Moby Monday — Moby-Dick Illustrated, Page by Page

"But look! here come more crowds, pacing straight for the water, and seemingly bound for a dive."
Here’s a bookmark for you: spudd64.blogspot.com, where last week, artist and blogger Matt Kish began posting one drawing per day, with the intent of illustrating each of the 540 pages in his Signet Classic paperback copy of Moby-Dick. Kish renders page two as an alienated assortment of tubular, googly-eyed Manhattoes “seemingly bound for a dive.” Page three? A steampunky spermatozoon within a blue bubble, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life.”

I tracked Kish down at his southwest Ohio home to ask him about himself and the project.

Are you a professional artist?
I am a librarian employed in a large urban library system. I am nowhere near being a professional artist and I am almost entirely self-taught. Drawing has always been a very private pursuit for me, and only in the last few years have I started sharing it with a wider audience.

Which artistic media do you work in?
I don’t restrict myself at all, and often use a variety of media in each piece. I tend to favor using found paper, especially paper that already has something printed on it, but I use Bristol board sometimes. Never canvas though. I think the size and the perception that canvas is for museums and “fine art” has always kept me away.

More often than not I use pens, ink washes, acrylic paint and perhaps some colored pencil, but I’ve used everything from crayons to spray paint to stickers to nail polish in some pieces. Really, to me, the more handmade, chaotic, and slightly skewed a piece looks the happier I am with it.

Have you done similar projects about other books?
This is my first, although I have always loved illustrated narratives. I was inspired by a similar series that the artist Zak Smith had done for Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and the ongoing project that Zak, Shawn Cheng, John Mejias, Sean McCarthy, Matt Wiegle, and Craig Taylor are doing for Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Something about the gargantuan, almost destructive nature of committing one’s vision and ability so completely to one endeavor really appeals to me. Even if I complete one piece a day, it will be almost a year and a half before I’ve completed Moby-Dick, so I won’t be taking on any other novels any time soon, but I have been thinking about doing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness after this, and perhaps Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan after that. But I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself; Moby-Dick is all I can think about right now.

How long has each page taken you to draw?
In the past, my drawings have been intensely, almost agonizingly detailed; each one took me 40 to 60 hours to complete. That, combined with a full-time job, spending time with my amazing wife, and trying to have a life meant that a finished piece could sometimes take me a month.

I grew very frustrated with that kind of slowness, and the heavy level of detail began to feel more like a prison than a joy. With the Moby-Dick project, I am making a conscious effort to let the art flow very quickly from my mind to the paper, working rapidly, intuitively and almost crudely. Each piece has taken me around an hour to complete. I’m fairly happy with this pace and with the pieces in general, but I am extremely curious about how these things will change after 10 or 50 or 200 pages.

Do you have any plans for the pages—to sell, exhibit, etc.?
I’m too far away from completing the art to have really solidified any plans, but when I’m done, the first thing I’d like to do is show the entire series in a gallery somewhere. Since I’ve got absolutely no experience with setting up something like that, I worry that might be a long shot. I’d also like to see if I could somehow get it all published, but again I worry that might be just a pipe dream. When the series is complete, I will definitely be selling many of the pieces as well. And of course I’ll be keeping the entire thing available and viewable on my blog and on my website.

What makes you like Moby-Dick so much?
Moby-Dick in one form or another has fascinated me since I was very, very young. My earliest memories are of seeing bits and pieces of the 1956 film, the one with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, and I remember seeing the whale’s eye on the screen, rolling and staring wildly. The colossal malice and fury that radiated from that eye terrified and enthralled me.

Shortly after that, I somehow acquired one of those thick little abridged versions on newsprint. I was only 5 or 6 but I remember devouring every page over and over. For some reason, I really remember Fedallah particularly from that book.

Finally, in junior high school, I read the actual novel for the first time. While a great deal of the deeper meaning escaped my young mind, I could sense that there was so much more to the book that was just out of my sight, like vast monstrous shapes lurking just below the water.

What I love about Moby-Dick now are the seeming contradictions inherent in the text, and the way that Melville seamlessly wove these together. Moby-Dick is bleak, nihilistic, hopeful and optimistic. It is deeply terrifying and outrageously funny. It is dangerous and essential. It is heretical and devout. To me, it really is everything a novel could possibly be.

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby Monday – When Stephen Colbert Says “Read Moby-Dick,” You Read Moby-Dick

Do what he says
News that the 1956 film version of Moby-Dick had been named a “great acid movie” by blogger Erich Kuersten sent me to Hulu to find you a link. Till recently, you could watch that psychedelic Gregory Peck vehicle in its entirety on the site for free. Sadly, no more.

