Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page BY Matt Kish. Tin House Books. Hardcover, 600 pages. $69.

The cover of Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page

MOBY-DICK IS ONE OF THOSE WORKS of literature more honored than fully read. Many a bold reader has sailed into its opening pages only to leap overboard in the midst of some lengthy, minutiae-rich account of the whaling business. Melville’s action-adventure scenes, harpooning rather than sperm milking, have certainly inspired visual artists—from the Rockwell Kent expressionist woodcuts published in a 1930 edition of the novel, to the ’40s Classics Illustrated comic-book versions, to Will Eisner’s recent graphic retelling. Kent’s copious illustrations—nearly 280 images—kick-started interest in what was then a largely forgotten book. Now midwestern artist Matt Kish ups the ante by producing an image for each of the Signet Classics paperback’s 552 pages. Kish references Kent’s iconic figuration; the intricate pen work of contemporary Zak Smith, who gave Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow the same completist treatment; and a wide range of other artists, including Philip Guston. Still, Kish marks this project as very much his own—his vivid colors and crowded designs command an attention that is often playfully ironized by narrative cartooning and the welcome intrusion of obliquely related non-Melvillean texts. In this illustration, Kish takes one of those pedantic pages, one where Melville critiques a scientist’s comparison of the sperm whale’s shape to a squash, and challenges the novelist with a credible rendering of what might be called “squale.” The palimpsestic gardening text in the background, a domestic note amid this tale of hunters on the high seas, furthers the joke. Not so much honored as reimagined, Moby-Dick in Kish’s hands is the vertiginous, immersive experience Melville intended.