*Note* This is a cross post from my weekly column over at iFanboy. While I’m happy to have you read it here on the blog, I encourage you to go leave a comment at iFanboy. In the interest of full disclosure, they watch my stats so it helps me out to have you read and comment there.
Artist: Big Time Attic
Come one, come all! Step right up to the amazing pictographic tale recounting not just how the west was won, but how the west was dug!
I was nervous going into this book. It’s about the so-called “Gilded Age of Paleontology.” Before Indiana Jones (I know he’s an archaeologist but he was modeled after a paleontologist) there were Cope and Marsh. Every budding paleontologist learns about these two and their infamous feud, how their desire to outdo each other lead to comical extremes and created a wealth of fossil collections still being unboxed and catalogued to this day. The accounts of such an engaging period of my science’s history are always disappointingly dry. Such was my nervousness with this comic, because all too often retellings of historical events in comics tend to be little more than well-intentioned narration boxes and some adequately rendered illustrations of exactly what was just said in the aforementioned box. They relay a series of disjointed ideas and snippets, but rarely seem to forward a narrative, especially not in the way comics can and should excel at. In extreme contrast to that fear we have this comic.
In a story as old as time (literally), boy meets fossil, other boy meets similar fossil, lifelong rivalry ensues. In the ultimate example of publish or perish these two really did go at each other’s throats in the post-war Reconstruction American West. Along the way P. T. Barnum, Alexander Graham Bell and Buffalo Bill make more than just appearances, but actual contributions to the plot (which is well-researched historical fiction). It’s a rollicking good time only accentuated by real life characters and their always amusing facial hair.
The book ends with a “Fact or Fiction” section wherein all of the true and less than true parts of the story are revealed. The fabricated parts are all justified in some way and were usually modified from actual history to successfully create a more compelling narrative. The factual parts had me flipping through the book all over again to examine those scenes with a more careful eye. Spoiler Warning: The naked guy in the carriage is fact, not fiction.
I’ve written a lot in these columns about scientists being real people, with real quirks, relatable passions and human foibles. If you’ve rolled your eyes and thought, “No way, scientists are BORING robots of facts and such.” I encourage you to check out this book to see exactly what I’m talking about.
By the end the story, I was ready to place it on my shelf right next to From Hell as a piece of engrossing and accurate historical fiction. Ottaviani has a nice library of available science-history based comics, everything from the space-race to stories of women in science (a woefully underrepresented topic). This book held the most raw emotional sway for me before reading, but that was as likely to be a detriment as it was a benefit. It having succeeded so admirably means I’ll be eagerly working my way through Ottaviani’s catalogue.
Story: 5 / Art: 4 / Overall: 4.5
(Out of 5)