American Gloom

Month: March, 2012

Bill Sienkiewicz and “The Whale.”

by Ezekiel Fry

Bill Sienkiewicz "Moby Dick."

Several years ago I stumbled across a Barnes and Noble edition (I know, not exactly the sexiest publisher) of Moby-Dick with perhaps the best cover art I had yet encountered in relationship to Melville’s monstrous book. I was fascinated by the haunting qualities of the piece, the murkiness of its form. The whale is barely visible, and what is seen is viewed through the darkness of the ocean, or some other subterranean pit. There is little to no definition where the tail ends and the depths begin. The two entities, the whale and the sea, are merged into one. Add to this the clear signs of a hasty descent and it almost appears that this tail, caught in vigorous motion, might well be diving down to the foundations of the earth with Ahab and Fedallah in tow. This could very well be the final, unseen image of Melville’s book. I was, and continue to be, astonished by this dynamic piece of art. As I held the book (which I subsequently purchased and filled with asterisks and marginal notes, and finally, in a drunken outburst, bequeathed the whole damn thing to a wandering sage on the streets of Olympia) in my hands I wondered what type of artist could create such an evocative image, touched so thoroughly with what I believed to be the central mystery of Moby-Dick? I flipped the book over and, sure enough, there was a name I readily recognized: Bill Sienkiewicz. I was both shocked and not surprised. Sienkiwiecz! Of course. How could it be anyone else?

Bill Sienkiewicz, for any of you comic book heroes out there, is a household name. For the rest of the world go read this and then return to this entry:
Back? Okay. So there you have it. An artist about as cutting edge as you can get in the mainstream of comics. And with a handle on the Whale. Something that I do not believe appears in the above-linked wiki profile (although I am sure it has been meticulously documented in the bibliography, if you made it that far) is his work on the “Classics Illustrated” adaptation of Moby-Dick and here is a link to Sienkiewicz’s own website, and a gallery of his work on the Whale: For this reason I was not surprised when I discovered that it was indeed Bill Sienkiewicz who had painted the cover to the book I was holding. He, like Jonah before him, and so many of us wild-eyed pilgrims down through the years, has spent an immense amount of time within the belly of the Whale. There is no other contemporary artist (in fact no artist period that I have ever encountered) with a better grasp of this subject. His work approaches the sublime, in a truly Kantian sense. Sienkiewicz knows the Whale, but that is just one man’s opinion. In preparing this entry I discovered a wonderful piece in Laura@popdesign’s blog “Animalarium” which presents many varied artistic interpretations of Moby Dick in succession (including the Sienkiewicz painting that I have included here). Check it out and decide for yourself what image of the Whale feels best. The presentation, which includes excerpts from the book, is just fantastic. I really enjoyed the whole experience and there are certainly some absolutely mind-blowing representations of the whiteness. Happy hunting!



Sundays with Ambrose (part two).

by Ezekiel Fry

Francisco de Goya "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters."

Welcome once again to the world of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. This time around I thought it might be nice to put up some of Francisco de Goya’s work to help create the mood for Bierce’s attack on Reason. Thus, I decided to use Goya’s chillingly beautiful piece “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” to help illuminate (or darken if that sounds better) the theme for this installment’s four definitions. In this way I intend to place a piece of art that I personally feel fits within the thread I am trying to go for in each of these Sunday entries. I do not want to announce what this thread might be, because it may very well be completely different than the theme each reader finds within the four presented definitions. It would be fun to hear back from folks as to what connections they find (if any) within this segment every week. For this week it appears that the very title of Goya’s print sort of gives us all a clue. But who knows? Enough with the experimentation in perception, lets get to the good shit!

Beard, n. The hair that is commonly cut off by those who justly execrate the absurd Chinese custom of shaving the head.

Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Elysium, n. An imaginary delightful country which the ancients foolishly believed to be inhabited by the spirits of the good. This ridiculous and mischievous fable was swept off the face of the earth by the early Christians–may their souls be happy in Heaven!

Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

That is all for this week! Please stay tuned for an in-depth discussion of some of Ambrose Bierce’s less defined writings.