Instead, searching for “Moby Dick” on Hulu yields a clip from a year-2000 episode of the weirdly hilarious Comedy Central series Strangers with Candy, in which Amy Sedaris plays Jerri Blank, a washout who returns to high school in her 40s. In the clip, teacher Mr. Norbet Noblet (played by Stephen Colbert) tries to make the illiterate Jerri read the first chapter of Moby-Dick. Needless to say, she misses the fart joke completely. Still, Jerri offers a bold new take on the text. If you want to see the whole episode, it’s here. There are no further Moby-Dick references, but the Miracle Worker reference is priceless.

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby Monday – Have a Whale of a Dickmas

About as much fun as you can have on a whaleshipBreak out the dromedary meat and flip—Dickmas-time is here again! This Saturday, August 1, would have been Herman Melville’s 190th birthday, and ’tis the season to exchange Moby-Dick-themed gifts and re-create the gam feast (basically, a floating party) described in the book’s Chapter 101. The feast features not only “beef” of questionable origin and the alcoholic brew called flip, but “indestructible” dumplings and bread containing “fresh fare”—that is to say, bugs. Yum!

But if you fancy yourself a more modern fan, or simply can’t get your hands on (or your mind around) the gam feast food, there are plenty of other ways to mark the occasion.

D. Graham Burnett, author of Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature, delivers the Melville Society Cultural Project’s Melville Birthday Lecture at the New Bedford Whaling Museum at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 30.

At Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, a Moby-Dick reading marathon aboard the Charles W. Morgan—the world’s last surviving wooden whaleship—kicks off Sea Story Weekend at noon on Friday, July 31. A highlight comes at noon on Saturday, August 1, when singer-songwriter Patrick Shea performs tunes from his song-a-chapter project, Call Me Ishmael.

In Staten Island, the community performance group Staten Island OutLOUD will hold an outdoor reading from Moby-Dick at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 1. The event includes music from the Staten Island Philharmonic Orchestra.

And Arrowhead, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts, house where Melville wrote Moby-Dick, is hosting a Melville’s birthday ice cream social featuring live music and antique croquet from 2 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 1. (If you go to this one, ask Arrowhead why their website’s cobwebby “Other Melville Resources” page doesn’t link to Power Moby-Dick.)

If you’re hosting a Dickmas event you’d like to publicize—or you’d just like to share your own Melville’s-birthday traditions—tell us about it in the comments. Here’s to a splendiferous Dickmas!

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby Monday – The Musical Monomania of Patrick Shea

At work they call him "Mr. Shea"
While you were doing whatever the heck you’ve been doing the past 10 months—working? watching pug videos on YouTube? who can remember?—Brooklyn sixth-grade teacher Patrick Shea has been cranking out whaling tunes. Specifically, he has been writing one song per week, each based on a chapter of Moby-Dick.

Shea—who is also the frontman for the pop band The New Fantastics—posts these songs to his blog, Call Me Ishmael. Last week he announced that the first 19 of them were available as a digital download. For just $5, you get the close vocal harmonies of “The Specksynder”; the counterintuitively danceable “The Lee Shore”; “The Counterpane” waltz; and many more. The perfect(ly affordable) gift for the music fan on your Dickmas* list!

Shea says he came up with the idea for the blog last summer, when his two vacation goals of reading Moby-Dick and writing one song per day eventually combined. He has posted 39 songs so far, which means that he ought to be done with the book’s 135 chapters (plus epilogue) in another couple of years. About the same amount of time, total, as your average 19th-century whaling expedition.

*August 1, Herman Melville’s birthday

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby Monday — Call Me Ish-Meow

The whale-riding scene has been cut from most editionsFans of LOLCats—the barely literate, photo-caption-writing felines of I Can Has Cheezburger—will enjoy a new edition of Moby-Dick compiled by blogger Debra at She Who Seeks. Using other people’s LOLCats images, Debra presents a clever four-panel version of the story. One quibble: the condensation omits the book’s cetology material completely. (Or maybe that’s a good thing?)

The Internet is surprisingly light on LOLWhales, but they do exist. Here’s one of a whale defying gravity—and apologizing for it. The spelling is particularly atrocious … but then, it’s not a sperm whale, so what do you expect?

Visitors to the Cheezburger site can upload images and write their own captions for free. Just an FYI, in case you have an LOLMobyDick inside you, dying to come out.

