There is something about Moby-Dick that draws creative moths to its flame. Herman Melville’s 1851 classic story has been told in almost a dozen film incarnations, as a pop-up book, in cartoons, and adapted to the small screen, radio, and stage. In this latest re-imagining, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (Tin House Books, 2011), Matt Kish spent a year and a half making a drawing for every one of the 552 pages of the Signet Classic edition of the novel. During that time, he extracted a sentence or phrase from his daily page, which he then illustrated, using a wide range of media and techniques. He documented the entire process on his blog.
Admittedly finding inspiration in Zak Smith’s Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow (Tin House Books, 2006), Kish’s work would seem very similar. Both artists chose intimidating, dense novels that fewer and fewer people are attempting to read. Both use the one-drawing-per-page format to illustrate their respective texts. But where Smith is a member of the art scene elite, Kish is a self-taught creative who undertook this project as a personal journey toward deeper understanding of and interaction with his lifelong favorite novel. His collages include ephemera — mostly pages from other books, electrical schematics, sewing diagrams, and the like — that he has been collecting for years. The drawings are bold, graphic, and would look just as at home spray painted on a highway underpass or in a psychedelic animation.
To page through Kish’s illustrations is to spend that year and a half with him. Some drawings are literal in their relationship to the text while others are more evocative of a mood. Most are intricate and detailed, but a few are simple and unadorned. This ebb and flow makes the viewer feel the excitement when he was having productive days as well as the frustration when the inspiration may have been less free-flowing.
Part of the goal, Kish says, was to create a work that was personal, raw, created by hand, and in direct opposition to the computer-generated impersonal art that is so pervasive today. While the lines on the page are very much drawn by a singular human hand, the images that we see are heavily influenced by the same digital culture that Kish is hoping to counter. For example, taking their inspiration from mass-produced imagery, so many of the human characters are rendered as robot-like figures. This seeming contradiction is what ultimately makes this book so interesting. This is a story about Matt Kish, not Moby-Dick. It’s the opportunity to share in one man’s literary obsession and to see, through his eyes, how a story written over 150 years ago can still resonate with a digitally immersed audience today.