7 May 2009

Darwin: A Graphic Biography

by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne
B.C.D.P. Bristol 2009
FREE (info here, or go to the Small Press Expo where 250 copies will be given away)
Preview on Flickr

In autumn 2007 I stumbled across a blurb on the then-nascent Darwin200 website announcing that a graphic biography about Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle would be published in 2009 and distributed free of charge.

I loved this idea, especially its potential to interest a new audience in Darwin's adventures, both physical and intellectual. But I was troubled by the proposed cover illustration (right), which prompted me to write Simon Gurr an open letter complaining that "when Darwin met his first marine iguana on the Galapagos Islands in 1835 he was only 26 years old. Your Darwin looks more like this photo taken at age 45."

I needn't have worried. The free paperback is a fast-paced, funny and remarkably accurate* romp through Darwin's life and scientific contributions, with plenty of attention paid to the young Darwin, in particular his voyage on HMS Beagle.

The ups, downs and near-misses of Darwin's youth are portrayed honestly and without foreshadowing of his later fame, making it easy to forget our certainty that our hero will become ...well, our hero. This is a key point that I hope will get through to the book's younger readers: that Darwin wasn't somehow predestined to greatness. He was curious, patient and meticulous. He persevered.

'Charles had trouble persuading his father that sailing around the world for a few years was a useful way of spending big chunks of the Darwin fortune.' Source: Darwin: A Graphic Biography preview on Flickr.

Gurr and Byrne are similarly successful in their explanations of evolutionary theory before, during and after Darwin's life, which provide an essential context for any portrayal of Darwin's contribution to science. The story is 'presented' by a television crew of primates and this allows for a certain amount of basic Q&A without coming across as didactic.

Despite my growing numbness to the torrent of Darwiniana that shows no sign of abating as the anniversary year nears its mid-point, reading this book was a real pleasure, which was doubled by the prospect of the book being picked up by readers who might not be particularly disposed to crack Desmond and Moore's or Browne's tomes. Readers like these:

'The Lord Mayor of Bristol, pupils of New Oak Primary School, and the Lady Mayoress with copies of The Lost World and Darwin: A Graphic Biography at Bristol Zoo.' Source: Darwin: A Graphic Biography preview on Flickr.

So what about the cover? In the event, the authors (or perhaps the publishers?) decided not to make Darwin younger on the cover, but rather to replace the iguana with an orang-utan (Jenny perhaps?), whom Darwin would have seen face to face at London Zoo during his bald but still beardless phase. Not young Darwin, but accurate at least, and as I hope I've indicated above, not in the least indicative that Gurr and Byrne think of Darwin as a "stuff-shirted Nigel Bruce".

*insofar as a humble geneticist with a special interest in Darwin can say


Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

Rats. Can't make it to Bristol in two days.

Jim Lemire said...

This would be perfect for my almost-8 yr old. Any chance these will be made available in the US? I don't particularly care about free - I'd happily pay for a copy.

Simmons B. Buntin said...

Speaking of literary pursuits (of a sort), I have a series of three poems as imagined letters from Darwin to his sister Catherine when he was aboard the Beagle. See the first one at http://www.riverfall.com/poetry/darwin.htm.

They are published in my book of poems Riverfall (Salmon Poetry, Ireland, 2005). They also appeared in MIT Press's anthology on evolution and progress.

I'd be happy to send the others if you'd like to post them. Just contact me offline at contact (at) simmonsbuntin (dot) com if interested.