little pipe was one of the regular features of his face. You would almost as soon have expected him to turn out of his bunk without his nose as without his pipe.
True, there is little there, or even in the remainder of the novel, to paint Stubb as a coward but it is a feeling I have never been able to lose. Stubb’s stubborn refusal to treat matters of life and death as anything other than a joke has never seemed to me to be carefree or valiant. Rather, it is an unwillingness to accept and to engage with the realities of a dangerous life. Nothing communicates cowardice better than the color yellow, so Stubb comes complete with yellow streaks down his head and back. The pipe is there too, of course, as it must be. And it is great fun to draw. But at all times, Stubb hides the yellow cowardice behind him out of sight if he can. He is one-eyed, since he can only see the world in one way, as a joke.
Flask is perhaps the least developed and most one dimensional of the mates. A small, furious man with a monstrous yet hilarious temper. Melville describes him thus…
The third mate was Flask, a native of Tisbury, in Martha’s Vineyard. A short, stout, ruddy young fellow, very pugnacious concerning whales, who somehow seemed to think that the great Leviathans had personally and hereditarily affronted him; and therefore it was a sort of point of honor with him, to destroy them whenever encountered. So utterly lost was he to all sense of reverence for the many marvels of their majestic bulk and mystic ways; and so dead to anything like an apprehension of any possible danger from encountering them; that in his poor opinion, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse, or at least water-rat, requiring only a little circumvention and some small application of time and trouble in order to kill and boil. This ignorant, unconscious fearlessness of his made him a little waggish in the matter of whales; he followed these fish for the fun of it; and a three years’ voyage round Cape Horn was only a jolly joke that lasted that length of time. As a carpenter’s nails are divided into wrought nails and cut nails; so mankind may be similarly divided. Little Flask was one of the wrought ones; made to clinch tight and last long. They called him King-Post on board of the Pequod; because, in form, he could be well likened to the short, square timber known by that name in Arctic whalers; and which by the means of many radiating side timbers inserted in it, served to brace the ship against the icy concussions of those battering seas.
Notice that Flask, too, is shown to be something of a jokester. Yet his temper, his hatred of the whales, his view of the great beasts as something that had “personally and hereditarily affronted him” casts his humor in a vastly different light than Stubb’s. Flask lacks some of the details of the first two mates, being depicted as short, stout, ruddy and pugnacious. To me though, these words conveyed magnitudes and Flask ended up being short, stout, hopefully ruddy, and with great waves of flaming anger radiating from his tiny musket ball-shaped skull…
Clad in a greatcoat the color of dried blood, Flask’s great eyes stare furiously forward, searching for whales to summarily slaughter. I chose this piece of found paper very careful as well for the heading “The parts of a pattern.” After all, what else are the mates, if not pieces of the pattern of the novel? In spite of their humanity, each functions more as a symbol, almost a set piece, designed to define or contradict Ahab. Their roles, their lives, are unimportant. How they function in the hands of Ahab, whether or not they further his mad schemes or obstruct them in some way, that is all that counts. The pieces are slowly falling into place for the great voyage.
(I had originally meant to post this almost a week and a half ago. Numerous daily life obligations, technical difficulties, and everything else under the sun conspired to keep me away. I hope to remedy that this week with 3 or 4 more posts, if you can tolerate that. Also, Daryl, I owe you an email which will arrive no later than tomorrow. I don’t expect to be home until around 9 this evening, and then I need to finish today’s illustration. As Melville so succinctly put it, “Oh, time, strength, cash and patience!”)
For some reason, even though I have read the novel multiple times, Melville’s description of the Pequod surprises me every time. I’ve seen so many pieces of historical nautical and whaling art that eventually the ships all seem to look rather similar. The same sort of planked sides, railings along the deck, lots of ropes and masts and so on. Honestly, this kind of imagery is now so common to most people that it’s not uncommon to see it on everything from beer bottle labels to tractor trailer trucks.
I think most readers come to the Pequod expecting just that same kind of beer bottle label, tractor trailer truck wooden sailing ship. Something they, in their mind’s eye, can see so clearly that the mere presence of a rather detailed description can seem a little surprising. It’s the nature of that description and those details though which always surprises me and ignites my imagination. For rather than a simple, dull whaling vessel, Melville describes the Pequod as “a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rather small, if anything…” Small! Given its central role in a story as massive, as epic, as Biblical in scope as Moby-Dick, who would imagine that the outer boundaries of this wooden island that becomes the sailors’ entire world would shrink to the size of a “rather small” ship for years on end?
