I set only two rules for myself when I began this project. The first was to create one illustration per page per day. That was to force me to re-assess my art and, in a very real sense, drag me out of my comfort zone. That looming deadline, every single day, for what I projected would be a year and a half of constant work, would constantly nip at me and keep me running to stay ahead. The second rule was to proceed through Moby-Dick
sequentially, from page 1 to page 552, without skipping around to illustrate the pages I might have found most exciting or interesting at the very beginning. Just as the reader begins a story with a blank slate, gradually filling in details of place, time, character, and description, I wanted to see that reflected in the art I was making. I wanted to see how these images would develop, grow, build on one another and hopefully reference one another as I worked my way through the story the same way a reader would.
Beyond those two rules, I freed myself to do, literally, anything I wanted. I allowed myself to use any and all media, from ballpoint pen to collage to crayon to craft paint. I allowed myself to use any and all manner of visual representation, from abstract to cartoonish to semi-realistic. I knew even at the beginning that a project like this, one that was really just a personal exploration of this great book, could become a chore and could burn me out. By giving myself this level of freedom, I felt I had reduced the possibility of burning out and thus walking away.
Immediately upon beginning the illustrations, I posted them online on a new blog for one reason only — to share the art with my friends and family who lived out of state. I suppose there was also that feeling of increased accountability as well, since I knew that these same friends would not hesitate to contact me and push me to get back to work if I skipped more than a day or two of drawing and posting. Beyond that though, there were absolutely no ulterior motives to posting this online. The illustration project was always intended to be a deeply personal response to this great novel, and an attempt to create the illustrated version of Moby-Dick that I had always wanted to see. I had been drawing for over a decade and I had a web site of my own full of drawings and comics, and I was still completely and totally obscure. I had no illusions at all about my status as a non-entity in the art world, and that suited me fine. These drawings were, after all, for me.
Everything changed so fast though.
Within a few days of beginning the project and posting the Moby-Dick art on the blog, I was contacted by Meg Guroff who, among other things, runs a wonderful web site called Power Moby-Dick, an online annotated edition of the novel. She asked if she could do a very short email interview with me for another blog. I was stunned. The first thing I did was reply and ask how she had found out about me, which she graciously answered by filling me in on the mysteries of the Google alert. The second thing I did was forward her emails to my wife, asking "Do you think this is real?" My wife, who is always a great deal more perceptive and balanced than I, replied that yes, she thought it was real and yes, she thought I should do the interview. So I did. At least, as best as I was able.
Even that tiny level of increased visibility was off-putting for me. Suddenly, though the numbers were small, people I had never even heard of were visiting the blog and leaving comments. Very slowly, over the next few months, there were a few other interviews. All were from bloggers of various levels of professionalism and sophistication, but the questions became more and more complex as the body of work grew. While I was still uncomfortable with this level of visibility, there was a certain joy in the feeling that there was some external validation for what I was doing.
In December of 2009, roughly four months and 100 illustrations after starting, the blog was mentioned on the web site BoingBoing and was buried under what was, to me at least, an avalanche of new visitors. Suddenly, interview requests were coming from web sites as far away as Germany. I was contacted by a museum. People started asking if they could buy the art. It became surreal.
As a result of that mention, I was invited to travel to Brooklyn to talk about the project as part of the Open City Dialogue bi-monthly lecture series at a bar called Pete's Candy Store. My wife and I have been to New York many times and are always looking for an excuse to go, so I accepted immediately. And here is where the wheels really started turning.
A children's picture book illustrator found out about my lecture through a brief write-up in one of the local free papers. She was not able to make it to the event, but she did check out my blog, which at this point included the first 200 or so illustrations, and emailed me to encourage me to keep going. She asked if I had ever considered turning the illustrations into a book and I wrote back to say that no, that had never ever crossed my mind. Not even as a pipe dream. Honestly, I just didn't think it would even be possible for a whole list of reasons which started with the fact that no one really knew who I was and I didn't consider myself an artist. She was very kind and suggested that a good friend of hers, who was an agent, look at the project and decide for himself.
Well, he did so and very enthusiastically wrote me saying wonderful things and indicating that he really did feel it was worthy of publication. I was inherently suspicious, as I often am, and gave him a rather hard time. I asked all sorts of questions, some of which were valid and some of which were probably annoying, but eventually I relented. I decided that, at worst, a book pitch would fail and the project would remain exactly what it was... a deeply personal, private exploration through illustrations of one of the world's greatest novels. And at best, it would become a book, which would be phenomenally thrilling to me.
From there, the rest was a blur. I signed with the agent, put together some promotional material and a PDF of the project so far and turned it over. Within a week, he called me back saying that Tin House Books was interested. I was beside myself. Tin House! I had known about them for many years, had purchased many issues of their excellent magazine and had always deeply appreciated their vision. It seemed like a perfect fit, and it really was.
But I still had to finish the work. And that proved to be the hardest of all.