REVIEW – Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth via iFanboy

Sometimes I really love my life. This book was kind of a perfect convergence of the things that make comics and evolution awesome. I hope you dig my thoughts. Feel free to comment here or click-through the link and comment on iFanboy.

Written by Jay Hosler

Illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon

$18.95 / 150 Pages / Black & White

Hill and Wang

My own understanding of evolution has evolved over time. I entered university basically ignorant of the entire subject but since evolution is the foundation for modern biology, and biology was what I wanted to study, I had to take a few classes on the subject. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn, so much so that I shifted the focus of my major and now have a degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The work I do now is more focused on ecological issues so reading this book was like a revival of my initial intellectual curiosity.

I’m always inherently skeptical of comics about complex scientific concepts for a few reasons. One, they tend to come from publishers that aren’t known for their comics work, therefore how can I trust that they’ll pick the right people for the job and properly edit the book during production? Two, it can be hard to make pedagogical comics because of a potential lack of narrative. At the end of the day not everyone is as talented as Scott McCloud. And three, I’m very familiar with the subject matter, one mistake and I might put the book down and walk away. What I’m saying is that when I crack open a book like this I’m not writing the first lines of my glowing review, I’m looking for cracks in the façade with as critical an eye as possible.

However, and it’s a big however, this book simply blew me away. Jay Hosler along with Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon have created an elegant introductory graphic text to a concept I’ve dedicated my life to understanding. This book reinvigorated a passion within me for the basic tenants of evolutionary theory that I haven’t felt since an undergrad.

Some of you may have read my review on the graphic adaptation of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and while that book was not without merit, it also seemed geared towards fans of Darwin and his life, i.e. people with at least a working familiarity of the principles of evolution. Hosler et al.’s new book could be given to the least informed among us and they’d be hard pressed to not come away with some new knowledge. (Knowledge you can even test with some questions in the book jacket! Interactively awesome!)

The reason the book is capable of being so fundamental and comprehensive is the silly but effective framing device: aliens have created a museum about earth evolution, and the royalty of the world is being given the grand tour. It took me a few pages to get all that, but then it was smooth sailing all the way through. It’s a great narrative technique because it makes the explanation a conversation rather than exposition, the young prince often repeating and clarifying points along the way in a pleasant reinforcement for the reader. The holographic technology of the museum allows their guide to bring up any example of earth evolution and research imaginable. Darwin, Huxley and more modern researchers like Neil Shubin and Tim White are all presented when their work is being highlighted.

And I imagine those living scientists will be pleased by their likenesses in the comic. I praised Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon (no relation) in my previous review for Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards. Which is a comic also about science but more history than theory, and yet here they’ve shown their chops yet again. Those men I knew, I recognized and those I didn’t I’m sure I would. Furthermore, for what is essentially a talking head comic their panel layout was elegant and functional. Often a grid, sometimes a full-page spread but never flash beyond what was required to forward the story, they just let the flashiness of life do the heavy lifthing and then display it acurately. Even I get turned around and over-complicate things when trying to explain evolutionary concepts to people, this book keeps it straightforward and simple.

That isn’t to say the story isn’t without drama. Beyond the human interest of just how we know the things we know about the world, which I find endlessly fascinating, the story of life is also inevitably the story of death. When it comes to extinctions it’s easy to dramatize something like the Cretaceous-Tertiary Event because a giant rock hit earth and that’s cool to watch. But never before have story and art combined to add emotional impact to the Permian-TriassicEextinction in a way where you feel the weight of all that death (and it actually was a worse extinction than the dino killer, FYI).

Don’t think that all that death doesn’t prevent the book from marveling at the glory of life. Examples from literally all walks of life are sprinkled liberally throughout every section of the scientific explanations. It’ll make you want to SCUBA dive for flowers in a hot spring on top of a frozen tropical mountain, were such a thing possible.

And while I’m hesitant to stoke the fires of argument, I want to briefly address the “debate” this book could cause. This book isn’t an attack on anything. It’s an explanation of life on this world based on sound science and pretty pictures. It’s not written in a way to convince a person who isn’t willing to be, it’s demonstrative not argumentative.  So if you’re fan of good comics and a fan of good science, there’s nothing in here you won’t enjoy.

I know I’ve oversold this tome but I cannot help myself, such is my level of excitement. Barring any huge upheavals in the science of evolution, by the time I’m a professor I can easily see myself assigning this as reading for week 1 of an introductory course on evolution or even just biology. The suggested further reading has some things that even I should pick up, so this graphic novel really is the stoking the fire of curiosity and the will to discover the world around me anew. So quit reading me, go get some Evolution to enjoy and spread the love of life around a little.

Story: 5 / Art: 5 / Overall: 5

(Out of 5)

Be sure to take advantage of the free previews offered by Scientific American and the National Center for Sciene Education. Or just head straight to Amazon.


Ryan Haupt is an unrepentant geek who can’t help that this pushed all of his buttons at once. Hear him geek out loud on his podcast Science… sort of.

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