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Moby Dick: Tokyo Drift - The 2017 Graphic Novel

April 23, 2024

In 2014, French comic book writer Christophe Chaboute created the graphic novel Moby Dick, published by Dark Horse Comics. It was originally written in French, but an English version translated by Laure Dupont came out  in 2017.  


I honestly don't remember where I heard about this version but presumably I stumbled on it while I was looking into the novel.  I was really curious to look at another adaptation so I managed to acquire a second hand library copy.  (It looks like the physical book is out of print).  If you haven't already, see Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, where I talk about the original novel and the 1956 film, respectively.   


Like the film, it was very good and a good adaptation, if for different reasons.   


Note: When referring to this version I'm going to say "Graphic Novel"  If I say "the novel" or "the book" I mean Melville's original.


The Adaptation


This is definitely an adaptation of the original novel and not one of some syncretic amalgamation of the book and the film, the way a lot of Dracula stuff is.  All of the 30 chapters, along with their titles, are straight from the novel and, with one exception, there's only some really, really minor reshuffling or combining that would be basically invisible unless you had recently read the book.  It feels much more like an abridgment than the film did.


The biggest plot change In this version is that the chapter "The First Lowering" is a combination of the novel's chapter 48 of the same name and chapter 61 "Stubb Kills A Whale."  In the novel, the first whale they attack in chapter 48 escapes and Stubb's whale is the first one the Pequod kills.   Combining these isn't a bad choice; from a visual plot perspective, not a lot happens in the novel between these two chapters.  This is the biggest plot adjustment in the graphic novel and it's hardly radical.


(There is one thing in this version that I think might be a subtle reference to the film.  In both adaptations, Queequeg's signature on the Pequod ledger is in the shape of a whale.  This is not in the novel, where his signature is described as an "exact counterpart of a queer round figure which was tattooed upon his arm."  It is given a closeup in both the film and the graphic novel and seems a little too specific to be a coincidence.)


There is no narration at all and no inner monologue of any kind this version.  Each chapter starts with a quote from the corresponding chapter in the book, but it's flavor text; it's not literally being said by anyone.


The Art


This being a graphic novel, the artwork is, you know, really important.  It is all black and white and very detailed and realistic.  The characters are all well designed and individualized so it's never unclear who you're looking at.  


I was really impressed with some of the effects Chaboute managed when limited to just two colors.  The way he can suggest nighttime by using shadows and highlights is really great. I very much liked the first look at Ahab walking the deck in the dark. The sky is white, but the ship and Ahab are solid black silhouettes, and there's no ambiguity about what time it is.  It's not always drawn the same way, either.  Some of the night shots reverse this coloration, but it feels purposeful and impactful rather than random.   In the chapter "The Candles" during the nighttime typhoon there's a great three panel sequence of Ahab brandishing a harpoon at his crew, where the colors reverse in the middle panel because of a lightning bolt.  It's all very good, and really impressive and legible given the "limitations" of the black and white. 


Chaboute also has a great sense of panel design which conveys movement really well and he has an almost cinematic vocabulary, making really striking use of close-ups, reaction shots, and wide shots.  In the chapter "The Pacific" there's a quiet scene of the crew mournfully watching a sick Queequeg lying still in his coffin, and you can almost feel the boat moving and creaking as the different panels are slightly out of tilt with each other and intercut with closeups of a swinging lantern.  


The ship and its operation are also drawn in great detail, so there are things that I had a little bit of trouble picturing when reading the novel that really sprang to life.  The wordless "Cutting In" sequence where they strip the dead whale of blubber and render the oil is a standout for this.  The graphic novel not only made a rather complicated technical process easy to follow, but got across what hard work it was.  And the five panel page of the Pequod afterwards just dropping the spent carcass in the foreground and sailing away in a series of wide shots framed around the dead whale was honestly kind of affecting. It hinted at the novel's ambivalence to the hunting and destruction of these impressive creatures.


