Monday, October 25, 2010

About this project, #2

(In late May of this year, Daryl L. L. Houston invited me to be a part of a group reading of Moby-Dick and to join his blog Infinite Zombies to write about my experiences. Over the six week course of the group read, I was able to write eight fairly in-depth pieces exploring this illustration project and some of what went in to the some of the earlier pieces. There is a ninth piece that is sort of half done that I may finish and post here if there is some interest. Since some of you have been incredibly encouraging and [surprisingly, to me] interested in what goes on behind the art, I decided to re-post those short pieces here. This is the second one.)

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 to number the pages 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.

Next, 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.


  1. Hi Mr Kish
    Just wanted to let you know that although I look at some of your drawings and think "really? that's not how I'd've illustrated it..." I'm generally awed by your project, and when you write that "...each reading has revealed more and more to me", all I can do is nod inarticulately and enthusiastically.

  2. AS, thank you for that comment, and for the honesty. It was kind of grimly amusing to read what you wrote about some of the illustrations being not how you would have envisioned things, because the deeper I get into this project the more slippery things become. Quite often now, at almost the precise instant I finish an illustration, I immediately think of 2 or 3 vastly different ways of depicting the same thing. Once or twice I gave into the impulse and actually worked on a second version, but for the most part I have forced myself to stick with the initial effort. At the very least, I hope I have been able to put forth a unique, individual and personal interpretation of the novel.

    There is a remarkable book called "Unpainted to the Last" which collects all sorts of wildly varied drawings, paintings, sculptures and more based on "Moby-Dick." The range in the book is breathtaking, from Frank Stella's abstract vistas to Leonard Baskin's scratchy pen and ink pieces and prints. Any discomfort I might have initially felt about offering such a personal and idiosyncratic vision of the novel has long since dissipated due to the vast sea of art already out there regarding this great great novel.

  3. AS, if you wouldn't mind, at some point I would be very intrigued if you would share, either in the comments or an email, how you might have illustrated something especially if your vision was quite different than mine. These kinds of things fascinate me, even if there are elements of critique in the contrasting ideas.

    And if you would prefer to keep those thoughts private, I completely understand and would not be offended.

  4. no worries! no offense, merely busy with other things. personal vision forthcoming...

  5. Excellent, I look forward to it!


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