Melville then goes on at length about her “antiquities” such as the bearded bows, the stiff Japanese masts standing up like the “spines of the three old kings of Cologne,” her ancient decodes wrinkled “like the pilgrim-worshiped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled” and so on. But then it starts to get really interesting, and the Pequod begins to seem a thing of fantasy. Melville describes how Peleg has “built upon her original grotesqueness, and inlaid it, all over…” This Pequod is “appareled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor…a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies.” Now let the mind slowly turn, imagining a machine built for the sole purpose of sailing the seas, battling whales, and rendering them into oil. Take this machine and inlay it with grotesque designs. Upon those inlays, set the bones of the very leviathans the machine has slain. A magnificent image should even now be forming in your mind.
Melville finished the description beautifully by describing how these same whale bones and teeth are not just grotesque, not simply design elements, and not even just trophies of the Pequod’s brutal hunts, but functional tools and devices themselves. The bulwarks are garnished “like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to.” And the all important tiller is “in one mass curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe.” The very jaw of a whale steers that same ship which hunts and destroys whales. The whole, beautiful, grotesque paragraph concludes with the line “A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.” Quite a description and a rather daunting task.
As always, when beginning an illustration, I simply unmoor my mind and let thoughts and images roll unbidden through it. Again, betraying my admittedly less-than-fine art background, my first thoughts were of the astonishing pen and ink art of Ian Miller, particularly his spot illustrations for the early mass market paperback edition of Michael Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, the beautifully stylized comic art of Philippe Druillet, and, for some reason, the ship that Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon and Erekose sailed on in Michael Moorcock’s The Sailor on the Seas of Fate.
An aside here. When Daryl invited me to post on this blog, I was honored but nervous. After several posts, those feelings remain. I have been awed by the level of discourse and critical analysis evident in so much of this writing. At times I worry that these crude simple illustrations of mine as well as my own level of engagement with the novel and its themes seem pedestrian at best and immature at worst. And in this post, given my own comparison of the Pequod to a ship from a 1970s pulp fantasy novel series as literarily complex as Conan and, well, you can probably understand some of my nervousness. Nonetheless, one of the things which has sustained me through 274 pieces of art and counting has been an honest commitment to my own personal vision uncluttered by deconstruction or comparison to the greater body of Melville-related art. I’ll leave that part to the experts.
So with Miller, Druillet and Moorcock in mind, I began to craft my own Pequod. Again layering the images over an electrical diagram, I started with a ballpoint pen mostly because I wanted the color of the ship to stand out just a bit against the color of the background. I knew I would have a dismal time of it if I tried to keep things realistic, so I again threw all caution to the wind and drew the ship exactly as I saw it. I knew it would have planks and masts and decks and chains but the rest was up to me. I wanted my Pequod to seem savage, barbaric, exotic, and alive. An old, wily, hungry, jaded killer. Nothing about the Pequod seemed to me to be gentle, kind, or even necessarily noble. It was a creature of function, every line and every element had to contribute to creating an image of violence and predation. It had to be squat, rather ugly, yet still lethal and fearsome. Here’s what resulted…
Later I had the opportunity to expand on the details of the craft so I chose to rather elaborately highlight the strange sea beast skull that I had adorned the prow with…
Even though I’ve only been able to lavish this level of detail on the Pequod in two pieces, I have enjoyed the task of visualizing each of the ships described in the text so far. Here is the Goney…
…and here is the Town-Ho.
And I look forward to the Jeroboam, the Rose-Bud, the Bachelor, and of course the doomed Rachel. But those are stories for another day.
And now we come to it. My first whale. I suppose, for good or ill, I have never outgrown some of my childhood. Even now, at the decrepit age of 41 (!) I am still fascinated by monsters. More specifically, drawings of monsters. Monster art. Anything visual that’s monster related. As I’ve grown older, my tastes have broadened quite a bit and now it takes far more than a simple Godzilla film or drug store comic book to thrill my eye. Still, for me, it’s generally still all about the monsters, and I mean that in the simplest, purest, truest, and most genuine way.
I think that the idea of monsters is still a part, at least, of what draws many of us to Moby-Dick. Certainly the novel is far more complex, yes, but at its heart, the duel of whale and man, Ahab and Moby Dick, is a part of what starts our hearts pounding and our minds racing. So for me, an aficionado of the leviathans of air, land and sea, the prospect of embarking on an illustration project where I would be able to draw monster after monster after monster was one I found almost irresistible.
Once again, I knew I didn’t want to do the expected. There have already been enough staggeringly brilliant artists such as Rockwell Kent and Barry Moser, to name just two, who have lent a soberly powerful realism to this yarn of men and monsters. To me, the fact that these artists were able to depict the whales, men and ships of the story in much the way as they actually appear in reality while still creating thrilling and fabulous images is nothing short of miraculous. I have very real doubts about my ability to depict anything realistically, and on the few occasions when I have tried to do so, the results have been dull at best and positively banal at worst.
