Christophe Chaboute’s graphic novel adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick was nominated for a 2018 Eisner Award for Best Adaptation from Another Medium. It lost to Damien Duffy and John Jennings’ adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
I’ve never had a great desire to conquer Moby Dick. It was never assigned in any of my high school or university literature classes, and frankly, the story of a crazy old sea captain trying to exact revenge on a white whale sounded weird. And then there’s the length of it — 500 pages, give or take. But if you’re going to turn it into a graphic novel, I’m all in. Plenty of literary classics have been given the graphic novel treatment over the years — The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf (the most recent version of Beowulf was also nominated for an Eisner in this same category) — and they usually are done quite well. French artist Christophe Chaboute’s adaptation of Moby Dick is truly excellent. His art, done in black ink on white, features exquisite details of the Pequod and its crew. Chaboute’s telling of the story captures Ahab’s madness, Starbuck’s fruitless attempts to reason with him, and the crew’s journey from avid supporters of Ahab’s mission to virtual hostages to his insanity. It makes a classic of American literature accessible to a wider audience.
The story begins with a young man newly arrived to Nantucket and looking for work on a whaling ship. At an inn, he meets Queequeg, a Pacific Islander who peddles shrunken heads. The two sign up on the Pequod even after being warned that the captain is a strange and dangerous sort of man. Queequeg is an expert harpooner, the young man (Ishmael), has some sailing experience from the merchant marine but longs to see more of the world from the deck of a whaler. It’s only after the Pequod sets sail that Captain Ahab shows himself to the crew, and what a sight he is: scarred, wild-eyed, and missing a leg thanks to a previous encounter with the monster Moby Dick. Ahab is solely focused on finding and killing the whale, and he promises a doubloon to the crew member who spots him first, getting all the men to swear that they will devote themselves to finding him. Starbuck expresses his concern immediately, pointing out to Ahab that their job is to catch whales for profit, not a particular whale for some personal reason, but Ahab is singleminded and determined. As the journey continues, Ahab’s obsession with Moby Dick becomes more irrational and dangerous. He refuses to set anchor and allow repairs when oil in the hold begins to leak; he endangers the life of his men, particularly Queequeg; he ignores the pleas for help from other whaling ships that have encountered Moby Dick; he takes the counsel of Fedallah, a middle eastern man whose dreams predict Ahab’s future; and he orders the forging of a special harpoon, anointed with “pagan” blood and dedicated to the devil. Ahab’s maniacal devotion to his personal obsession with Moby Dick leads to destruction on many fronts.
As mentioned above, the artwork is stunning. Chaboute draws ships and activities related to whaling in great detail. He also skillfully renders the growing alarm, fear and madness of Melville’s characters. I admire the way he waits until the very last pages to show Moby Dick himself in full, the enormous beast that no reasonable human being would want to confront, much less expect to subdue. Perhaps most impressive about this graphic novel is that Chaboute now has me wanting to read the original novel! This is what I like so much about classics adapted into graphic novels: when done well, they make you want to investigate he original source. They are a great way to introduce teens and younger readers to literature and perhaps make them feel more confident in picking up the big novels and epic poems later. Two thumbs up, and BINGO!