The Rocket

Four Types of Illustration
and Zak Smith's Gravity's Rainbow

By Erik Ketzan
April, 2005

There are many ways to illustrate a book.
You can underillustrate, like Barry Moser, who limits his images to those things readers cannot easily visualize. For his illustrated Moby Dick, Moser drew 19th century Nantucket houses, biologically accurate whale and bird species, quadrants, harpoons, and scrimshaw, leaving Qeequeg and Ahab to the reader’s imagination. Given that the modern reader can hardly visualize the difference between, say, a blubber pike and a boat spade, history has created a real need for Moser’s illustrations. They act as complementary, historical footnotes to Melville’s adept descriptions. In contrast, my first reading of Moby Dick, at age sixteen, was practically ruined by the bad illustration practice of Rockwell Kent, who often hijacked my youthful imagination by explicitly portraying the novel’s finest moments. Worse, the edition tended to place Kent’s illustrations at the beginning of each chapter, so that I often spied the white whale before the crew of the Pequod.
A wholly different type of illustration from Moser’s is found in Art Spiegelman’s illustrated edition of Joseph Moncure Marsh’s racy jazz-age poem, The Wild Party. At a lecture he gave in 1998, I asked Spiegelman to justify his latest book. I pointed out that, as a comic book creator, he more than anyone should understand the delicate balance between image and word, and I questioned why Marsh’s poem, written to stand on its own, should be illustrated at all. Spiegelman replied (and I paraphrase from memory), that I was right, but that he had chosen to dodge the inherent problems of illustrating a text by what he called “overillustration.” When The Wild Party read, “He seized her wrist, gave it a twist,” Spiegelman’s accompanying drawing portrayed just that: a hand turns a wrist, complete with comic book arrow indicating direction.

After explaining what he meant by “overillustration,” Spiegelman further justified his work by admitting that without his “decorations,” (as I recall he put it) Marsh’s classic poem would almost certainly remain forgotten and out of print.
But the realities of publishing aside, overillustration, or ultra-literal illustration is a seriously flawed practice for one simple reason: it creates redundancy on the page. The reader does not brings the author’s prose to life, as with novels. Nor does he mentally piece together a narrative from images, as with comic books. Overillustration creates a bastard medium, stranded halfway between novels and comic books, that renders the reader brain-dead throughout the entire process. Spiegelman seemed to acknowledge this, by referring to his literal illustrations as “decorations,” but the fact remains that illustration, as a unique art form, should strive for better than decoration.
Beside underillustration and overillustration, there even exist examples of complete mis-illustration. The rare 1935 edition of Joyce’s Ulysses, which sells for over $10,000 today, contains lovely illustrations by Matisse… but Matisse never read Ulysses! The Gallic genius instead based the drawings on Homer’s Odyssey and offered a poor excuse for his laziness: “These plates are the product of my mind as I rested it in contemplation of Mr. Joyce's book.” Matisse’s blunder aside, the notion of misillustration also seems quite at home in Dada or Surrealism, and depending on your tolerance for those dated modernist movements, you may find it amusing to juxtapose fragments of text with incongruous, or even downright random, imagery to see what connections can be dreamed up.
Finally, an illustrator can interpret, the most risky, but potentially rewarding, illustration of all. Interpretation does not labor over minutiae like overillustration does, but is far more obtrusive into the reader’s imagination than underillustration. Much as a theatre troupe brings the text of a play to life, an illustrator’s interpretation brings prose to life in ways we, as the reader, never imagined. A good example is Tenniel’s illustrated Alice in Wonderland, a complete visualization of Alice, the White Rabbit, and the many wonders of Lewis Carroll’s bizarre dream-world. Interpretative illustration walks a fine line; be too specific, and readers may resent the intrusion. But Tenniel’s Alice is great because Tenniel’s vision is as great as Carroll’s. From Carroll’s fanciful, but empty description of “jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird,” what reader could imagine the Jabberwock as brilliantly as Tenniel, a comically horrific dragon with birdlike claws, evil fish-face, and Victorian three-button waistcoat?
Illustrations like Tenniel’s are justifiable not only for their artistic merit, but because, as Umberto Eco said, a novel “is a machine for generating interpretations.” (Name of the Rose, 507) Although Eco would probably dismiss mis-illustration as a game (reading pages of Gravity’s Rainbow alongside random images may generate some stoner-level discussions, but tells us almost nothing about Pynchon’s text itself),  interpreting a novel through legitimate illustration is just as valid as writing a literary essay (and probably more interesting).
So how does Zak Smith illustrate Gravity’s Rainbow? His introductory comment, although brief, suggests almost all of the four types of illustration outlined above:

"I tried to illustrate the passages as literally as possible--if the book says there was a green Spitfire, I drew a green Spitfire. Mostly, I tried to make a series of pictures as dense, intricate, and rich as the prose in the book."


