Caught by the River

Audubon, On the Wings of the World

26th September 2017

Audubon, On the Wings of the World by Fabien Grolleau, translated by Etienne Gilfillan and with illustrations by Jérémie Royer
(Nobrow Press, hardback, 184 pages. Out now and available here)

Review by Ceri Levy

Audubon, On the Wings of the World is a remarkable graphic novel by Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer, which tells the story of the 19th century naturalist and brilliant painter of birds, John James Audubon. He spent a good part of his life travelling across the lands of North America to draw and document all the continent’s birds and his work is still revered today.

The artwork throughout the book is stunning and conjures up time and place perfectly. Visually arresting, we travel alongside Audubon as he struggles to record the whole of America’s birdlife. At first we witness his failings as a businessman, as he invests his inherited fortune into a sawmill which uses up all of his family’s capital and leaves him in great debt. This leads to imprisonment and he is forced to declare bankruptcy. Audubon realises that he is no businessman and is incapable of success within that world. His wife suggests that it is perhaps time for “the great journey” he has always talked about to begin, and on his release from prison he sets off on his travels.

Audubon journeys far and wide and finds himself in numerous precarious situations, including being attacked by a bear and developing swamp fever. But he survives and deals with the hardship, his need to continually draw birds keeping him going as he wanders across the American landscape. When he eventually comes face-to-face with scientists in Cincinatti and New Orleans to show them his work, Audubon finds them a dismissive group who believe his work to be art, not natural history, and therefore of no scientific merit or worth to them.

Reeling, he retreats back into the wild and his obsession will not be denied. This is to the detriment of his health, both physical and mental, but his work has to be completed before he can allow himself rest. In one scene, Audubon witnesses a huge flock of Passenger Pigeons passing overhead, blotting out the sun and taking three days to fly past due to its size. Consider if you will that numbers of this species were in the billions at this time, and Audubon’s visionary fear of a multitude of extinctions is highlighted in this moment — within a century, these birds had become extinct.

Audubon’s way of recording and drawing his finds was invariably shooting birds and then placing their dead bodies in realistic poses so he could make his work appear all the more lifelike. In death he gave life. He says, “I often state that if I shoot less than 100 birds a day, they must be rare.” This is qualified with the shocking moment when Audubon bags a pair of nesting Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, remarking on their rarity, and rushes to paint them before their feathers lose their lustre. Today these woodpeckers have become a bird of legend, with only unsubstantiated reports of them appearing from time to time. This species is all but lost forever and is considered extinct. It is easy to criticize Audubon for killing so many birds from our position in time, but we can’t judge his actions with our 21st century thinking — in fact, I would say that the modern age has proved much worse for the animal kingdom as corporations run amok amongst the wild places of the world in the name of progress, economic growth and reward. Perhaps Audubon understood better than most just what awaited his beloved birds and therefore believed some death would help in the wider scheme of things.

His search for patrons and sponsors to turn his drawings into books took Audubon to England in 1826, where he finally found the support he craved. The engravers Havell would print his book, Birds of America, over an eleven-year period and his lifetime’s work would finally reach an audience — ironically making him rich and famous.

Audubon, On the Wings of the World is a perfect graphic novel and shows just how far this medium of storytelling has come. Once the denizen of costumed superheroes, things changed in 1992 when Maus by Art Spiegelman told the story of a Holocaust survivor and became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. This opened the gates for different stories, like Joe Sacco’s Palestine, documenting his experiences of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the early 90s. Many great and alternative tales have been written in this format that would never have seen the light of day before these groundbreaking books appeared, and I would suggest that with a graphic novel there is no tale that cannot be told — as long as the story is good, the artist can draw, and the writer can write succinctly. And Audubon succeeds on all three counts and is a worthy addition to the genre. It is well told, beautiful and enlightening. I think I’m going to read it again.


Audubon, On the Wings of the World is on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £15.99.

Critical Critters by Ceri Levy and Ralph Steadman is out now. More info here.

Ceri Levy on Caught by the River / Twitter