This freed me to cut loose the moorings and let my mind explode. I could draw any whale in any medium any way that I wanted. The mythical and Biblical underpinnings of the novel were enough, I thought, to give me some credibility in sailing the seas of fable and fantasy to dredge up these ideas. So again, a lifetime of comic books, videogames, fantasy art, cartoons, science fiction and colored pencils would swirl together and from that alchemical brew provide a bestiary I hoped would thrill me to the end of my days. The excitement was growing. My first whale!
The line I chose was from page 30 of the Signet Classics paperback edition, and I specifically looked for this opportunity so that I could practice a bit before tackling Moby Dick himself. This line would give me an opportunity to start working out some of my ideas and building my bestiary of leviathans. The line comes as Ishmael lounges in the Spouter Inn eating breakfast and staring about him at the panoply of seasoned salts, sailors and harpooneers. He, like me, seems to marvel at these men and the deeds that they are capable of, curiously contrasted by their almost meek silence at dining in the company of strangers. Ishmael remarks “Yes, here were a set of sea-dogs, many of whom without the slightest bashfulness had boarded great whales on the high seas—entire strangers to them—and duelled them dead without winking…” That was more than enough to fire my imagination. The bravery, the martial spirit in that line! These men had “boarded great whales on the high seas!” I’ve had a hard time stepping out of a secured canoe onto a pebbly but very stable shore, so I can’t imagine the skill and dexterity it took to “board” a great whale writhing in its death throes on the crashing waves! And then these men had “duelled them dead without winking.” Again, the courage! Or insanity? Probably both, but isn’t that paradox almost always a quality of the best heroes, from Gilgamesh to Theseus to O.M.A.C.? I liked also how that line alludes to the honor and dignity of whaling. These sea battles were not murder, they were duels. There were rules to be followed. Codes of conduct to be honored. The whale was a terrifying and murderous foe, but one to be treated with respect and dignity.
With all that in mind, the image I finally depicted leapt to mind almost immediately. That giant, rolling, baleful eye, preposterously bigger than the harpooneer himself. I wanted the harpoon to look like the death dealer that I knew it to be, so rather than attempt something realistic I remembered the scalpels we used to eviscerate the fetal pigs I studied in biology. The harpoon became a smoldering black scalpel poised menacingly over that fragile eye. The injury to the eye motif! The harpooneer I was especially fond of, towering implacably on the head of the leviathan, unbowed, unmoving, frozen in that single moment of time before delivering the deathblow. Careful viewers will notice the pink froth from the whale’s spout, showing the beast to be already gravely wounded and fighting to its last breath.
Sometimes, with these Moby-Dick illustrations, there are layers of meaning. Hidden symbols, personal and otherwise. But sometimes, it’s just men and monsters, sailors and whales. And those are often the most fun to make. I hope you like this one as much as I do.
Queequeg stressed me out. A lot. I was enormously surprised, and continue to be so, at how much attention the Moby-Dick illustration project got very early on. It has generally been pretty wonderful to share the art with so many people, many of whom are total strangers. But something that I think even the most disciplined and focused artists experience is the weight of other’s expectations. While I think very few readers are likely to form a specific visual impression of Ishmael, which freed me to create that strange whale-like mask as his totem, many readers are either familiar with how Queequeg has been depicted in the various illustrated editions and films, or have in mind some kind of strange amalgam of a South Sea islander, tattoos, and shrunken heads. When trying to visualize Queequeg, I kept running aground on my fear of others expectations, and that froze me up for days. True artist block, for the first time on this project and one of the first times in my life.
In keeping with my initial focus on a reductionist approach to the art, I began stripping away what I knew I wouldn’t need. The body, the lean and athletic anatomy of a professional harpooneer was not important. Queequeg could just be a shape, like all of the other characters thus far. I had begun developing a sort of visual vocabulary that functioned as an easily readable catalog of symbols, each of which reflected a character’s role. The non-sailors, which I affectionately termed “landlubbers” on the blog, were all almost perfectly cylindrical, beak-nosed, wide-eyed toy-like shapes. The seamen and captains were all to resemble ships in some way, although, anachronistically, they generally looked more metallic and robotic. These forms have held up throughout the project so far. The harpooneers, of which Queequeg was the first, were different though. I’ve always thought of them as predators, or living weapons, beings frightfully perfect in their ability to battle and destroy monsters. For some time I thought of giving them all bird heads, but that seemed too obvious and, in a strange way, too consistent. Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo are so alike and yet so vastly different and I didn’t want to be confined to a certain character type for each one of them. So for the harpooneers, the only consistency I wanted was inconsistency.