Zak Smith: Underillustrator 

“if the book says there was a green Spitfire, I drew a green Spitfire.”
—Zak Smith


Smith sometimes engages in historical illustration of Gravity’s Rainbow, but these images make up the minority by far. Only a handful portray historical places or objects from the novel’s World War II setting in greater detail than we could naturally imagine: houses in London (17), a fallen Stuka (281), the pieces of a Moisin handgun (339), a burned-out Königstiger tank (433), the P-47 Thunderbolt that Pirate Prentice flies (620), and a melted machine gun (689). A number of other pieces portray the Rocket and other vehicles, but in a loose, abstract style that gives us little appreciation for the object’s details. Animals are given the same treatment; although most people can roughly imagine a dodo or octopus, Smith’s illustrations of the "stumbling bird" (110) and Grigori the octopus (187) bring some more clarity to our minds.
These images help us imagine the backdrop of Gravity’s Rainbow, but Smith’s meager use of historical illustration seems appropriate, mainly because Gravity’s Rainbow, at its core, is not really about World War II. It is not a historical novel, per se, or even of its time. To pull from a paper of mine, “Pynchon's breed of historical novels, as seen in Mason & Dixon and Gravity's Rainbow, are fictions so rich with inventions and anachronisms that no one could possibly believe their historical accuracy.” Since Gravity’s Rainbow seems to comment more on the hippie generation than the “greatest generation,” its reader is hardly the lesser for a loose familiarity with Königstigers and Thunderbolts.


Zak Smith: Overillustrator

“I tried to illustrate the passages as literally as possible-- if the book says there was a green Spitfire, I drew a green Spitfire.”
– Zak Smith


As detailed above, a common problem of “literal” illustration is its tendency towards redundancy. So are Smith’s illustrations literal? Yes. Redundant? Well, sometimes. There are instances where Smith illustrates a scene from Gravity’s Rainbow but does not bring enough to the image, for instance the graveyard (27). Pynchon describes a Massachusetts churchyard where the headstones of Slothrops generations past lie, but little more can be said of Smith’s depiction than, “it’s a graveyard,” with a few spots of hatching. There are other examples, but to his credit, only a few from Smith’s 760 pieces.
What is more interesting about Smith’s “literal” approach are the instances where he portrays imagery from the prose Pynchon uses primarily as metaphor. In other words, Smith takes literally what Pynchon means figuratively. For instance, Pynchon described Roger Mexico, a statistician who works at a house full of psychics, as “the Dour Young Man of “The White Visitation,” the spider hitching together his web of numbers.” (40) What does Smith portray? Not Mexico crunching data, but an actual arachnid whose spider web is littered with numbers. This method of interpretation adds a new level to our understanding of Gravity’s Rainbow, drawing our attention to the surreal originality of Pynchon’s descriptions.


Zak Smith: Mis-illustrator

Nowhere does Smith mis-illustrate Gravity’s Rainbow, but a number of non-objective images venture so far into abstraction that they might as well be random. Smith’s page 65 could be almost anything, which is not necessarily bad, given that it illustrates Slothrop’s hallucinatory voyage down the toilet and is meant to be “thick with meaning.” The same could be said of 90, 151,173, but Smith often sneaks a clue into his most inscrutable images, like the sine wave in 67.


Zak Smith: Interpreter

The best work an illustrator can accomplish is to bring hazy concepts or imagery to life, and Smith’s greatest successes are his original portrayals of Gravity’s Rainbow’s outlandish imagery. The giant adenoid that invades London in Pirate Prentice’s dream (14-15) is a good example. Most of us, even after consulting a dictionary, can barely conceive of a giant adenoid, The Blob re-imagined as a lymphatic growth the size of St. Paul’s that slithers like a snail and gobbles up scientists who laugh maniacally as they are digested. A surreal creature, to say the least. Although the adenoid doubtless has symbolic value, Smith draws the adenoid literally but with great imagination: Lord Blatherard Osmo, briefcase in hand, stands face to face with the adenoid, an Easter Island statue whose long tongue drips with ooze, a creature who wouldn’t be out of place in the film Alien.
A similarly Pynchoneque scene is the farewell of Pirate and Scorpia Mossmoon at London’s Waterloo station (37), where a troupe of midget entertainers, surrounded by the media and onlookers, just happen to be passing through. Pynchon describes them in “their dark winter clothes, exquisite little frocks and nip-tucked overcoats,” and Smith has drawn a scene of similar originality. The midgets stare out at us with Edvard Munch faces, a news photo for a wartime London rag.



Where else has Smith underillustrated, overilllustrated, mis-illustrated, or interpreted? I leave that to the reader and future commentators. Just like their subject, Zak Smith’s illustrations comprise a massive work that may take years to digest and appreciate. The present study is only a beginning, a single way to begin to categorize the hundreds and hundreds of images: four types of illustration, four paths into the four books of Gravity’s Rainbow.