Bitter Bedfellows.

by Ezekiel Fry











A Civil War hero, a jaded and scarred participant in one of the bloodiest conflicts in recorded history, a hard-drinking misanthropic humanist, a man who could yield his fierce creativity to none, and who, when the world had almost forgotten him, rode out with Pancho Villa and disappeared into the wilds of Mexico forever.

A frail, melancholic student of western literature, a blossoming literary talent praised by the great Soseki, a man obsessed with his family’s history of insanity and the darker side of human nature, finally driven, by fear of a seemingly inescapable madness, to suicide.

These two men are, respectively, Ambrose Bierce and Akutagawa Ryunosuke. Men who in some ways could not be more different, but, when their work is seen in tandem, are true literary and philosophical kindreds.

If you have been reading these entries thus far you will have noticed the selection from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, but little has been said about the man himself. Further, Akutagawa, for any Kurosawa buff out there, will be remembered as the writer whose stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Bamboo Grove,” Kurosawa used as the source for his groundbreaking 1950 film Rashomon. This being said, there is a distinct difference between Kurosawa’s Dostoevskian view of humanity and that of Akutagawa. Knowing Kurosawa’s film does not mean that one knows Akutagawa. I suppose this could be said of any writer whose work has been translated into film, but I feel that it is particularly true of Akutagawa and Kurosawa. Akutagawa viewed humanity as something cancerous, something damned and irredeemable. Despite his hopes to see things differently, he expressed great doubt over the goodness of humankind within all of his work. This distrusting love of humankind, this misanthropic humanism, is something that Akutagawa inherited not from his own national literary tradition, but from his American forebear: Ambrose Bierce. Perhaps the best place to start discovering Akutagawa is by discovering Bierce.

From this introductory comparison we will launch into an examination of Ambrose Bierce and some of his short works as a complimentary piece to “Sundays with Ambrose” (and a sort of apology for not putting up some vicious definitions the last two weeks). Once Bierce’s literary world is established I will endeavor to present the genius of Akutagawa in all its macabre glory. I hope you enjoy cynicism because this blog is about to get mighty grim for a little while! I’m very excited.

Stephen Crane on the Edge.

by Ezekiel Fry

Stephen Crane existed on the edge of things. That is to say that he lived life dangerously, existed on, and spoke for, the fringe of society, died young, and was astonishingly prolific. This final piece is important not because Crane is unique in leaving behind a wealth of writings, but because of the nature of every single piece of fiction he left behind. Crane was on the very edge with each piece he created. Ralph Ellison hints at this in his essay “Stephen Crane and the Mainstream of American Fiction” stating that Crane was to influence every subsequent American writer of the 20th century, and that Crane’s innovative style leads directly Hemingway (61). This is no idle praise, as it has long been held that Ernest Hemingway, for better or worse, forever changed the landscape of American fiction, but if we are to follow, as Ellison does, this change to its sources we eventually arrive at Stephen Crane. Now, say what you will about Hemingway, it seems that these days there is no middle ground concerning that artist, you either love him or you hate him, but he was certainly revolutionary in his technical and formal approach to the novel. If Hemingway was on the edge of creation, then it would follow that Stephen Crane was so far out in the vanguard that many folks might not even realize he exists, even 100 years after his death. He is, and this is the real meat of what I am driving at here, not only the young man who wrote a rather well known novel, The Red Badge of Courage, but also one of the true masters of both form and content, an artist that touches so deeply the heart of the American Experience that quite often his Truth is overlooked entirely. Crane has become something of a stylistic virtuoso, and this is certainly true, but within his content (and this is where I have always found my steak and lobster) there is an eloquent dynamism and pathos that fills out the technically robust skeleton of his writing. This element helps create an art that pushes the boundaries of 2012 just as it pushed the boundaries of 1895. Technical master: yes. Compassionate humanist: yes. Avant-garde wizard: yes. Stephen Crane was the real deal. Despite The Red Badge of Courage‘s ubiquity on high school and college reading lists how many of us have truly read it? That is the gauntlet I am throwing down here. With an eye for content, as well as form, return to The Red Badge, or pick it up for the first time (it is not too long, just over 100 pages). I assure you that it will not disappoint, and if it does I will buy you a copy of The Old Man and the Sea.

*Ellison’s essay is from his collection Shadow and Act. He does Crane greater justice than I could ever hope to.