Moby Dick: Illustrated and Interpreted

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Through playful and evocative illustrations, Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures transforms on one of the greatest American novels and makes it relevant again.

“I do not consider myself an artist,” Matt Kish writes in the introduction to Moby Dick in Pictures, his fantastically playful, evocative, and ultimately transformative book of illustrations of each page of Moby Dick. Kish may not consider himself an artist, but his work–-all of it good, much of it great–-belies his modest claim.

Despite his rejection of the artistic mantle, Kish does have a valid point: “Since I have never had to depend on art for an income,” he continues, “I have always been able to make whatever kind of art I want.” And this is where the genius and the true pleasure of this fabulous book shine through.

Faced with the self-imposed challenge of illustrating each page of Herman Melville’s masterpiece, one of the greatest works of American literature, Kish had some choices to make. As he says, he does not consider himself an artist, and therefore he did not tie himself to any particular medium. While most of the illustrations are composed on what Kish terms “Found Paper”–-a term I will elaborate on shortly–-the instruments used to create the illustrations vary.

So, in the vivid opening illustration, depicting the famous invocation of the novel “Call me Ishmael”, Kish uses a simple method of colored pencil and ink on “Found Paper” depicting a complex looking business chart to create a powerful and memorable opening page, evocative of the depths and confusion to be found beyond this opening cloud.

These “Found Pages” almost of necessity transform and magnify the work that is created upon them. One scene relatively early on in the novel, for example, which occurs soon after Ishmael, Ahab, and the rest of the crew casts off to sea, contains a simple view of the sea. “I perceived that the ship swinging to her anchor with the flood-tide, was now obliquely pointing towards the open ocean,” the text accompanying the picture proclaims: “The prospect was unlimited, but exceedingly monotonous and forbidding; not the slightest variety that I could see.”

The illustration, created by using ink on “Found Paper,” is, like the sea before Ishmael, almost entirely uniform. The bottom a bright, luminescent blue. The top, a pale white. Yet the illustration is interrupted–-I believe, informed–-by the strange, sideways chart, cut off at the middle, jutting up in the background of the painting like the latter half of a secret whale, looming just beneath the surface, just beyond the unending horizon.

On other occasions, the original writings on the “Found Paper” are all but obscured by Kish’s creation. Here is another view of the sea from late in the novel. In this instance, the sea is calm and tender, although traces of the agony and blood of the recent fight between man and sea are reflected in the water and the sunset.

Notice, here, that the sunset can be mistaken (perhaps is) for the eye of the huge, all-knowing whale, or God, or creature beyond the beyond. Here the text below the painting serves as a literal subtext, as the illustration encompasses and informs the text itself.

At some points, the “Found Paper” and the illustration work in tandem to create an ironic yet eerily poignant image, as in this illustration, created with simple black ink, on the title page of an obscure book.

The Ascent of Man is juxtaposed with a mate of the ship, captured in mid-fall after being caught by a harpoon destined for the White Whale and falling down to the lowest depths. It is images like these, chilling and simply beautiful, that make Kish’s book of deceptively simple illustration such a delight.

Kish has done something really fascinating here. He has not only re-imagined Moby Dick for a modern audience. He has also slyly, almost imperceptibly, yanked this nineteenth century novel into the twenty-first century, underlining its relevance for the post-post-modern world. These illustrations are not simply a sideshow to the novel: they are a well-thought out pleasure that enhances the enjoyment and understanding of Melville’s work.


Bezalel Stern is a writer and lawyer who lives in New York City. He is currently working on his first novel. Read more at bezalelstern.tumblr.com. More from this author →