Shortcut #32: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Ideally, the fact that Darwin’s name is in the subject title tipped you off to the fact that I am not, indeed, shortcutting Darwin’s masterwork, but am instead discussing a graphical adaptation thereof.

No?  That’s not what you surmised?

Oh… um… well…

Shortcut #32: Michael Keller and Nicolle Rager Fuller’s Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation

Keller and Fuller's graphic adaptation

I picked this up partly because I’m interested in the evolution of comics.

See, first there were the funnies, those comics that appeared in papers.  Then there were comic books.  And though these were called books, each was about thirty-two pages in length, which isn’t so much a book as it is a chapter.  These started out being “for kids” though pretty quickly adults joined in the collecting (though that may have happened as a natural consequence of kids growing into adults), though the content, in the eyes of the general public, remained juvenile.  Then, with the rise of comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, comics sort of grew up, and along with the mental adjustment of moving past puberty, there was a growth spurt as well that bore graphic novels as fruit.

For a long time, graphic novels were just collections of individual comics bound into a larger, more complete whole.  Even Maus was issued as individual parts first, no matter that the product sold today seems as seamless as an egg.  I apologize: I was waiting for that simile to hatch into something better, but it took too long.  But, as I was saying, the graphic novel grew from simply a collection of individual comics to illustrated books that were designed for the long form.  The subject matter grew to include a variety of genres and styles, including memoir (which is essentially what Maus is).  Comics today are often published in literary journals which, while not proof that the public at large accepts the form as literature, does show that writers think it is.

I saw this book at the Taos Summer Writer’s Conference and picked it up immediately because the book struck me as the first example I’d seen of graphic non-fiction.  Of course, as I said above, there is a long tradition of illustrated memoir, Maus and American Splendor being the two that are most imbedded in the culture’s consciousness.  And there’s been Understanding Comics and the Illustrated History of Whatever and Ever This Isn’t a Real Title But You Get the Picture, but the first is basically a guide to drawing – at least that’s the way I read it – and the second type is, well, I don’t know, the comic version of Cliff’s Notes?

But this book is an illustrated adaptation of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.  It’s the equivalent of the Illustrated Classics series that gave us Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe and countless other novels in comic book form, except that this isn’t fiction.  And it doesn’t have a plot.

It’s got this:

Keller and Fuller inside pages

And what is that?  Great art.  And great thought.

Now, at some point in the future I may have actually read On the Origin of Species.  Probably not, I’m thinking, but maybe.  But the amazing thing about this book is that I feel like I fully understand Darwin’s theory in a way I never have before, which is to say the way he meant it as opposed to the way culture interprets his theory.

And, yes, though this book, by its very nature, can’t go into the exhaustive detail that I’m sure Darwin does in his actual book, it holds the complete argument in itself.  It is not just a primer or a work aimed at whetting your appetite for reading the “real” book.  This graphic adaptation is the book, in spirit, and its illustrations, its comic book conventions, convey Darwin’s theory in a way Darwin never could, but that works to achieve the same effect.

I must admit that I wasn’t charmed by the book at first.  I don’t know how On the Origin of Species begins, but I imagine it’s not with an autobiographical retelling of Darwin’s early life, his voyage, his reuniting with his family, and his trials in the course of working out, collecting evidence for, and publishing his theory.  While this is all well and good, I found it a little boring.  And yet it’s necessary for us to get a sense of Darwin as a person because it is he who narrates the book, through his text, and through an imagined voice (that, at the end, takes us through all the developments in evolutionary science after his death).

But it’s when the science starts flying thick and fast that the book gathers speed.  This isn’t surprising, since Keller is a science writer and Fuller a science illustrator, but what is surprising is how the indulging of the science makes the book more human, i.e., a work that’s easy to connect to as a reader.  This is because Keller and Fuller manage to capture the magic of Darwin’s curiosity, and the wonder inherent in his prose.

What this book demonstrates is that Darwin’s theory isn’t a dry rendering of natural processes, it’s a love letter to the world.

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2 Responses to Shortcut #32: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

  1. David says:

    Hey there…This is one I’d be interested in seeing.
    For lots for lots of reasons, really, none of which I’ll get into here. Here, I’ll only say thanks for letting me know it exists.
    And then I’l say a few other things:
    1) For a very good graphic memoir, check out Stitches, by David Small. Its sad, funny, and sad. And interestingly drawn.

    2) I feel differently about McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Making Comics. While Making Comics does try to teach what the title implies, Understanding Comics, to my mind, tries to define and defend a medium. That is, more so than anyone else I know, McCloud has thought and articulated what the medium of comics is capable of, and how the parts or elements of that medium combine to do their work. In short, he answers the question: What can comics do that neither a novel nor a film can do? Then he explores how comics does those things. And the fact that he articulates all of that IN COMIC FORM sort of prove that comics are capable of articulating anything. Another way of thinking of it: Understanding Comics is like Meta-Comic Theory. But more useful than that title suggests.

    Anyhow…thanks for spurring these thoughts.
    Be well. DCB

  2. Andrew says:

    Good to hear from you, David!

    I bow to your greater familiarity with McCloud’s work. I admit it’s been a while since I read it and, hearing you talk, I felt more your way about it when I was reading it than the way I depicted above. I suppose I was just somewhat overblown with the realized idea of non-fiction graphic novels.

    Also, Stitches is now on my list. Which list? Ah, that is the question.

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