'Darwin: A Graphic Biography' Has Trouble Adapting

Author Eugene Byrne and illustrator Simon Gurr attempt to create inspiration for would-be young naturalists, but the result is as dour as the portrait of Darwin that graces the cover.

Darwin: A Graphic Biography

Publisher: Smithsonian
ISBN: 9781588343529
Author: Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr
Price: $9.95
Format: Paperback
Length: 104 pages
Publication date: 2013-02
Editor's note: Review and quotes are from the uncorrected proof.

When I first read about Darwin: A Graphic Biography, I was excited to see that Smithsonian Books was going to tackle Darwin’s remarkable explorations and insights in a form accessible to young people. Unfortunately, both the content and the format of the book may not excite young readers, as it intended.

The Evolution of Content

Graphic novels derive their engagement from plot first, followed by solid illustrations that reinforce the action. Zooms, zaps and zows often propel an action narrative. Couldn't something comparable make a nature siting more exciting? Many forms of literature and film, even science, from Shakespeare to genetic theory, find their works transformed into graphic treatments these days. In their attempts here, however, writer Eugene Byrne and illustrator Simon Gurr deliver disjointed Cliff Notes-like prose, tucked into a muddled series of uninspired drawing.

The books starts with a segment from “Ape TV” with apes shooting a nature show, complete with the stereotypical Hollywood director trying to help his stars, which clearly aren’t naturists, find their “motivation”. The “Ape TV” device falls flat and quickly becomes tiresome. It also introduces strange incongruities. Any book that includes the Latin name of a flower in its first five sentences of a humorous opening shouts that it either looks up to its audience and intends to challenge it, or that it doesn't understand its audience at all. This Darwin falls into the latter category. “Ape TV” deprives readers of valuable pages that would have been better used telling Darwin’s story.

The best graphic novels put the reader into the action. In Darwin, the authors rather unfortunately choose to tell the readers Darwin’s about discoveries, rather than opening a window so readers could experience the narrative through his eyes. In the opening sequence, a bat, for instance, chides an Ape commentator that he should know that presumably, evolution, is “all about the long spur with the nectar in it.” A better approach might put young Darwin in the action, exploring the flower with his nose, his fingers and a stick trying to imagine the fertilization process, finally connecting a recently observed long-tongued moth with the flower’s procreation.

On page 17 we are told, again, next to an old Darwin portrait, and just below a repetitive image of him as a child, that "One of his earliest memories was trying to break the window of a room he'd been locked in as a punishment." Now there's a place to start a Darwin biography: a full panel dedicated to young Darwin throwing a tantrum.

Throughout we see old Darwin harkening back to his youth as an introduction to some introspective moment. Take this scene from page 25: A small image of Cambridge University. Text: ‘He passed the entrance exam (just!) and arrived at Christ’s College in early 1926 to study for a career as a clergyman.’ Then an image of old Darwin thinking: ‘During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as the academial studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at school.” This sentence refers to the current page, and to previously dreary and expository representations of Darwin’s grade school years.

On the same page, the authors posit the following question: “So what was it that Darwin took up instead? Drinking? Gambling? Eating? Chasing after the young ladies of the town? (There were no female students.) What sort of riotous living did he get into? He collected beetles.”

Well now we have a plot point worthy of graphic novel treatment. A young boy collecting beetles. Show me, don’t tell me.

What follows is a short dissertation on “beetling” that takes all the fun out of “beetling”. I beetled as a child, but my resource was The New Field Book of Nature Activities and Hobbies -- it made learning about nature fun. Naturalist William Hillcourt provided clear how-tos and purposefully illustrative personal stories designed to inspire future naturalists. Darwin would inspire children to explore had it spent more of its scant 104 pages illustrating the youthful alternative learning Darwin achieved despite his “misfit” underachiever status.

Beyond its language and narrative approach, Darwin: often runs wide afield of the target audience with comments on the Catholic Church’s position on evolution, statements about atheism and references to DNA. These commentaries, referenced in passing, add nothing to a children’s version of Darwin’s life.

Failure to Adapt to the Graphic Novel Niche

To put it mildly, Darwin: A Graphic Biography is difficult to read. The monochrome printing and diminutive type make for an unpleasant combination.

It seems Smithsonian Books failed to learn one of Darwin’s primary lessons, that evolution does not necessarily make things better, but rather it adapts them to ecological niches where they can flourish. Although Darwin: A Graphic Biography exceeds the standard trade paperback size, its format remains smaller than that of most graphic novels. Even young readers will tire from attempts to pull black text out of overly busy grey images. The lack of color, makes for a book that may not have intrigued even Darwin’s Galapagos Tortoise Henry enough to take a nibble, as he did of Darwin’s notebooks, in one of the biography’s few action scenes.


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