Book Review: Rapture of the Deep

Rapture of the Deep: The Art of Ray Troll
University of California Press, 2004
Reviewed by Kieran Mulvaney

To Alaskans, marine scientists, paleontologists, and environmentalists, Ray Troll has long been something of a cult superstar. Now, with the publication of his first complete anthology, the rest of the world has a chance to become acquainted with Troll’s borderline hallucinogenic portrayals of marine life: a unique mixture of Hieronymus Bosch and Gary Larson, windows into a dreamlike alternate universe in which fish, not humans, dominate.

For Troll, this journey into a parallel reality began in Ketchikan, Alaska, where the art major moved in 1983 to work in his sister’s fish processing plant. In 1984, on a whim, he screened the words “Let’s Spawn” on 300 T-shirts for a Ketchikan seafood festival and sold them all within two days. Numerous trips to the library to learn more about the creatures he was gutting, slicing, and dicing were leading to an obsession with fish and other sea creatures, and other T-shirts followed: a school of mean-looking pink salmon dubbed “Humpies from Hell” and perhaps his most famous design, two salmon and a skull arranged in Jolly-Roger fashion with the slogan “Spawn Till You Die.”

Several of Troll’s images are mated with intentionally obvious puns. James Dean, cigarette in mouth and empty fish hook in hand, is a “Rebel without a Cod.” Lures tempting a morass of fish are “Weapons of Bass Destruction.”

But for all his drollness, wit, and flights of fancy, Troll is also highly regarded for his scientific precision. He was commissioned to produce the cover for the definitive academic guide Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific. He is the only person to attempt an artistic reconstruction of the long-extinct Edestus giganteus, which Troll dubs the giant scissor-toothed shark. He has also spent countless hours obsessing over the likely appearance of a prehistoric cartilaginous fish Helicoprion, which for decades has baffled paleontologists with its lower jaw containing an apparently rotating coil of teeth. A few years ago, a newly discovered species of ratfish was officially named Hydrolagus trolli in his honor.

Troll seeks not only to entertain and amuse with his artwork but also to educate and, in the subtlest of ways, proselytize. He collaborated with Brad Matsen on the book Planet Ocean, which catalogued the evolution of life in and from the sea. Among the many images in the cover’s artwork is a barely visible, ruler-wielding representation of the nun who taught young Troll in the second grade that dinosaurs were not allowed on Noah’s ark because they were not part of God’s plan. Troll is an unabashed Darwinist, using art to spread the good word of Darwin’s theories; the great man himself frequently cameos in Troll’s images and stars in at least one of them, driving along in his “Evolvo.”

But Rapture of the Deep is not an evolutionary manifesto nor, for that matter, a manifesto of any kind. It is an artistic celebration of the marine world-or at least Ray Troll’s version of it-a world in which fish are kings who use money and beer to catch humans in the deep sea. I’m not sure that’s the kind of world I’d like to live in, but visiting it is a delight.

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