Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Naturalist: A Graphic Adaptation by Wilson, Ottaviani, and Butler

When you're talking about people who have an inordinate fondness for insects, you probably mean either God or E.O. Wilson. And only one of them is a person you can actually have a conversation with. (Well, Wilson is 91, and probably still busy enough that it would be tough to get some of his time -- but you know what I mean.)

Actually, you can differentiate them a bit more than that -- God is said to like beetles better, and Wilson was always an ant guy. Just in case the distinction becomes important in your life.

Edward O. Wilson is the towering biologist of the 20th century, which is particularly impressive since that was such a physics-heavy century. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for books he wrote, is responsible for hundreds of scientific papers and possibly the foundational biological theory of the era, and is one of the pillars of the conservation movement. Naturalist was his memoir -- the story of how he grew up, got interested in ants, got into science, and navigated most of his career. That book came out in 1994, when Wilson was 65, and just a couple of years before he retired from active teaching at Harvard -- but, as I said above, he's still going strong now at 91, and has published as many books since Naturalist as he did before it. So the idea probably was that Naturalist was going to be basically the story of his life, but he may need to add a second volume at this rate.

Naturalist has had a strong life, and has been particularly influential on young readers interested in science -- obviously those kids who like bugs, but also the ones who end up going into chemistry or physics or possibly even (gasp!) engineering. [1] So clearly someone -- maybe even Wilson himself, since he's obviously a smart guy with a lot of ideas -- thought it would be good to do one of those new-fangled "graphic novel" versions of Naturalist, since all of the kids love them these days.

(I may be deliberately making this sound silly for comic effect. But it was a good idea.)

However it happened, Island Press -- the nonprofit that publishes the prose edition of Naturalist -- found Jim Ottaviani, the premier and almost only writer of science in comics form, to adapt Wilson's book into comics and cartoonist, illustrator, and cartoonist C.M. Butzer to draw it. Colors are by Hilary Sycamore, but the pre-publication proof I read only features color for the first seventeen story pages, so I can't really speak to her work here as a whole. The graphic adaptation came out last November, and is widely available now -- so now there are two versions of Naturalist available to be handed to a budding scientist, one of which features lots of pictures of ants to go with Wilson's words.

As usual with Ottaviani's work, there are lots of caption boxes and dialogue -- he likes to get in as many of the real words of the books and scientists he's adapting as possible. So this will be a denser graphic novel than many readers are used to: I'd say that's no bad thing, since science is demanding and full of details that require close attention. Anyone looking for something quick and surface-y is not cut out for a life in science to begin with.

And, of course, this is the story of a life, and one intertwined with field exploration, collaboration with other scientists, and writing -- some of it is about external action, but most of what was important in Wilson's life happened in his thoughts, as he examined ants around the world, thought about them back in Massachusetts, scribbled ideas on a board with colleagues, and bounced their theories off the real world to make sure they actually worked.

I wish there were more graphic novels like this, and fewer about punching people, but that's the world we live in. Intellectual activity is always less popular than punching. But this one is out there, and it's really good at what it does. If you know someone who could be a scientist eventually, this would be a good book to give her.

[1] Note: your present writer's son is a budding engineer, in the second year of a five-year undergraduate ChemE program, and so he kids because he loves.

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