•••

Good work, Team Whale. After trailing Black Beauty during much of the 45-day polling period, Moby Dick surged ahead to win the Guardian (UK) online vote for “best performance by an animal” in a work of classic literature.

The final score was 35.2% for Moby Dick to 33.3% for Black Beauty, with Buck from The Call of the Wild, the bear from A Winter’s Tale, and Jip from David Copperfield trailing far behind. Victory is sweet!

Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby Monday – Dickmas Comes but Once a Year

Just keep it away from your legYou may think you don’t know anyone who needs a Moby Dick hat. But have you seen this Moby Dick hat? Hand crocheted by a teen crafter who sells her wares under the name WhatsEatinYou, the cap comes pre-harpooned for the wearer’s safety and convenience. I found it on Etsy.com, the online handcrafts superstore, a location packed with potential for Dickmas—the traditional Herman Melville’s birthday celebration on August 1—in case you aren’t yet finished with your shopping for this year.

No whales were harmed in the making of this feltidermySadly, someone snapped up this cruelty-free “feltidermy” Moby Dick trophy head almost as soon as it was posted on Etsy by crafter girlsavage last week. But there are lots of other options. Who could resist a Moby-Dick GYOTAKU, a fish printed onto a page of everyone’s favorite metaphysical novel by artist Barry Singer? Or a stunning map of the voyage of the Pequod by printmaker Kathleen Piercefield—whose own website, by the way, offers a slew of other Moby Dick prints, including the haunting Pip: Alone. Have a look around; you might find the perfect item for your own Dickmas list.

Some commentators rue how commercialized Herman Melville’s birthday has become, but I personally prefer the gift exchange to earlier forms of observance, including the ritual donning of the cassock.

Happy shopping!

•••••

There are only four more days of voting left in the Guardian (UK) poll that pits Moby Dick (an asskicking sea monster) against Black Beauty (a talking horse). While the whale did pull ahead last month after we first mentioned the poll on Sea-Fever, he is currently once again losing to the horse by a hair—and whales don’t even have hair.

If you didn’t vote before, won’t you take a minute to put our boy over the top in this thing? Hint: your friends can vote, too.

Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

Moby-Monday: A big honking book in tiny poems

I will write haiku / without "Call me Ishmael" / e'en if it kills me!
You might think nothing could be more antithetical to Herman Melville’s sprawling Moby-Dick than haiku, the compressed Japanese form that was the salvation of every “write a poem” assignment in school: five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables, and time for lunch. But where there’s an idea, there’s a haiku about it on the Internet.

In the case of the white whale, online haiku abound. Here’s one by Dan Higgins, a reader of the Albany (NY) Times Union newspaper:

Call me Ishmael
Then we will go whale hunting
‘Til the thing kills us.

A darker version showed up on muruch.com last week:

Call me Ishmael.
Ahab’s white whale heart of Hell.
Obsessed depths of death.

The king of Moby-Dick haiku, though, is Moby-Dick in Haiku, a hilarious 15-part retelling by the genius behind MadHaiku.com. Here’s chapter one:

Call me Ishmael
a white boy from Manhatto
I’m not really gay!

Noticing a pattern? There are other Moby-Dick haiku out there … and they all seem to start the same way. Do you think Melville wrote that famous first line in five syllables on purpose?

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

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Moby-Monday: Read Moby-Dick, or the Whale Gets It

Don't skip the chapter on Moby-Dick
Among Moby-Dick’s kabillions of pages of literary fallout, some of the most charming and passionate are essays by fans trying to convince other people to read the book. Saved from obscurity in the 1920s by a surge of belated good press, Herman Melville’s dense, challenging 1851 novel continues to turn readers into evangelists on its behalf. Christopher Routledge of Liverpool’s The Reader calls this tale of whaling and obsession “the ideal ‘desert island book'”; novelist Rebecca Stott says it’s her inspiration as a writer, a work of “mad genius” that she reaches for “whenever my nerve fails me.”

The white whale’s latest endorsement comes as a chapter in Jack Murnighan’s new book, Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (Three Rivers Press, 2009). Admitting that Melville’s tome “is often thought of as one of the most boring, unfinishable books you can imagine,” the author reveals a secret: Moby-Dick “is funny, I mean really funny, as in one of the funniest books of all time.” The chapter—which Murnighan and his publisher have graciously allowed me to post in full on Power Moby-Dick—goes on to discuss that humor; reveal the book’s “best” line; and even (horreurs!) tell readers which chapters it’s OK to skip. (But don’t skip any.)