The graphic novel also makes the whale hunts compelling like they are in the novel, by turns exhilarating, scary, and extremely violent.  It captures both the thrill and the savagery of the hunters.


This version is also really quiet, with long stretches containing no dialogue.  These encompass both scenes with lots of motion and action, like during "Cutting In" and some very quiet and still scenes, like "The Pacific."  Even without dialogue the art conveys interiority really well.  One standout example is chapter 21, "The Musket," where Starbuck contemplates killing a sleeping Ahab with the musket that the captain once threatened him with.  In the novel, Starbuck has a long soliloquy, where he wrestles with whether he should pull the trigger.  The graphic novel conveys all of his inner conflict wonderfully across four silent pages in 22 panels of varying shapes and framings.  It's almost like Chaboute carefully illustrated Starbuck's monologue and then deleted the text.  


The graphic novel also retains the mournful atmosphere of the novel's opening in a way the 1956 film did not.  Actually, there's almost a depressive pall hanging over the whole work.  Unlike the book or the film, there's no comic relief here at all.  Even Ishmael's meeting with Queequeg, played for laughs in both other versions, has no levity to it here.


The Language


This version is extremely faithful to the novel in substance, but the language has been made more believably conversational while retaining the meaning and some of the more striking turns of phrase.  It doesn't have the self-consciously elevated Shakespearan language of the book or the film, but it sounds natural and like something people might actually say to each other:


In addition to the dialogue being simplified, there's also just a lot less of it.  For example, from "The Chase - Second Day":


‘Tis Ahab—his body’s part; but Ahab’s soul’s a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear THAT, know that Ahab’s hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he’s floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he’ll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D’ye feel brave men, brave?


Graphic Novel:

Ahab's soul is a centipede that moves upon a hundred legs.  Do you believe in omens?  Whatever downs will twice rise to the surface before sinking.  Do with Moby DIck!  Two days he has floated ! Tomorrow will be the third!  For his last spout!  Do you feel brave, men?!


And comparing the two adaptations to the novel, it's interesting to see two different choices on how to adapt the elevated language, and to see that, surprisingly, the one in the medium that has more artistic license to be unwieldy (i.e. the graphic novel) was more realistic.  Take Ahab's moment of calm in "The Symphony:"



Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! [...] I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise.



It's a mild day, Starbuck. Mild-looking sky. On such a day, I struck my first whale. A boy harpooneer. Forty, aye. Forty years and a thousand lowerings ago. Why this madness of the chase, this boiling blood and smoking brow? Why palsy the arm at the oar, the iron, and the lance? I feel old, Starbuck, and bowed. As though I were Adam staggering under the piled centuries since paradise.


Graphic novel:

The wind is so gentle and tender.  The sky so mild.  On such a day, as serene as this, I struck my first whale, a boy harpooner of eighteen.  Forty years ago!  Forty years... have passed.  Forty years of privation and peril and storm time!  Forty years on the pitiless sea!  Forsaking the peaceful land to make war the horrors of the deep. [...] I feel deadly faint, bowed, humped!


Character Portrayals




I like Chaboute's portrayal of Ishmael.  He's kind of a lost puppy, unsure of himself and his sad eyes always look like they're on the verge of panic.  This being such a close adaptation, but having no narration at all, once Ishmael boards the Pequod, he is even less present here than he is in the film.  


We see very little of him and Queequeg becoming friends, to the point where it almost seems like Queequeg is moving faster than Ishmael is.   As I said their meeting is not played for laughs at all and doesn't have great line "Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian," present in the book and movie.  Cutting this shorter and cutting that line means you don't really see Ishmael come around on Queequeg and this is part of why it seems like the friendship isn't as mutual as in either the book or film, at least in the beginning. Later, Ishmael is genuinely distressed when Queequeg gets sick.  Not that spending less time establishing their friendship matters much, as in all materials I've looked at, they don't really do anything on the Pequod. 



