A Graphic Interpretation of John James Audubon

Review By Sarah Mecklenburg

This weekend, while having dinner at a local restaurant, I had a lengthy discussion with my husband about bird art. There were a few pieces in the room that I found particularly good – one of Carolina Parakeets, and extinct species of parrot native to eastern North America, and a wild turkey. As a novice birder and artist, I appreciated how the birds were depicted in movement, showing their different feathers and even the food they eat. Shortly after our dinner, I discovered the exact same images in the back of the graphic novel I was reading, Audubon: On the Wings of the Word by Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer, and translated by Etienne Gilfillan. We were eating next to Audubon prints and I didn’t even know it.

I never knew much about the man that had such an impact on art, birding, and conservation that organizations and parks were named after him. While this book, noted in the forward, is meant to be a romanticized version of Audubon using his writings, I still learned so much about him. Audubon was born the illegitimate son of a French slave trader and a chambermaid in Haiti, grew up in France, and moved to the United States in the early nineteenth century. After multiple failed attempts at running businesses and ending up in debtor’s jail, Audubon turned to documenting the natural world. Audubon also had a wife, Lucy, and four children, only his two sons surviving into adulthood. Audubon was away from his family for most of that time, however, instead traveling the southeastern United States (and nearby territories). The book focuses on Audubon’s travels and work to get his book of scientific illustrations, Birds of America, published.

As someone who has studied history, I have always disliked how many books brush over the harder facts of history – slavery and colonization, to name two. While this book did not shy away from those topics, it also acknowledged that the perspectives Audubon had were of his time. They note at the end that they did gloss over whether Audubon owned slaves, saying that the topic was too complex and worthy of a whole book. I also appreciate that they used Audubon’s own writings on which to base the material, and also recognize that these writings at times are flawed, exaggerated, and products of their own time. There are a few times where the authors stretch the truth (can you figure out who the historical figure is before he introduces himself?), but they are done in believable ways.

Overall, the art is wonderful in Audubon, and though the book is translated from the original French, it reads really well. The book itself makes me want to learn more about Audubon and his endeavors to illustrate so many living creatures.

I recommend this book for fans of graphic novel biographies like Maus and Primates.