Primates is the story of the groundbreaking research of three primatologists – Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas – as they observed chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, respectively, over many years of tedious research. Sounds scientific, technical, the poetic equivalent of any given technical paper in the Journal of Astrophysics, right?
The lighthearted, fast-paced story telling of Jim Ottaviani coupled with Maris Wicks’ vibrant, lively and at times shocking illustrations builds a perfect construct between two seemingly unrelated things: hard science and comic books.
“I have never been interested – for any of the books that I have done – in writing a straight up history textbook, something you can use in a classroom to teach from,” Ottaviani said.
His interest, rather, is in taking months of research on the three women and boiling their lives down into a rich meat and potatoes narrative. At times, he admits, the story takes liberties factually for the sake of tethering the scientists’ lives seamlessly. “The textbooks are already out there,” he reassures readers. “They are available to people if they want them, but good stories are a little harder to come by.”
“If we were going to be entirely accurate, we would need a 4,000-page book, 2,000 of which would have to be directly devoted to Biruté Galdikas sitting and waiting,” Ottaviani says.
For Wicks, it’s about framing the story to highlight the characters’ human qualities, foster a connection with nature and pique the reader’s innate curiosity. The countless shades of green, gray and brown illuminate the all-too-human scenes of Dian Fossey tripping over a rock, spraining her ankle and then throwing up or Galdikas’ rash earned from sitting on a log floating in the river.
“That human quality of it, you can relate to that because we are all people,” Wicks says. “I feel like when you are reading stuff in a textbook it can be kind of dry information about scientists because it puts them on a pedestal – as they should be because they have done incredible work – but there is all sorts of fun stuff that comes with being a human being.”
The characters are fallible (verging on injury-prone), sometimes self-defeating, but notably successful in their research, despite the fact that none of the three women had training in primatology before embarking on their research. The final 133-page book was whittled down from a roughly 250-page first draft and based on mountains of scientific papers, journals and personal letters from the three women’s lives.
What remains is the basic story intermeshed with a few powerful subplots: Dian Fossey is talked into a voluntary – and unnecessary – appendectomy while Galdikas refuses one; Fossey’s conservation efforts that border on eco-terrorism; and Galdikas discovering a dagger that fosters her full immersion into the local culture.
A comedic undertone throughout is the cherry on the sundae. When Fossey is asked what should be done with poachers, she responds, “All poachers should be hanged.” What follows is a close-up of her hands wrapped around her throat, head cocked to one side and tongue draped from the corner of her mouth. In the next frame the audience reacts: jaws dropped, shoulders tense and scowls abound.
“It is equal parts humorous and jarring,” Maris says. “When I was drawing it, I was thinking this is going to look pretty funny, but this is also a pretty horrible thing to see. I feel like that was a pretty good sense of what Fossey was like. I feel like she was a firecracker.”
The creativity, collaboration and craftsmanship so evident in Primates is actually the product of relatively little direct communication between author and illustrator. Interaction was primarily mediated by their editor; direct phone calls or emails between the two were reserved for more serious problems.
After five years of research, writing, thumb nailing, drawing, re-drawing and finalizing Primates, the book, a smooth blend of education and storytelling, is a glimpse into the mind of the three amateur scientists as they embark on a journey to become pioneers of their respective fields.
Ian Floyd is a journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin and the Kirkus Features summer intern. The depiction of Dian Fossey talking to an audience about poachers is from Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.