Chaboute's old Ahab is far more crazed looking than Peck.   Peck was the same amount of crazy, but could outwardly keep it together better.  This Ahab is a scarier, more intimidating presence than Peck's.  The first time the crew, and the reader, fully sees him is built up to with another wordless sequence that uses several consecutive reaction shots of their unsettled expressions before finally, after a page turn, revealing his face.  He's framed from below, scowling and domineering.  There's another crew reaction shot before two close up panels of his face, nearly identical except for his eye line as he scans them.   He then turns and stalks off, saying nothing as the sailors look on, vaguely frightened.  The whole chapter is actually pretty tense, far more so than the book.



Ahab's personal whaleboat commander Fedlallah, omitted from the film, is present in the graphic novel.  It's not a surprising given how faithful it is, but you really feel the abridgment here.  Fedlallah doesn't have the sinister framing of the novel and doesn't end up doing much.   And there is one line where Starbuck references Ahab's "Evil shadow," which is from the book and is referring to Fedlallah, but given his reduced presence and the lack of sinister framing, I think if you didn't already know that you wouldn't be sure what that line was a reference to.


Moby Dick


Moby Dick is not quite the malevolent force he is in the novel, and the godhood of whales in general isn't present here.  He's just not as otherworldly, though he is the only live whale you get a good look at.  The chapter titled "Moby Dick" tells some legends of him, but he's kind of just another whale.  I think this might be a result of the abridgment; he is still the only whale that actively attacks them but you only see one other whale hunt so the impact of the contrast isn't as strong as it is in the novel or film.  


I did very much like that Moby Dick's attacks are shown from a middle distance and the reaction shots to his rampages are not from the people in the attacking whaleboats, but from people not super close to the action. sometimes from the all the way on the Pequod.  It gives the encounters a sense of helpless and hopeless despair.  The characters, from a perspective both literally and figuratively far away from Ahab's, can all see this is utterly futile.


The End


I found the final pages to be really striking.  The destruction of the Pequod, all splintering wood, flooded decks and drowning men, is a more visceral sequence than in the novel.  And I loved how, after the Pequod sinks, the artwork, in horizontal panels of open water conveys the sea closing over the wreck and leveling out, and then after a pause, Moby Dick's tail flukes emerge as he dives.  After all that, he is still here.  Like the last line of the novel's final chapter says, "and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."


The pages of the Pequod sinking are dominated by white sky, with the ship being swallowed by the black water.  After the panel of Moby Dick's tail flukes and a page turn, the dominant color switches to black.  We're now in underwater with large horizontal panels of the white whale swimming past the "camera."  The horizontal panels become vertical as Moby Dick dives and the final three pages show him slowly swimming out of the bottom of the frame, pulling Ahab's tethered corpse behind him before they both disappear into the blackness.  It's very cinematic and powerful.


The epilogue returns to the surface with Ishmael isolated in the center of the panels, slowly pulling himself onto Queequeg's coffin, and ends with the non diegetic flavor text saying "Call me Ishmael." the iconic opening lines of the novel.   I get the same sense I got from the film, that we're watching Ishmael the unsure character become Ishmael the wise narrator.




This book is fantastic.  While it doesn't have the philosophical weight and awe of the novel, nor the sense of blasphemous rebellion against nature of the film, it is really compelling and has a mournful intensity to it, with several of the sequences being more unsettling and powerful than in either of the other versions.  It captures the aspects of the chapters it adapts very well and I absolutely loved the artwork.


This is harder to get your hands on than the film, but definitely worth it, both as a companion to the book and/or film, or just on its own merits.  It's really great how two adaptations, despite being very different, can manage to both be really faithful, albeit in different ways.


I bought a used library copy but it looks like it's available second hand in print and digitally.  My local library has it digitally via hoopla.

Note:  On Amazon the Paperback version under this listing is a different graphic novel.   The hardcover is the one i read for this.  And a lot of the second hand ones I found were the French versions.

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