The True Comic Story About 3 Primatologists Who Changed How We See the World

Primates-FI 2013by Rachel Edidin (courtesy

Legend has it that in the 1950s, DC Comics concluded that the ticket to sure sales lay not with super-powered hijinks, but with gorillas: any comic with an ape on its cover was sure to outsell the ape-free issues. By that token alone, Primates, a new graphic novel by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks about the lives and work of three seminal primatologists, should be a smash-hit.

Primates tells the connected stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, known collectively as “Leaky’s Angels” in tribute to their collective mentor, archaeologist and paleoanthropologist Louis Leaky. Beginning with Goodall in 1960, each woman embarked on a long-term field study of a group of primates—Goodall, chimps; Fossey, mountain gorillas; Galdikas, orangutans—and, in the process, revolutionized not only the field of primatology but scientific perspectives on human evolution and the very definition of humanity.

Written by Jim Ottaviani and drawn and lettered by Maris Wicks, Primates draws from the diaries of all three scientists—as well as a slew of other sources detailed in a bibliography at the end to paint a compelling picture of their work and lives, deftly interweaving the three women’s stories in an account that’s equal parts biography and scientific history.

Ottaviani’s greatest strength as a writer has always been his uncanny knack for picking out the human threads of scientific discovery, and here he continues to deliver in high form, firmly rooting his subjects’ groundbreaking discoveries in the larger context of their lives. Wicks’s art is instantly appealing and immersive, combining simple, cartoonish line work with careful attention to details of setting, subjects, and story. Together, they achieve the kind of creative alchemy that makes comics such an effective medium for the marriage of narrative and fact, and create an engaging, beautifully rendered work that is exquisitely tailored to its medium.

“We both have science backgrounds,” Ottaviani told Wired. “Mine is in the hard physical sciences, and Maris’ is in science education. The target audience on [Primates] is a little younger than a lot of the previous books that I’ve done, so to have someone who has a strong background in education, who has a great cartooning style, and knows a little more—a lot more—about the biological sciences than I do, it was just perfect.”

Until Primates, Wicks had assumed her careers as science educator and cartoonist would stay separate. “For a long time in my life, all of those things were happening independently—art and comics were happening independent of my education interests, and all of a sudden they all came together and completely benefitted each other. So, it was a delightful surprise, and it wasn’t intended until maybe five years ago, when I was like, ‘Oh, I can make this work.’ ”

Ultimately, Wicks’s background in science education heavily informed her work on Primates. “I was growing in my education career at the aquarium,” Wicks told Wired, “learning all of these interpretation skills, learning about framing potentially tough subject matter, and all the while working in Primates, which also has similar themes. I mean, a lot of it’s about conservation and environmentalism, making the connection early on between human beings and their environment, or human beings and other animals.”

Primates marks Wicks and Ottaviani’s first collaboration, but with luck, it won’t be the last. For now, though, both are hard at work on other projects—Wicks, a comic about the human body due out in 2015 from First Second; and Ottaviani, a biography of computer scientist Alan Turing, with artist Leland Purvis. Read an exclusive excerpt of Primates below.


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This entry was posted on June 12, 2013 by in Uncategorized.

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