Advance Review: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick
Adapted and Illustrated by Christophe Chabouté
It would be in error to offer what could only be an unqualified review of the classic Moby Dick itself, so this write up will focus on the comic book as an adaptation by Christophe Chabouté. Although references will be made to the original novel, it is worth mentioning at the outset, that Moby Dick is a story full of irony. Otherwise normal career-oriented men are tinged with a bit of insanity masked as courage, which comes at a price, and that price is fear. Obsession is toxic, but in a motivating way, until it becomes life threatening. Those are just a few examples, brought up primarily to explain what is so fun about Moby Dick in the first place. It’s a colorfully written book, full of excitement and newness. A peek into the lives of whalers, which is apparently as thrilling and dangerous as it can be fulfilling, rewarding and of course profitable. And all of that is exactly what makes Moby Dick suitable for a comic book adaptation, not to mention it’s as timeless as say, Superman or Spider-Man. The novel, despite being a relatively quick read, is lengthy in page count, but the subject matter is essentially fast paced and never wastes time on irrelevance. It’s fun to imagine, if the classic novelists of the old days had been around today, perhaps they would have preferred to write for comics instead. Maybe not. Either way, as things turned out, we thankfully have both versions to enjoy now, each asking for your appreciation in remarkably different ways.
Comic book adaptations may seem like a quick way around reading an otherwise lengthy novel, but be respectfully aware of the limitations of the medium. Despite the fact that comics in fact do have very few limitations, breaking down an epic like Melville’s Moby Dick to page-by-page panel arrangements can create obstacles other creators may choose to avoid. Fear not, Chabouté is not only up for the challenge, he has in his own way defined what it means to care for source material while also embracing everything great about comics. The end result is so well done, that obstacles may well be why he chose this particular book to adapt in the first place.
A comic book of this quality requires a level of dedication equal to Captain Ahab’s infamous obsession with the white whale. But in this case, reaching the end goal is far more doable than chasing ghost-like whales, though the results of either would surely leave the pursuer with great exhaustion. Readers may be reminded of a similar feat, although not exactly the same, in Bernie Wrightson’s Frankenstein. It wasn’t an adaptation, but the illustrations, also in stark black and white, were as much a labor of love with the purpose of doing the original work justice. It’s one thing to tread into territory you may be familiar with as a fan, but the risks of missing the mark and not enhancing the quality and interest is very high. Contributing to the thing you love is not only a reason for taking on such a project, but could easily be what blinds you from making it better while preserving it’s original intent as a work of art. Basically, adaptations are useless unless they serve to do more…and that’s what we get with Moby Dick the graphic novel.
This is a fantastic example of a black and white art book. The best part of illustrations that are always meant to go without color, is the intentional use of contrast as an art form. Every panel needs to be analyzed ahead of time for shadows and light, and it’s more than a matter of designing the perfect balance by simply being minimalistic. Whereas normally an artist may imply certain things to be fully rendered later during the coloring stage, here were are presented with the exact right amount of visual information. Decisions must be made for which elements take the foreground and which parts will fall into more supportive roles. Silhouetted figures become more informative to the reader’s eye than fully detailed ones, while empty spaces indicate vastness more than a horizon full of clouds ever would. Chabouté implements large areas of white, pure unused paper, and solid black areas, both of which convey a sense of infinite depth as opposed to a quick ending. Various panels, and indeed entire pages, carry a haunting tone with them, a tone worthy of this particular story and its characters. The art itself is expressive enough to deliver the ominous sense of doom that infects even the most courageous of protagonists.
Whether you read comics or not, if you are a fan of Moby Dick, then this is a must read. If on the other hand you’re only a comic book fan and classic literature, such as this, is unfamiliar to you, then take note! Not only is this a true and sincere adaptation but it is a demonstration of what can be done with comic books as well as just how much goes into making one. Typically there’s a team involved but here Christophe Chabouté makes it look relatively easy on his own while displaying his skills and talents as a true master. Few would set out on such a daunting task and fewer still would achieve the end results that this book has.
This graphic novel was initially published in France by publisher Vents d’Ouest. Translated into English and available in the United States for the first time, thanks to Dark Horse, a publisher who continually works to showcase some of the finest creator-owned works around. Moby Dick is a sizable collection, that would make the perfect addition to the premium editions already on anyone’s bookcase. Although it may be true that nothing can surpass the experience of reading the original novel, this comic book adaptation sacrifices almost none of what made the novel so glorious. If anything it creates an all-new experience, and one that is absolutely superior to what’s been done on film. With a terrific Foreword by renowned comics writer John Arcudi and offered with an affordable cover price, Moby Dick is the complete package. You will not want to miss out on this.