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Darwin: A Graphic Biography
Book Reviews

Darwin: A Graphic Biography

An unfocused and often overstuffed illustrated look at Darwin’s early childhood and theories, despite its playful artwork.

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Presenting famed naturalist Charles Darwin’s life and achievements in illustrated form is familiar territory, most notably in the sumptuous illustrated edition of On The Origin of the Species by Michael Keller (art by Nicolle Rager Fuller), but most have focused more on Darwin’s theories than Darwin himself.

Now comes Eugene Byrne & Simon Gurr’s Darwin: A Graphic Biography, the duo’s third historical collaboration after Bristol Story: A True And Graphic History Of The Greatest City In The World and Isambard Kingdom Brunel – A Graphic Biography. Thanks to the familiar subject matter and a brisk 96 pages, it’s also one of their most accessible.

Darwin’s story is framed using a playful “Ape TV”, a primate-based television show; a novel approach that adds a bit of monkey spice to what could have been an otherwise trudge-happy slog through some of Darwin’s headier backstory. That said, it’s a shame the attempt pales to the similarly plotted Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth by Jay Hosler (art by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon), a late 2011 release that employed a similar technique (albeit with aliens). Considering the subject matter and simularities in presentation, one can only wonder how coincidental this was.

On the technical side, Gurr’s artwork can be playful and fun, especially when he’s allowed to let loose with animals, but can feel subservient to Byrne’s erudite text, which often falls into the trappings of many historical biographies designed for younger readers as it packs dense paragraphs of information in ways that seldom compliment the art. Even the Ape TV concept is abandoned at times, no doubt to make way for even more passages of historical info.

But what really makes Darwin: A Graphic Biography difficult to recommend, even as a primer to a more comprehensive study of the man, is how unfocused it can feel. Is this actually a biography of Charles Darwin or a defense of evolutionary theory? Throughout, it never misses an opportunity to connect Darwin’s theories to what’s presented as his anti-slavery bent, a noble intention, but one that feels forcibly grafted to engender sympathy from those politically correct types.

There’s also a current of anti-religious fervor running through the narrative, especially early on, that seems inspired more by Richard Dawkins (referenced twice in the bibliography) than a true appeal to objectivity. Indeed, the whole Ape TV framing concept and nods of religion’s ‘creation myths’ seem constructed to poke fun at those who may still find evolutionary theory controversial and a sore subject in education, which makes the hasty attempt at reconciliation with religion in the final pages feel awkward and out of place.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as Darwin: A Graphic Biography has moments that truly do feel inspired and benefit from the illustrated approach, particularly Darwin’s famous survey expedition aboard the ship HMS Beagle, which, truth be told, might have been a better subject than a broad biography. But too often its ambitions can feel weighed down by the sheer volume of Byrne’s historical information, which even Gurr’s playful artwork has trouble complimenting in ways that seem natural and entertaining. A lack of focus about its intentions doesn’t help, either, as the story often seems like its dueling with a defense of evolutionary theory over its famous namesake. A noble effort, but one that seems inappropriate for its recommended audience.

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Eugene Byrne, Simon Gurr (art)

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Smithsonian Books

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02/05/2013

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About the Author: Trent McGee