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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Approaching Melville's White Whale In A New Way: Matt Kish's Moby Dick In Pictures

The novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is a dense and complicated   beast of a book by any measure. Even serious readers never finish it.  Melville published it in 1851 and since then it’s been adapted and re-imagined by artists over and over.

Credit Dave Barber / WYSO
Matt Kish

Matt Kish is a librarian at Dayton Metro Library, where part of his job involves buying graphic novels for its collection..  His Moby Dick obsession started when he first saw the 1956 movie version  - at his grandmother’s house. Soon after that, Kish started reading Moby-Dick – he read it 8 times over the next 25 years. Then, in 2009 he began making illustrations for every page. Every day. For a year and half, he made one picture for every one of 552 pages.

“Melville died nearly forgotten in terms of the world of literature. Sometime in the 1920s there was this resurgence of interest in Moby Dick in particular and that's around the time that that beautifully illustrated version by Rockwell Kent was produced. This beautiful art deco version. So for 70 years or so Melville's literary voice languished in scorn and obscurity. “


Credit courtesy of Tin House Books

Kish was set to put his own artistic dreams away before embarking on what became Moby Dick in Pictures.

“In August of 2009 and I had turned 40. I had been making art—comics, drawings, paintings—most of my life. At least 25 years.  So I decided that I was going to go out on top. I was going to do one last sort of ridiculously ambitious project. And I was familiar- a few other artists had done this sort of illustration for every page thing. There are a couple of other projects like that floating around online.  So I was familiar with that concept. Moby Dick came to mind instantly because it is a book that rewards obsessives.”

Kish created a blog to exhibit his illustrations for family and friends. He  soon noticed that Moby Dick enthusiasts from around the world were reading it too.

“Right around page 100 out of 552 is when I think it reached critical mass.  I think at that point there were some people that started to think “holy cow, he may really pull this off” and for me honestly on a personal level once I crossed that boundry, once I got from page 99 to 100 you see triple digits, I started to think yeah this is gonna happen. Momentum is pushing me along and that's when there was this sort of upswell in everything from interviews to visits to comments to just attention paid to the project. “

Credit courtesy of Tin House Books

In one illustration, the harpoonist Queequeg is drawn as a menacing mass of tattoos and teeth. In another the elaborate anatomy of the whale explodes on the page in vivid color. For Kish, the power and detail of Melville's book provides a bottomless well of inspiration.

“The nature, the structure of the novel, the tremendous depth of the ideas the themes, the action on the surface, the thoughts beneath ..there is so much to the novel. I had read it eight times. The book had always seemed truly in the truest sense of the word like magic in that every new reading was at once familiar and yet completely new. You feel your feet on the boards of the Pequod but you're constantly discovering something new. You're seeing something in the words and in the wordplay that you didn't see before and this happens every time. I mean every reading.”

Moby Dick in Pictures, which was published in North America in 2011, received its second foreign language printing this spring when it came out in Japan. Matt Kish's 2nd book, an illustrated version of Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, was published in 2013.

Dave Barber has hosted programs on WYSO dating back to 1977. A Dayton native, Barber got involved with the station after listening to YSO and learning about all kinds of music from programmers such as Art Snyder, Larry Blood, Jon Fox and many others. He's also a graduate of WYSO's Community Voices training program.
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