Written by Fabien Grolleau
Art by Jeremie Royer
Published by NoBrow Press
Hardback – Full Colour – 184 pages – £15.99
The Story: At the start of the 19th century, John James Audobon embarked upon an epic ornithological quest across America with nothing but his artist’s materials, an assistant, a gun and an all-consuming passion for birds. This is the story of one man and his all consuming obsession to catalogue and draw the birds of north America. A journey that will cover so much of a great unexplored land on the 1800s.
The Review: As I sat down to read Audobon: On the Wings of the World in the living room at home, looking out into the garden it began to rain. Cats and Dogs, like it only can in a British Summer.
Watching the rain on the windows as I read through this book of exquisite beauty, complemented by the shapes and sights of nature outside, gave me bona fide goosebumps. It is a real experience, and a privilege, well beyond its qualities as a slice of American history.
It should come as no surprise, then, when I tell you this is already my favourite book of the year. NoBrow really know how to pick them, so many thanks to Emma for sending this. It’s no surprise it has just won Le prix Amerigo-Vespucci, an award presented by the Festival international de géographie (FIG) in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges.
John James Audubon was a man whose legacy continues to this day in countless zoos, parks and museums. His seminal work, Birds of America (yours for a snip at £350!), is one against which both 20th and 21st century wildlife artists are still measured.
As this biography reveals, he was not only a driven man but a man who was also very proud and competitive, who would often let his private life fall fallow whilst pursuing his studies. His personal relationships had a spiky nature.
His life wasn’t without regret and sadness however. He ignored his duties as a father and a husband to follow his dreams, falling foul of the world around him, the result of both its nature and the small-minded men who don’t understand him. This 174-page book encompasses his life and the historian he became.
An intelligent, articulate and a gorgeous book that you need on your bookshelf, this book’s setting is far removed from our own: the world of Twitter and 24 hour news cycles. Instead, we are treated to the story of an ornithologist prepared to take time and care in examining, in detail, the world surrounding him. Obsessive in his approach, like so much science we see in general and popular culture should be now but isn’t, this is an experience that is best described and explored in our world of comics. It includes scenes featuring astounding moments of peaceful, zen-like solitude, broken with armies of birds that fly like a storm and soar through the air and across the landscape.
What other medium speaks at this pace? It’s allowed to breathe and look about, aware of the world, allowing it to exist without ridiculous Muzak or glowing tablet screens.
Nature is meant to wow us. It has an eye-opening shock to the system that should kick us out of our familiar surrounding of satellite television and social media. There are no cameras, no streaming, no internet. Audubon captures everything with pencil, paint, canvas and paper and no small amount of effort.
But about 20 pages in, Audobon does more. He shoots and kills a pair of woodpeckers. A reminder of the brutality of the times and setting.
It’s also a world of bison and wolves and bears. At one point Audobon and his companion barely escape at attack of a grizzly. As they sleep, the spirit of the bear forms into a star constellation above their heads as they sleep around a camp fire.
One of my favourite moments is when Audobon is taken in for a meal with a group of US soldiers. He talks to them about a desire he had that he wanted to have lived in this new country, before the Europeans arrived. To have walked in the “the prairies and forests of the past…” He speaks with the emotions of an idealist and those around him look at him as if he is deluded and touched.
There’s another memorable scene too, when he attempts to sell his drawings at one moment early on in his story, to be told that they are too sentimental. The buyer was looking for something more clinical, science over art if you will. Audobon passionately scolds him saying, “A bird is a living entity, not just lifeless matter..”
The creators of this story play with the power of life and death. The energy of a drawing, for example, is compared with the vigor of the life of a bird in the wild. Audobon attempts to recreate the vitality of a Bluejay as he poses it for him post-mortem and his travelling colleague to draw.
“Now I can capture on paper what made him so unique and full of life.” As he speaks these words his eyes are wide, fixed, unblinking and obsessed!
When he falls ill in the woods and lies feverishly fighting off nightmares, thousands of screeching birds fly and dive overhead, seemingly reacting to his state of mind. The night in reality as well as in dreams is full of strangeness and dangers. This is a book that also deals with this and other forms of madness.
Audobon is a man full of demons, that overtake his reason at different moments in his life with often remarkable art to highlight this loss of reason … I’ll leave you to discover these (cough, cough) flights of fancy for yourself.
This book was a genuine revelation. A historical nature travelogue of sorts, but one that delves deeply into other areas such as human motivations, obsessive personality, mortality and looking up from your phone screen once in a ruddy while.
Our world these days is one that perhaps seems to have been thoroughly explored. This book brings a magic to the natural world, one that instills a childlike fascination that is most welcome. A feast of beautiful art and meaningful dialogue.
Quite simply, Audobon: On the Wings of the World is one of the best things I’ve read in years.
“I’ve heard about unbelievable islands where dragons once lived….”
It’s still raining here. I think I appreciate it a little more now.
• Fabien Grolleau has written and created several comics for Vide Cocagne (which he co-founded) as well as the graphic novel, Jaques a Dit. Find him on tumblr (in French) at http://fabiengrolleau.fr. You can find more of his works here on amazon.co.uk
• Jeremie Royer is an illustrator and designer. After studying art for two years in Nice, he specialised in comic book art and illustration in Brussels. You can find more of his art here – loeildejack.com/galerie/jérémie-royer – and more of his books here on amazon.co.uk
• Established in 1990, at the first Festival International de Géographie de Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, the Prix Amerigo-Vespucci rewards creators of award of fiction dedicated to adventure, travel, distant lands. Here’s the presentation for 2016 (in French)
Many thanks for reading.