Constantly Evolving: Eugene Byrne on Darwin: A Graphic Biography
One of the most controversial and discussed figures of the 19th century, Charles Darwin continues to fascinate (and sometimes enrage) people around the world. Storytellers Eugene Byrne and Simon Gurr are two of the latest to tell Darwin’s life story, this time in the form of a graphic novel. Byrne took some time to answer our questions about the book and about Darwin.
You and artist Simon Gurr have created three graphic biographies together. What drew you to this format for telling these life stories?
We've done two graphic biographies and one history of our home city (Bristol, UK). The first was a biography of the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. This was commissioned by the Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, a public/private sector organization that tried to promote the arts to the widest possible audience in the city. Simon and I proposed doing a biography of him in comic form as a way of reaching children and teenagers. We figured that this would be a clever and sneaky way of slipping in some education without them feeling too much pain. You can use humor, you can explain quite complex technical ideas simply, you have an unlimited special effects budget, and it's great fun.
By the time we'd finished the second book, The Bristol Story, we realized that plenty of adults were reading these things as well. One of the very best things that has happened to us is having people with dyslexia or reading difficulties coming to us and saying they'd read the book from cover to cover.
Darwin is more of the same. We sort of pitch it at an imaginary 12-year-old of average curiosity, but we know that adults will read it as well.
What are the benefits of telling this story in the graphic format? And the drawbacks?
Perhaps the main advantage and the main drawback are one and the same thing --- simplicity. The graphic format is an immensely powerful way of getting complex ideas across, and of summarizing the principal milestones in someone's life story. At the same time, though, there is a danger of oversimplifying. Any high school biology or history teacher would --- rightly! --- say that a book like this is no substitute for reading other, more detailed books on Darwin's life and ideas. I'd add, however, that the attentive reader is going to learn considerably more about Darwin from books like this than they ever will from any TV program!
Have you seen the book, or any of your other biographies, used as a textbook?
I'm not aware of any of them being used formally as textbooks, though in England all three were given free to school pupils in the Bristol area. All were written, as I say, with schoolkids in mind as the principal audience and all were very carefully researched and as accurate as we could make them. I can't speak for Simon, but I personally might find myself very slightly disappointed if they were used as textbooks, because that would mean they'd be less fun for the kids. A book’s much cooler if you’re not obliged to read it.
What drew you to Darwin and his life story in the first place? Was there a particular reason you wanted to depict his life story, especially given how many books have been written about Darwin before?
I'm a complete history nerd, and just love finding out stuff that I didn't already know. There's a brilliant biography of Darwin written by Adrian Desmond and James Moore, which I read a while back and just became fascinated, not so much by Darwin himself, but by the history of evolution as an idea, and just how contentious it was. Then we were fortunate enough to be asked to do this for the 200th anniversary of his birth. Yes, there are loads of other books about Darwin, but bear in mind that in the States you have a far more mature attitude to comics. In Britain comics tend, despite Alan Moore and Brian Talbot and Neil Gaiman and all the others, to be seen as kids' stuff. So --- trust me on this one --- a comic about Darwin is, in British terms, mildly revolutionary.
The book is very funny, but there’s a lot of seriousness involved here as well, both in terms of the content and especially in terms of the reaction to Darwin’s theory. Was it difficult to balance that humor and that seriousness when you were writing the story?
You're too kind! Nah, there's no problem of balance. In things like this the humor is completely opportunistic. If we see an opening for a gag, we leap through it --- provided the gag makes us laugh and is in reasonable taste.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Darwin while researching and writing this book?
Would it be heretical to say how unimpressive Charles Darwin the man is? He was a perfectly decent fellow and he worked very, very hard, but the more you look into it, you discover two things. First, that there were plenty of other very impressive people around him --- Alfred Russel Wallace and Thomas Huxley, for instance. The second is that evolution was an idea whose time had come. In the end, Darwin's achievement was to be the first person into print with an overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the theory. In a parallel universe, Darwin would have followed his original career path and become a Victorian vicar in some pleasant rural backwater tending his massive collection of beetles, or whatever, and sooner or later someone else would have been claiming the credit for evolution. Wallace, maybe.
Are you surprised by how, still today, so many people are reluctant to accept what Darwin put forth?
Yes and no. Yes, surprised because the rational, scientific evidence for evolution is so overwhelming. But then again, no, because most of us are fairly ignorant about most things most of the time. You might as well be surprised that so many people take astrology seriously, for instance. This is, of course, another area of massive cultural difference between Britain and the U.S. (despite the tendency of some Brits to believe that Americans are simply English people gone wrong). Even though Britain has this bizarre constitutional setup whereby the monarch is head of the national church, Britain is one of the most secular societies in the world. Those who refuse to accept evolution on religious grounds are a very small minority.
Do you and Simon Gurr plan to do more graphic biographies?
We'd love to do lots more! They are great fun, and Simon is brilliant to work with. There are a couple of possible projects in the pipeline, but any commissioning editors reading this should note that we are available!