That didn’t get me much farther though in figuring just how I wanted Queequeg, that terrifying tattooed savage, to look. Back to the act of reducing, after discarding anatomy, clothing and accoutrements were next. I kept coming back to what I think each of us remembers when it comes to Queequeg. His friendliness and his tattoos. I quickly decided that rendering them too realistically would be pointless. We remember what our impressions of things are, not what they really are. Queequeg, like Ishmael, and like the captains and landlubbers, needed to be a living symbol. A mask that came to stand in for him, represent him, epitomize him.
Thoughts of his South Sea island home called to mind the bright turquoise blue of the ocean water in what I imagined would be his lagoons and beaches, so I began with that. A simple scalloped pattern, repeated over and over, built itself into a lushly but simply patterned face. For his eyes, the silhouette was a compassionate almond, but the eyes radiated red to remind the viewer that this man is indeed a killer of whales and an eater of men. All that remained was to cloak him simply in his woven poncho, equip him with his trusty harpoon, and give him a simple topknot. And of course, recalling the hilarious scene aboard the Pequod when Queequeg first signs on with Bildad and Peleg, I couldn’t resist including “his mark.”
Ultimately, I was quite pleased with this even though it has been one of the hardest of all the images to create. What has been fascinating is the way in which this color blue and this pattern have come to stand in for Queequeg. It’s been incredibly gratifying that some who visit the blog regularly even comment for that. It must have been a powerful image indeed for viewers to be able to connect these things so closely and so specifically with a single character.
Queequeg is still one of my favorites to draw. Besides whales, of course. When I finally finish, sometime next spring, I imagine I will create a more elaborate portrait of the man simply to frame and hang on my well. He always seemed like such a likeable cannibal, and I should like to get to know him better myself.
I feel that my greatest artistic shortcoming is my absolute inability to render a convincing human figure. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the first Moby-Dick film as well as the exquisite Rockwell Kent illustrations. In each of those iterations, great care was taken to put forth convincing, unique, visually distinct representations of each of the characters. I didn’t think I would be able to pull that off, especially over 552 pages, and I wasn’t sure that I even wanted to. This was primarily because I wasn’t interested in creating a simple visual narrative, a linear A to B journey through the book via paintings and drawings. I wanted to dig much deeper, get to the meat of things, and show the book as I saw it in my own inner theater. One of the many things which has always astounded me about the novel and the men behind the harpoons is the staggering willpower involved in choosing such a path. I’ve already alluded to this, but the idea of leaving home for years and years at sea, for little money, living on a tiny wooden island, and setting out on the unknown watery deep to stab to death the most massive and often savage creatures to ever see the sun…well, I find that almost inconceivable. So before beginning the illustration for page 004, the first time in this project that I would have to depict a seaman, I spent some time thinking about just who these men were. What drove them. What inner architecture supported these brave deeds. Gradually, these men began, in my mind, to resemble ships. The very ships they sailed on or the ironclads of the Civil War. In some ways, part machine, part tool, part man. That was quite honestly the only way I could even begin to rationalize the choice to endure such deprivation, such isolation, such wandering, all for the sake of a few barrels of whale oil and a handful of dollars.
The line I chose, from a much more poetic paragraph, is Ishmael wondering “What of it, if some old hunks of a sea captain orders me to get a broom and sweep down the decks?” In a way, this quick piece was a good warm-up for what I knew would be many many more seamen and captains, Ahab and otherwise, throughout the book.
A simple, prow-like head. A band of some kind of optical devices. The anchor, (for me) the universal symbol of naval authority, radiating from his forehead almost aggressively. The booming voice bellowing commands. And again, an illustrated word. Words have shown up in many of these illustrations so far, and they have always seemed inseparable from my vision of the text itself.
These stylistic choices would repeat themselves many times until reaching their apotheosis in my vision of the mad Captain Ahab. But that’s a tale for another day.
Page 006 also represented a first in that it was my first opportunity to explore the whale as a visual symbol. In a bit of foreshadowing, Ishmael describes one of his most powerful reasons for choosing a life at sea as “Chief among these motives was the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself.” Knowing that I would be exploring the meaning of the whiteness of the whale at great length later, I chose instead to focus quite literally on Ishmael’s motive, “the great whale himself.” The meaning of the whale, as embodied by the whale. The proto-whale. The avatar of the whale.
Nothing but mass. Sheer, terrifying size, rising from the horizon. Something so huge that it cannot possibly be seen in its entirety at once, with one set of eyes. It must be broken into pieces, here by the borders of the paper, to even be comprehensible. An idol of the great leviathan. And an almost perfect fusion of power and simplicity. I was deliriously happy with this piece, and although many of the later images of whales would become a great deal more dynamic, detailed, fiddly, surreal, fantastical, and more, this to me is still the epitome of the great whale himself.
On Tuesday, I will introduce you to everybody’s favorite cannibal Queequeg.
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.