Written by Eugene Byrne and drawn by Simon Gurr — and subtitled “the really exciting and dramatic story of a man who mostly stayed at home and wrote some books” — “Darwin: A Graphic Biography” is a slim but engaging account of one of the most influential scientists of the 19th century. Centring on Charles Darwin’s younger life, but taking into account his growth as a scientist and as a human being, this is a lighthearted introduction to the theory of evolution as well as a great starting place for children who are interested in how people lived in the 19th century.
One great thing about the theory of evolution is that, while it’s of course important to learn about as an influential and wide-ranging theory, it can also serve as a great example of scientific enquiry in action. Darwin’s studies are a textbook example of the scientific method, progressing as they did from hypothesis to observation to conclusion and then on to gradual refinement — and above all, it’s this process that Byrne and Gurr focus on in their portrayal of Darwin the scientist. Putting a spotlight on Darwin’s wide-ranging curiosity, and then on the slow, meticulous process of sorting out his own observations, both the sense of wonder and the elbow grease involved are given due consideration. This isn’t a glamourized portrait of scientific endeavour, but a realistic one, and as everything from the surprising defence mechanisms of the bombardier beetle to the uncomfortable conditions of the Beagle are explored, it’s clear that Darwin’s theories were the result of considerable hard work.
Another interesting facet of this book is the mild and often subtle humour that permeates the portrait of Darwin the human being. His Victorian gentleman’s hobbies — beetling, gambling, shooting birds — are treated with a light sardonic touch, and Byrne is careful to emphasize that Darwin was a particularly rich young lad, and could afford to go about his studies in a somewhat leisurely manner. Byrne and Gurr also allot a whole page to the pro and con list Darwin wrote about getting married — a moment which gets a chuckle, as well as underscores just how practical and thorny a calculation this could be for a man of the 19th century. At the same time, Darwin’s staunch anti-slavery stance is given due consideration, while the universality of some of Darwin’s trials — namely, the early deaths of some of his children — keep this portrait sympathetic and humane.
Byrne also addresses some common criticisms of Darwin’s theory: namely, that it’s “just” a theory, and that it’s incompatible with religious belief. These are dealt with briefly but in no uncertain terms toward the end of the book, while Social Darwinism (and some of its horrible consequences) are summarized as fundamentally contrary to Darwin’s actual ideas.
Simon Gurr’s art contains multitudes, from sketched portraits to stripped-down diagrams, but tends to settle out into a mildly caricaturish art style that goes heavy on the dramatic shading and isn’t afraid to push the ridiculous element in a given scene. Byrne’s script tends toward long captions, with the panel divisions serving to lay out the information in digestible chunks, and Gurr’s art accompanies the sometimes overwhelming amounts of information with an understated elegance that keeps the overall reading experience smooth. And while it’s a little unfortunate that the illustrations are in black and white, given that the subject matter — beetles, birds, tropical plants — is so colourful, Gurr makes use of a particularly rich palette of greys that keeps the look dynamic.
In what is probably the book’s only false step, some of the information is laid out by means of an “Ape TV” framing device: a couple of sassy simians narrate some segments with the apparent aim of dramatizing Darwin’s life. In these segments, Gurr strays a little further into typically “educational” territory, setting down some conventionally cartoonish animals that grin knowingly at the reader and do come off a bit cloying.
The main trouble with the Ape TV segments, though, is that the humour in both the script and the art feels a touched forced when considered alongside the mostly straitlaced account of Darwin’s studies — just as though Darwin’s life were boring, and needful of occasional comic relief, when the subtler sardonic moments illustrate that this clearly isn’t the case. All told, the interplay between text and art is at its smoothest when the text keeps things deadpan and the humour is relegated to the latter. A good example of this is one of the panels that centres on Erasmus Darwin. The caption reads “He married twice and had lots of children”, while the art depicts a man in a powdered wig surrounded by babies and giving a knowing thumbs-up. There’s no distortion of the facts here, just a playful and irreverent portrayal of them that encourages a critical eye but engages the reader with the material.Continued below
Another odd thing about this book (that isn’t necessarily a flaw) is that it’s hard to figure out exactly what audience it’s intended for. The back cover gives the odd age range of 10 to 15 years old (how much do most 10-year-olds and 15-year-olds have in common?) when the goofy humour of the Ape TV segments would seem to place it in the 9 to 12 category and the complexity of the some of the explanations would make it work better with an older high school audience. Maybe the intention here is to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, but the range of tone and difficulty would likely alienate many readers on the spectrum.
Of course, it’s difficult to recommend a book based on age (obviously kids vary as much in interests and ability as much as adults do), but my feeling is that kids at around a grade five level with a particular interest in the content, and particularly strong literacy skills, would enjoy it most. What’s more, older teenagers or even university students in need of a quick-and-dirty introduction to Darwin’s theories would probably appreciate the rigour as well as the lightheartedness on show here, so long as they don’t mind some outright silliness.
Overall, this book doesn’t extend too far beyond its sphere of utility as a teaching tool, but insofar as it is a teaching tool, it’s both fun and sufficiently detailed, and should engage scientific- and historically-minded youngsters alike.
“Darwin: A Graphic Biography” is published by Smithsonian Books, and will be available on February 5th, 2013.