Cynics might wonder: if the book is so good, why does it need such a loud and fervid cheering section? Why not let people just read it—or not? The reason is that, like many of life’s most exquisite pleasures, Moby-Dick doesn’t always reward a casual first try. Fans don’t want the book’s bad reputation to make readers bail too early. After all, the more people they can convince to read the book, the more people there’ll be with whom to ponder its mysteries.

But fair enough. If you are a person who just wants to read the book (or not), you might consider signing up for “Read Moby-Dick This Summer.” The organizer, James Bickers, is sending out the whole book in emailed installments, starting July 1 and running through September 30—at which point, you can begin drafting your own “you gotta read this” essay.

Margaret Guroff is editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

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Moby-Monday: Massive white whale beached in Philly high-rise

Mocha DickTristin Lowe’s latest artwork could have saved Herman Melville a lot of time. In Moby-Dick, Melville devotes chapter upon chapter to the shape and bulk of the sperm whale, painting a mental picture of this elusive underwater beast for his 19th-century readers—and for generations of irritated students to come.

Today’s students have YouTube to help them understand the shape of these creatures, but it’s still hard to conceive of their size unless you’ve gone eye-to-eye with one, as Melville had.

Lowe’s “Mocha Dick” fixes that. Sewn in quarter-inch white felt, this 52-foot inflatable sculpture is a life-size depiction of the rogue white sperm whale for which Moby Dick is thought to have been named. The work is on display through summer’s end on the eighth floor of Philadelphia’s Fabric Workshop and Museum.

Standing next to this scarred, barnacle-encrusted felt leviathan, you can begin to understand the awe common to people who have seen whales in the flesh. Looking placid and slightly put-upon, the whale seems to be waiting patiently for humans to evolve to the point where they can get over their need to gawk at him. Given our enduring fascination with sea monsters, though, that may be a long time coming.

Lowe—a fan of Melville, Hawthorne, and other scribes of the dawn of the industrial age—says the idea for the whale came to him while he was sewing “empties” out of white felt. Feeling depleted after the completion of his last large-scale piece, a humongous folding deck chair, Lowe had been depicting throwaway vessels, including “six packs, trash cans, 40-ouncers,” while waiting for his next big inspiration. “Felt is the oldest fabric in the world, and it’s almost made out of dust, in a weird way,” he says. Contained in that dust is both destruction—”an ash, emptiness”—but also possibility for a new beginning, he adds: “It’s waiting to be filled up.”

Thoughts of the industries that create trash like his “empties” turned Lowe’s mind to Moby-Dick, Melville’s 1851 paean to the then-dwindling whale-oil industry, which was soon to be done in by the rise of petroleum as a fuel source.

While hanging out with some friends who were playing psychedelic rock music—and having been invited to collaborate with the Fabric Workshop’s sewers on a piece—Lowe decided to create a felt sculpture that represented both “the birth of this petroleum industry” and also a sort of magnificent, timeless knowledge, “like some crazy, big grandfather to bestow some sort of wisdom to you.

“With all these little empty bottles,” he says, “I somehow caught a whale.”

“Mocha Dick” is showing at The Fabric Workshop and Museum, 1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, through summer 2009.

Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

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Moby-Monday: Let’s Beat a Dead Horse!

Artist's rendering with baleen whaleWe all know Moby Dick is a badass—the erstwhile Badass of the Week, in fact. He can crush a wooden whaleship with his wrinkled brow. But can he crush Black Beauty? This is the question raised by a poll running on the Guardian (UK) website through the first week of July.

Along with Moby Dick, contenders for “Best Performance by an Animal” in the newspaper’s literary poll include Buck, the half-St. Bernard, half-Scotch-Shepherd dog from Jack London’s The Call of the Wild; the unnamed bear from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale; and lapdog Jip from Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. But it’s the autobiography-writing horse in Black Beauty who is currently giving everyone’s favorite cetacean a run for his money. In fact, the horse has been leading by a nose since the poll started a couple weeks back, albeit by just a dinky horse nose, not a mighty sperm whale’s.

Seriously: The terrifying freakish embodiment of God, death, nature, vengeance, or [insert true meaning of Moby Dick here] is up against a talking horse … and the horse is winning? Something is wrong here, my friend. Will you help make it right?

“Horse and Whale,” by Marilyn Burkhardt, used with the artist’s permission.

Margaret Guroff is the editor and publisher of Power Moby-Dick.

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