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Jul
02
2011

The (Not So) Secret Origin of Queequeg

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is one of my absolute favorite novels and I’m definitely not the only cartoonist with an affinity for it. Most famously among us “indie” types is probably Jeff Smith’s homage to Moby Dick in his series Bone. In it, Moby Dick is the favorite book of one of the characters, Fone Bone, and there’s a running gag in which every time Fone begins reading from it all the other characters instantly fall asleep. There’s even a scene in which Fone imagines himself as Captain Ahab.

It’s a different Moby Dick character, though, that I’ve been thinking about comics-wise of late: Queequeg, the heavily-tattooed South Pacific Islander who’s the chief harpooner aboard the Pequod. Much to my delight, there’s been an explosion of nautical-themed graphic novels of late, and it seems like it’s now almost required that if you’re going to do an 1800s nautical book, that you’ve got to have a character who’s a Queequeg homage. Here, for example, is a Pacific Islander character from the great all-ages nautical adventure The Unsinkable Walker Bean:

And of course, there’s my own personal homage to Queequeg, Tevia from my Oyster War webcomic:

I only recently learned, though, that the character Queequeg himself was a bit of an homage–to a real person.

I just finished reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, a really great history of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. The Ex. Ex. (as it was called) was a truly spectacular globe-spanning surveying and exploring expedition that took place from 1838 to 1842. The Ex. Ex., though, was mired in controversy almost from the moment planning stages began and it has since been largely lost to history despite its many remarkable accomplishments, among them the exploration and mapping of nearly three hundred Pacific islands, mapping over eight hundred miles of the Oregon coast, the recovery of over 60,000 bird and plant specimens, and the eventual founding of the Smithsonian Institution.

Interestingly, though, Herman Melville was apparently very influenced by Charles Wilkes’s (the Expedition’s leader) written account of the expedition, Narrative, written in 1845. While Sea of Glory points out a number of things from the expedition that appear directly or indirectly in Moby Dick (and apparently this is common knowledge among Melville folks–hence the “not so” in this post’s title) as a cartoonist I was particularly interested to hear how influential one of Narrative‘s illustrations was–that of an islander encountered by the expedition  that was apparently the origin of Melville’s character Queequeg. Thanks to the magic of Google Books, here it is:

I found this really fascinating partially because it makes a sort of “full circle” with a drawing influencing a prose novel which then influences (cartoonists’) drawings. Also, though, it’s an interesting example of  image as inspiration. Conveniently forgetting that the near-total separation of words and pictures in literature is a relatively recent phenomenon, many people tend to make a hierarchical division between them with words being the inspiration and pictures being illustrations of those words.  But here’s a great example where one of my favorite characters in one of my favorite prose books has his origin squarely in my “home turf”: drawings.

3 comments

  1. Eric says:

    When I return to New York from my trip to the south, I’ll ride my bike down to the Herman Melville house where he wrote Typee and Omoo and read the latest chapter of Oyster War while resting in the shade of the front porch overlooking the Hudson.

  2. Ben Truwe says:

    Queequeg’s name might have filtered through to Melville from another ealry exploration of the American Northwest. Yale’s Beinecke Library holds a manuscript (WA MS-497) vocabulary whose title reads:
    MANUSCRIPT VOCABULARY
    OF THE LANGUAGE OF THE NATIVES
    OF THE NORTHWEST COAST OF AMERICA
    & LOG OF LATITUDES & LONGITUDES OF THE
    CAPES, HEADLANDS & PRINCIPAL ISLANDS, HARBORS
    & VILLAGES ON THE NORTHWEST COAST
    —o–
    KEPT ON BOARD THE SLOOP “UNION”
    —o–
    [1795]

    It lists “Queequeck” as the word for “A raccoon skin.” Coincidence?

    I can send images if you like.

  3. Ben says:

    @Ben Truwe

    Wow.. that is interesting–and seems like it can’t just be coincidence.

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