Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has been adapted and reinterpreted many times for good reason. It is the great American archetype of mad obsession and the struggle distinguishing between good and evil. It captures something deep about the human condition. If you’ve ever struggled reading the original, it’s understandable. The narrative is full of interruptions with scientific jargon about whales and detailed whaling processes. However, the underlying story is something everyone should read. So, if you struggle with the classic, you should check out Chabouté’s graphic novel version.
Chabouté’s version of Moby Dick closely follows Melville’s narrative. You would think that would be easy; however, Chabouté uses very little narrative, unlike the original. He let’s dialogue and textless panels do the storytelling. He does more with less, proving that a picture can be worth a thousand words.
That is where I think this version of Moby Dick shines. You hear the sound of Ahab’s wooden leg on the deck overhead and the creaking of the ship and the sounds of the dock in the fog. You feel the visceral dread of the sailors—all without reading a single word. That’s the magic of comics.
Black and White
Chabouté draws the book in a stark pen and ink. The style gives the book an ancient, seafaring feel. On one hand, it works really well with the overall tone of the book. It’s edgy, tense, and bleak. The sharp black and white captures Ahab’s madness and the crew’s apprehension. There is no reasoning with Ahab. It is a black and white matter.
On the other hand, Moby Dick as a novel is rich with meaning. The driving theme of Moby Dick questions where exactly the dividing line is between good and evil. Aren’t there shades of grey? Why is Moby Dick white, and yet called evil, when Ahab is clearly insane and leading the men to their deaths? The minimalistic pen and ink struggles to capture that richness. I would have liked to have seen Chabouté work the themes into the artwork.
Several defining moments in the original story cry out for color. For example, the firing of the Try-Works is when they burn parts of the whale’s body in three ovens on the deck. The ship looks like a floating funeral pyre. Melville describes the process as smelling and looking like “the left wing of the day of judgement; it is an argument for the pit.” Pen and ink just doesn’t do this scene justice.
Despite the lack of color or shading, Chabouté captures the essence of the characters, ship, and sea. Ahab’s face leaves no doubt to his single-minded purpose and madness. The sailors grow increasingly worried and anxious without saying a word. The whaling scenes give you a sense of salty chaos and crashing waves. The story moves at an excellent pace.
Chabouté’s adaptation is well worth your time. Overall, he captures the spirit of the book and transports the reader to the Pequod’s deck on this dangerous journey. If you’re interested in Moby Dick, you should also check out Classics Illustrated Moby Dick drawn by Bill Sienkiewicz. You can find a copy of Chabouté’s Moby Dick here.