Thursday, December 15, 2005

MOBY DICK Classics Illustrated, 1990

Moby Dick is one of the great, enduring works of American fiction, right up there with To Kill A Mockingbird and The DaVinci Code.* Herman Melville’s powerful story about the doomed ship Pequod’s hunt for a killer white whale is full of dark poetry, supernatural menace, visceral passages of carnage, and let’s face it -- lots and lots of really boring shit about whales. Thank God they made a comic book out of it!

This should be called Moby Dick: The Good Parts, because this comic book adaptation by artist Bill Sienkiewicz and writer D.G. Chichester trims all the whale fat off Melville’s tale and emphasizes the violence and brooding evil. It’s part of the relaunched Classics Illustrated series, which transmogrifies works of literature into comic book form. I had a lot of the original Classics Illustrated books when I was a kid; they served as gateway drugs into the world of hardcore classic fiction for a whole generation of kids, and the 1990’s relaunch of the line adopted the same mission. This Moby Dick comic isn’t designed to comprehensively tell the story; it’s more like a movie trailer for the book itself, enticing you to read the original.

Moby Dick is a beautiful prestige format book printed on glossy paper that enhances Sienkiewicz’s subtle and surreal painted artwork. I have gushed messily all over Bill Sienkiewicz’s artwork before, and I will do it again. He is a ninja master; one of the greatest sequential artists to ever work in comics. There are few comic artists whose work would do justice to Melville’s work, but he’s clearly up to the challenge.

Check out this spooky panel of Captain Ahab in the company of evil spirits, embodiments of his dark lust for vengeance:

As usual, Sienkiewicz mixes medium and techniques to capture the different moods of the story. In some places the art is luminous and overexposed, in other places the art is dark and psychedelic. Regardless of the technique, Sienkiewicz’s art is always put in service of the story.

Writer DG Chichester has the challenging task of distilling Melville’s massive work into a lean read, and for the most part he is successful. He wisely focuses on the bare bones of the plot and throws in a lot of the sinister stuff for flavor. The comic is steeped in superstition and evil, from Ahab’s phantoms to the blasphemous baptism of a harpoon with the blood of whalers to the prophecy of the captain’s fate – because the boring whale stuff is eliminated, the spooky stuff takes a more prominent role in this adaptation.

Moby Dick climaxes in a three-day hunt/battle with the white whale, during which Ahab’s quest to slay Moby Dick drags the crew of The Pequod into mortal peril. The man has a serious hard-on for that whale.

Things do not go well for the whalers, who learn too late that Moby Dick is the wrong whale to screw with. The whale goes ballistic and launches like an ICBM through their longboats in this awesome full-page panel:

I hope I’m not wrecking the story for anybody when I tell you that Captain Ahab and damn near everybody dies at the end of Moby Dick. Screaming defiance to the last, the obsessed whaler is dragged to his death, bound to his prey by his own rope as it descends into the crushing depths.

“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

I know what you’re thinking: aren’t those Ricardo Montalban’s last lines in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan? Yes, and you’re a geek.

Moby Dick: no superheroes, no capes, no boobs, no boring passages about whales. Just a whole lot of spooky foreshadowing and brilliantly depicted carnage, courtesy of Bill Sienkiewicz. If you want your doom served steaming hot on a silver platter with a nice garnish, go hunt this comic down.

*I am totally kidding.


Scipio said...

Yes, I did have to scroll down the entire way just to make sure you were kidding.


I tried to read the original Moby Dick once; I failed.

Anonymous said...

So when is the Classics Illustarted Da Vinci Code coming out? They could dispense with the boring stuff and just have the ludicrous cliffhangers on every page! SCORE!

Word verification: jkitefmb. Ja kite fo ma brotha.

Anonymous said...

You NEED to review more Classics illustrated!!! Tell us about the Acid Trip art of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Wuthering Heights which, as I explained to my wife when she got on a Classics reading kick, is as dull as a crayon chewed by a 5 year old. IN comic book form, it's that dull! C'mon, let's hear about it!

zailo said...

