Looking back, I should have realized at the time that turning 40 years old that summer had a great deal to do with it all.
I've been drawing pictures as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are purely visual, and my childhood was shaped by picture books, illustrated storybooks, and comics. My parents were avid readers and they did their best to make sure I followed in their footsteps. Oddly enough, I don't remember ever being given any of these colorful illustrated books when I was young. They were always just there, on some shelf, ready for me to open and fall into. I stared at those pictures long before I was able to read the stories they accompanied, so, for me, no story or book was ever complete without images.
In spite of this childhood saturated with images, both my own and those I saw in books, it never occurred to me to pursue art as a career. Drawing was something I did for fun, and only that. Drawing as a career seemed as feasible to my young brain as eating candy for a career. I just didn't think it was possible and now, as an almost middle-aged man, I feel fortunate that I never did take this thing which is so dear to me and make it into a job. To be fair, it's not that I was ever discouraged. My parents were very understanding, allowing me to pursue whatever I was interested in exploring. I am certain they would have had no issues whatsoever with me working toward a fine arts degree instead of an English education major as an undergrad.
My earliest drawings were pure imitations of what I liked in other books, and, because of that, there was always a story to every image. There was always something which came before each drawing and something which came after ? a narrative flow to the pictures. I could point to every single detail in every single drawing and explain it to anyone. All the characters had a back story, all the places had histories, and all the objects had names. It was this strong sense of narrative that hooked me and drew me to art. I needed to see, and to make, pictures that were stories too.
In my early 30s, comparatively late in adulthood, I began illustrating my own stories. Without text, of course. I drifted toward illustrating my own personal mythologies, fueled by those fantastic stories of my childhood and a childlike sense of wonder that has never left me. There was never any attempt to share these, although a few friends did become part of the trusted inner circle. These were for me and for me alone.
Eventually, I went a step further and began creating my own comics, elaborating on these drawings of mine with actual words. That was an exciting time, but I quickly discovered that telling stories with words was a great deal harder than I could ever imagine and for the first time, my drawings began to fall short of what I wanted them to be. It seemed such an awkward fit, trying to take what for me existed as pure imagery and weigh it down with words.
I began to question myself. Why was I doing this? These images were fantastic, to be sure. At a time when most of my friends and peers were concerned with settling into adulthood, advancing careers, caring for children, dealing with getting older and so on, I was dreaming of colossal angelic robots striding across galaxies, hurling stars at one another, and wrestling in the forges of creation. What was wrong with me?
The fact that the drawings and comics simply weren't what I wanted them to be wasn't helping. True, colored pencils and ink pens weren't costing me a great deal of money, but the greatest cost was time. I was fortunate enough to have finally found a career I was passionate about and very happily married to an adventurous and exciting wife. Why was I so willing to spend so much time alone with pens and pencils and paper, shutting out the real world? Was it worth it? Was it time to finally lay the pens aside? These thoughts roiled through my mind for months in 2009, the summer that I finally turned 40 years old.
Like many, I was paralyzed with indecision. I juddered back and forth between vowing to leave the art behind for good and striking out on some bold new adventure. The ambitions changed daily, leading to more and more unhappiness. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be doing something, but I had no idea what.
A chance confluence of events and thoughts ? a message about Moby-Dick from an old friend on Facebook, my creative listlessness and indecision, my awe of Zak Smith's illustrations for Gravity's Rainbow ? somehow combined in an almost alchemical, unknowable way and with no planning, no forethought, and no real idea of where it would lead me, I decided in the heat of the moment that the only way to rescue myself from the artistic limbo I was in was to create one illustration per day, per page for my favorite novel ever, Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
Now that the project is complete and the results have been (hopefully) preserved for the ages in a real book, I'm able to look back with a bit of perspective and see that, despite the fact that, in general, age means nothing to me, I was, like Ishmael, grappling with my own "November in my soul." That artistic malaise that plagued me was in a very real sense one of the many results of turning 40 years old and foundering in the lull that it brought. Like Ishmael, I had little money and "nothing particular to interest me on shore." Thankfully, my intuition brought me to sailing about a little to "see the watery part of the world" through this great book, and my closest, most personal, most challenging, and most visceral reading ever.
What unfurled over the next 543 days would forever change everything.