Wrtitten by Michael Keller (& Charles Darwin)
Art by Nicolle Rager Fuller
$19.99 / 192 Pages / Full Color
Regardless of your feelings towards the theory of evolution, it is still worth noting that the Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin originally published in 1859 has become one of the most influential scientific texts ever written. Its original print run sold out in preorders just like the latest issue of Red Hulk. This graphic adaptation did not have the same impact on either market.
In format it feels almost exactly like the graphic adaptation of the 9/11 report that came out some years back. I remember it distinctly because I was working in a comic shop at the time and NPR picked up the story about the book the day it came out. People came in all day asking for the book but it hadn’t been in Diamond Previews so we were completely unable to meet the demand we hadn’t known was coming. It was a frustrating day, and I worry this book has fallen into the same trap. No LCS owners I spoke to knew of it, and I ended up borrowing it from a friend.
Regardless, there’s a lot here to like. It condenses some pretty heavy Victorian prose into a very readable little volume. The book begins with the development of the initial theory prior to the publication of the book. It shows where Darwin travelled, how those trips shaped his thoughts, and how he agonized over his ideas, fearing the repercussions he rightly predicted would come. The graphic novel pays special attention to how many other great thinkers inspired or contributed to Darwin’s ideas which I think is often underemphasized by his detractors. The guy didn’t work in a vacuum. It also shows how his family life influenced him. He came from a religious family and married a religious woman, one of their daughters died very young and he had significant health issues, all of which delayed publication to the point where he’s almost scooped by a fellow naturalist. It’s a nice way to provide context to the rest of the book that may have been lost otherwise.
The rest of the book is a strict adaptation of the original Origin of the Species, followed by a brief afterward. The text is well formatted within the pages to show as much as tell which I really appreciate and hope that it makes the entire piece more accessible to a layman. My favorite trick the creative team uses is to provide examples known to modern biology but not to Darwin himself to supplement the text in the book. A passage about descent with modification through niche exploitation has excellent illustrations of whale evolution over time. Most of the fossils that have lead to understanding this lineage weren’t found until well after Darwin died, but it is consistent with everything he wrote in his lifetime. This juxtaposition does bring up the question of exactly who this book is for, and that’s not something I can honestly answer. As someone with a degree in Evolutionary Biology I’m a bit too close to the source material to tell if this is the kind of thing that is more or less likely to engage a person and help them understand the theory of evolution. I hope so, because it’s a nice presentation of an over-politicized but surprisingly elegant scientific idea.
It’s clear from reading that Fuller, the artist, is a master of biological illustration. However, I’m not sure how well that carries over into story-telling. The pages showing detailed drawings of different plants or animals to illustrate the points of the text are brilliantly rendered and great to linger on, but some of the pages that attempt to be more story driven fall flat. Fortunately most of the book is comprised of the former so the latter can be forgiven.
But this does bring up my central problem with the book: it’s made my scientists. The author is a science journalist and the artist specializes in scientific illustration. While they are both obviously talented it doesn’t mean that they can put together a good graphic novel. We’ve seen this exact problem before with other types of writers attempting with mixed results to dive right into comics. We know it’s not that easy to make a good comic, and publishing this through a non-comic based publishing house means they probably didn’t have the kind of editorial oversight that could have helped fix these problems prior to publication.
One of the biggest problems new writers to comics have is writing too much. I think this is only amplified by trying adapt a work of Victorian era scientific prose. I’m not sure what the collaboration was like, and would be curious to learn more, because there are mistakes a veteran comic reader notices that someone unfamiliar with comics might gloss over. There are occasional and inconsistent paneling and lettering issues, making it clear that whoever structured the pages hadn’t completely thought through the way the human eye moves across a page of sequential panels. These errors can be frustrating but I can also say they were never so bad that the overall experience of the book is greatly diminished.
This book sounds like an easy sell to someone like me. And in many ways it is. But at the same time I’m also guaranteed to be its harshest critic, catching every error of both the biology and graphic story-telling. If you fall into one category or the other I’d be curious to know what your thoughts on this book are and if you think it’s the kind of thing that we should be handing out to freshman biology students, new comic readers, or both. My final assessment is that it’s a flawed work but one that should still survive long enough to realize its potential. I can always just hope there are subtle variations that improve its overall fitness in the next edition.
Story: 4 Art: 3 Overall: 3.5