One can only hope that they will do a remake of the movie "Moby Dick" casting Mike Tyson as Queequeg. He's already got the facial tattoo. Tyson is the only person who can get a tattoo on his face and you will just shrug and think, "of course." Think about. If anybody else did it you would think that they are a freak. But a canablistic rapist who punches people for a living does it, "well yeah."

Anonymous said...'s better than Avengers Unplugged #3?

Anonymous said...

Actually, isn't Ahab rescued alive in the epilogue?

thekelvingreen said...

No, but I think Geoff Johns is bringing him back in Moby Dick: Recharge in 2006.

Anonymous said...

I have searched for this book to no avail. Sienkiewicz is my favorite artist, and missing a major piece of his artwork makes me cry. In public.

If I ever save your life, Dave, I will claim your copy, and we'll be square.

Anonymous said...

"The man has a serious hard-on for that whale." --Herman Melville, pitching Moby Dick to his publisher.

Seriously cannot get enough of Sienckiewicz, even though I'm not sure what he's doing on the current Black Widow minis. Layouts? Pencils? Finishes? Standing behind his assistant saying, "Draw that. No, don't draw that."?

David Campbell said...

"Actually, isn't Ahab rescued alive in the epilogue?"

Ishmael is the sole survivor, floating on a makeshift raft made of Queequeg's coffin. Ishmael alone has The Eye of The Tiger.

Sheep! said...

Chichester and Sienkiewicz? It's like the Daredevile dream-team, only with Chichester instead of Miller. And Sienkiewicz instead of Mazzuchelli. Still, this team could do a pretty good Daredevil comic. Pity they're stuck working on the adaptation of some crappy John Huston film.

Greg said...

Chichester wrote a great Daredevil until #300, when it went insane. What the hell happened to him?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add my small, lonely voice to the nonexistent chorus of people who actually sort of liked the boring whale stuff when we read the book. You don't know how many times I've been able to use the blubber-rendering hints in my everyday life.

Anonymous said...

You bet you're kidding. To Kill a Mockingbird SUCKED!!

SwanShadow said...

I know I'm all alone in the fandom universe on this one, but Bill Sienkiewicz's art does nothing for me.

Call me old-school, but I like my comics to actually look like comics, not like Hunter S. Thompson's acid hallucinations as interpreted by Ralph Steadman by way of Jackson Pollock.

To me, Sienkiewicz might as well be Rob Liefeld with a paintbrush. There, I said it.

David said...

Picked this when I read a Bill S. interview in that old "Comics Scene" mag.

DougBot said...

Somebody needs to do a comic version of How to Kill a Mockingbird, the best book report ever written.

Gayest Neil said...

No boobs but a really big Dick! That's worthy of a thumbs up Celine Dion in my opinion!

Anonymous said...

You know what kicks ass? The 1998 Moby Dick remake with Patrick Stewart as Ahab, Henry Thomas as Ishmael, and Ted "Buffalo Bill" Levine as Queequeg. Stewart practically breaks off pieces of scenery and jams them into his mouth.

Anonymous said...

So here's more Sienkiewicz geekery: what was that Wolverine prestige (overpriced!) thing he did shortly after Moby Dick? Wolverine's shot up with weird cartoon nanites, which start pushing adamantium out of his skin in big jagged spikes; and he hallucinates white whales and stuff?
And then Bill inked Sal Buscema, in Spider-man. During the Clone Saga. I hate you, ritalin.

Shon Richards said...

I actually read Moby Dick from start to finish unabridged and not for a school project or because I lost a bet. I was amazed by the sheer amount of whale blubber oil processing Melville felt was important to include in the book. I'm imagining his editor saying, "Herm, seriously, people want to know how many turns of the knife it takes to sheer away fat and blood. Trust me on this one."

Anonymous said...

Is it wrong that I was more taken by the lettering from Willie Schubert than I was the art?

I don't know if I'd go so far as to say Bill Sink*&^% is Rob Liefeld with a paint can, but I do prefer his scratchy black inks over the painted stuff.

Anonymous said...

So here's more Sienkiewicz geekery: what was that Wolverine prestige (overpriced!) thing he did shortly after Moby Dick? Wolverine's shot up with weird cartoon nanites, which start pushing adamantium out of his skin in big jagged spikes; and he hallucinates white whales and stuff?

