Noah is back in the popular consciousness, largely due to award-winning-director Darren Aronofsky’s reimagining of the patriarch as a violent vegan who consorts with angel-indwelt golems. I haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll leave it to others to discuss the relative merits of the allegedly “least biblical biblical film ever made.” I’m glad it got released, though, if for no other reason than it ever so slightly increases the chances of audiences discovering Peter Spier’s sumptuous and sadly forgotten wordless picture book Noah’s Ark.
Unlike Aronofsky, Spier sticks pretty closely to the Sunday school version of Noah’s story. Mankind’s wickedness arouses God’s wrath, Noah builds a big boat to save his family from judgment, animals stream to the vessel, and soon after water covers the earth. What makes Noah’s Ark special is how Spier teases humor and heartache out of the account. In the former category, Noah’s wife hops up on a basket in horror as a pair of mice scamper on-board. Noah swats away a swarm of bees as two sluggish snails inch their way up the gangplank. Two barely visible bunnies hop inside at the bottom of a frame, and at story’s end a virtual tsunami of rabbits pours from the ark. A panel filled with owls sleeping during the day is mirrored by a nighttime image of round, unblinking eyes peering out into darkness. Poignant moments also abound. A whole horde of animals camp outside the ark, and when the rains start to fall, readers see the waves slowly climb up to their flanks, over their heads, over the cities — and then over the mountains themselves. Water sheets off the ark’s every surface as it bounces on bilious waves. Noah paces the deck, waiting to see if the dove he released will ever return to the silent firmament above the boat.
Part of what makes the book work is Spier’s striking style. At first glance, you might think the art sloppy, a jumble of jots filled with slightly faded colors. Only upon careful consideration (or perhaps if you’re an art buff, which I’m not) will you realize he’s working in watercolor. And what detail he wrings from that difficult technique! The opening page shows Noah tending a vineyard while a line of soldiers marches out on the plains, spears bristling as a city burns behind them. You can count the nails that went into the ark’s construction, and a phalanx of fleeing animals fairly teems with sloths and salamanders, dogs and dodos, armadillos and elephants. The ark’s interior is a riot of action, with snakes slithering, monkeys clamoring, birds fluttering. My favorite part appears on a two-page spread after the flood’s initial upheaval has passed. Sky and sea meet, each the same shade of bleached blue, an empty waste of air and water — except where the pitiably tiny shape of the dark ark floats in the distance. Powerful stuff, and admirably executed too. Somehow, Noah’s Ark makes a very old tale new.
(Picture: Copyright 1977 by Peter Spier; used under Fair Use)