Birds are some of nature’s most beautiful animals. They’ve fascinated people for centuries, with one of the most prolific bird watchers being John James Audubon. Considered to be a passionate ornithologist, Audubon was responsible for creating a definitive nature text called Birds of America. Fabien Grolleau and Jeremie Royer decided to capture Audubon’s life in graphic novel form with Audubon: On The Wings Of The World. The duo present a romanticised tale of Audubon that deals with freedom, family and the absolute dedication to an ideal.
The story begins with Audubon cataloguing a tree full of swallows. The reader is quickly introduced to the protagonist’s obsession, as Audubon meticulously counts 9000 swallows living together. Audubon marries a woman called Lucy and tries to make something of himself, but he remains unhappy. After seeing a flycatcher that keeps returning, Audubon realises that he needs to chase his dream of drawing every bird in America.
Audubon sets off into the American wilderness with a Native American guide called Shogan. Audubon’s rivalry with fellow ornithologist Alexander Wilson is revealed. Wilson came up with the definitive bird watching guide called American Ornithology and criticised Audubon’s painting methods as too romantic. In order to paint his subjects, Audubon killed them and stitched them back together into a specific position. Audubon travels all over America, painting all kinds of birds. Wilson continues to haunt him in the shape of a vulture, taunting Audubon by saying his paintings will always be remembered.
“These birds must be painted now, while they still flourish in this pristine setting, unchanged since the dawn of time – for soon, I fear, it will be too late. There’s something I must confess to you: not long ago, so engrossed was I in the folly of my task, I felt an urge to melt into the beauty of the American forests. Such was my disillusionment with the world. But a man appeared and saved me from myself. On day, my life may be summed up by the miraculous encounters that I’ve had.”
After many years, Audubon returns home, but is unable to convince academics to take his work seriously. Unperturbed, Audubon sails to England to find engravers for his Birds of America book. He finds success in the UK, with many people being in awe of his work, including a young Charles Darwin.
Audubon is successful in publishing Birds of America and his reputation is secured. Towards the end of his life, Audubon’s battle with dementia is shown. The final image is of him turning into an eagle and hunting down the Wilson vulture. Transformed, Audubon lets out a triumphant screech, feeling on top of the world.
The graphic novel does a wonderful job of charting Audubon’s early life to his death. He’s characterised as an obsessive, charming man devoted to his mission and family. The writers took inspiration from Audubon’s journals to paint a picture of a man who believed his own stories.
I enjoyed the different birds that appeared and how many are used as metaphors. When Audubon dissected a blue jay, I got the feeling that the jay was an extension of his psyche. A flycatcher is also used to demonstrate Audubon’s restlessness and how he needed to fly out into the world to make his fortune.
The art is attractive, with my favourite panels featuring sprawling landscapes and birds. A lot of detail went into mimicking the paintings of Birds of America. As an added bonus, a few original prints from the book are featured at the end of the graphic novel. The drawings depict a great-footed hawk, blue jay and wild turkey.
Audubon: On The Wings Of The World is a celebration of everything that Audubon achieved and the mark he left on the world. I was able to learn a lot about him and reading the graphic novel made me appreciate birds even more. Comic fans and bird watchers will enjoy reading it. You can purchase it on Amazon.