That would be Wolverine: Inner Fury. Written by Chichester, and well worth the 5 bucks - or less- it'll set you back on Ebay. And he was hallucinating whales because the big bad was actually named "The Whale," though it turned out that the real big bad was actually "Big." And yes, "Big" definitely got the fuzzy end of the lollipop when it came to Hydra codenames.

Anonymous said...

Man, I loved this comic. Good one.

A quibble, though. Dave, there's a big difference between the original Classics Comics (aka Classics Illustrated) and these. The originals dated from the '40s, '50s and '60s, were yellow, cheap, and usually (not always) had bad art. There were hundreds of them. All of Shakespeare and most of Dickens, just for starters. They stopped making new ones in 1962, stopped reprinting old ones around 1969, and they gradually disappeared from bookstores and newsstands in the early '70s (when I was a wee tiny boy).

The 1990s Classic Comics were done by First Comics. Remember them? Grimjack, American Flagg!, Jon Sable Freelance? Great company, great creative people -- Jon Ostrander, Mike Grell, Joe Staton -- stupid management. Specifically, a CEO who thought that "poor impulse control=leadership!"

The second-generation Classics Comics came towards the end of First Comics, in late '89 or '90. IMS they lasted just under two years, and there were maybe 20 or so titles. Quality was scattershot but often very high -- I'd put this issue as one of the highest, but let's not forget Rick Geary's Alice in Wonderland, or Gahan Wilson's Edgar Allen Poe.

Then, like everything else done by First Comics, they disappeared in 1991 in an explosion of lawsuits.

I gather someone else has tried a third time, but I don't know the details.

Doug M.

lestat said...

Off-topic, but....

Doug M.? I knew a Doug Muir about 15 years ago who was a fanatic about First Comics, and turned me into a lifelong fan of Grimjack. Could you be one and the same?

Jason Sanders

Anonymous said...

I don't know about a 3rd wave, but the old Classics Illustrated stuff has been repackaged for school use by Saddleback Publishing. It has the same stiff art and the coloring seems a bit off still. I study education, and it always amazes me how comic books and graphic novels get picked up (or not) by schools.

Rob Schamberger said...

Acclaim did the third round. Pretty bad stuff, if I remember right.

The Kyle Baker Through the Looking Glass is phenomenal, for those interested in the time he was actually putting pencil to paper.

Now, here's your challenge with Billy the Sink's Moby Dick: Find the panels that Jae Lee swiped in the first Hellshock miniseries. And when I say 'swiped' I mean 'copied'.

Anonymous said...

Jason Sanders -- if you were at the University of Illinois in 1990, then yep, that's me.

You can reach me at muir underscore doug in a domain called bah dot com.

BTW, you did know Grimjack is back?

Doug M.

Anonymous said...

I tend to think of Sienkiewicz as when I became sophisticated in the ways of comics. That moment I unexpectedly "got" his art--when I understood it in a way wholly distinct from "Why can't he draw like Jim Lee?"--transformed me in a way not unlike going from Savage Hulk to the Professor. Suddenly I could wade into the waters of Vertigo and Grant Morrison without drowning in a flood of ignorance. I was enlightened beyond the wildest dreams of wild-dreaming things. Oh, and I could spell his name without looking it up. That's gotta be 10 IQ points right there.

So, Siekiewicz = red pill. Except when he's inking. I still think he's hit-or-miss in that department. Maybe I'm just a green Hulk after all.

(Word verification: dtmca. Yes, appreciating Sienkiewicz is very much like having DT's in Mecca, thank you very much Creepy All-knowing Plunderer of the Subconscious.)

gwalla said...

Oh man, that is the perfect placement for that typo...

Tim Easy said...

I think that the lyrics to Led Zeppelin's song "Moby Dick" were better than the artwork in this comicbook.

thekelvingreen said...

There were a wave of Classics-type comics published by Marvel UK in the late 80's and/or early 90's. Frankenstein was one, as was War of the Worlds and, I think, Treasure Island. I don't know if these were UK-originated, or reprints from the US stuff.

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