Primates

Created by: Jim Ottaviani, Maris Wicks

Published by: First Second

ISBN: 1596438657 (Amazon)

Pages: 144

Genre: Biography, Non-Fiction, Science

Primates

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

When my daughter was two, we watched a lot of David Attenborough documentaries. Planet Earth especially. She named the polar bear trio in the first episode after her, her mother, and her infant brother—I, the papa bear, was at the office. One of our favourites though was an episode of The Life of Mammals that we found on Netflix called “Social Climbers.” It’s all about monkeys and it’s amazing to watch. I know all kinds of animals are smart and use tools and surprise us constantly with their ingenuity—there’s just something wonderful about these creatures in particular. My daughter and I always had a grand time snuggling up and watching the habits of these intelligent animals unfold under the warming tones of Attenborough’s soothing narration.

When I heard First Second would be publishing a non-fictional account of three of the foremost pioneers in primate studies, I was intrigued. When I discovered that it was written by Jim Ottaviani, I had to have it. His Feynman is one of my favourite non-fiction comics. Ottaviani’s sense of what out of everything to convey is masterful. I couldn’t wait to burn through Primates. Attenborough primed me for the book and Ottaviani’s involvement sold me on its viability, but I was wholly unprepared for Maris Wicks.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris WicksWicks wants you to think this is imaginary Jane Goodall
but I choose to believe it is real-life Wicks herself
swooping in to make all things beautiful

Wicks is beautiful.11This shouldn’t need clarification, but I’m here talking about Wicks’ art. Like how we might say that Monet is blotchy or Van Gogh is swirly or Pollack is drippy or Warhol is boring. I mean, we probably wouldn’t but hopefully that gives you the idea of what twist of language we’re working with here. Wicks, the human person, might be beautiful and gorgeous and vibrant and verdant (verdant?) and all these things, but I can’t know that because I’ve never met or even seen her. So we’ll stick to describing her luscious art. Wicks is gorgeous. Wicks is vibrant and verdant and lush and bright and comfortable and lively. This is cartoon art of the first caliber. I fell in love within pages. Her sense of these animals is perfect. Before reading Primates, I probably could have imagined any number of artists exploring Ottaviani’s script with him. Now, that is impossible. Wicks owns Primates as much as Ottaviani (if not more!22Sorry, man! If you want all the glory, you should choose to work with a lesser light next time.3).3Don’t worry! I’m kidding. I know you’re not a glory hog.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

Adding to the tremendous strength of Wicks’ work on the book is her choices in colouring. It probably helps that she both illustrates and colours the work herself and that she evidently has some pretty mean skill with a palette. I’ve used words like verdant and lush and lively to describe her art. It’s because of the colours. This is one of the greenest books I own. And not just some sad mix of drab greens that might dot the hillsides in your standard, grim contemporary fantasy adventure. Nah, Wicks’ greens punch you in the face with how happy they are. This is a book that makes sitting for hours and days and weeks in the jungle to catch a glimpse of some monkeys doing something (anything!!)—well, it makes that jungle seem like the best place in the world to be.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris WicksIt’s like they can see into each other’s souls!

And lest we imagine that Wicks has made a lie of the arduous routines that Primates' three protagonists underwent, I like to read this as Wicks transcending the mundane world of insect bites and cold mornings and wet clothes and cramping muscles and instead delivering us into the transformative mindset of the women who would happily endure these things for months and years in service to their dreams. In that sense, I think Wicks has captured something marvelous, something beyond words. Because while these women are built of tremendous determination, it’s the joy they take in these animals that is what fuels that stubborn willpower.

Primates tells the overlapping stories of three women who (through hard work that others were unwilling or unable to take on) discovered new things about chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Two of them, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, were familiar to me. I had seen several documentary pieces on Goodall in high school circa 1990 and I was at least aware of the 1986 Sigourney Weaver film about Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist (even if it was a bit outside my interests at the time). Biruté Galdikas was entirely unknown to me—though the delightful fact from the cover that she wore a blade on her hip helped me anticipate her section. Each of these women are deeply associated with primate studies and each were tied together through the early direction of Louis Leakey.44I’m not certain how much direction he actually gave, but the book makes it seem minimal. More logistics and networking within the home theater than anything.

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

As a primer on these three women’s work, Primates is perhaps a wild success. The reader is given a fair assessment of both the content of their work and a glimpse into its importance. The act of reading is almost wholly without challenge and is even invigourating; through the different narrative voices Ottaviani uses for each of the women (and briefly for Leaky as well) I found myself happily drawn into their own recollections of their work. For the neophyte in whom this book sparks interest, an initial list of resources for further studies is provided (being boring and lame and sometimes satisfied with too little, I simply opted for Wikipedia to round off some of the corners to my own body of knowledge in respect to these women).

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

Someone more familiar with these women and their scientific contributions will doubtlessly find Primates a less lively read than I did—as would anyone approaching a text aimed at an audience with a lower proficiency in a subject. A book of 133 pages dedicated to biographizing three lives is going to understandably overlook much of the content of those lives. This is not a criticism, but may be important for fans of Goodall or Fossey or Galdikas to keep in mind. Ottaviani does make understated references to certain things that those more familiar with his subjects will pick up on. An example:

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

And another:

Primates by Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks

One time Ottaviani and Wicks were a bit too coy, I think, and the mystery still eats at me. My wife too as it turns out. She read Primates a day or so after I finished, sparked by my exuberance for Wicks’ art. After she turned the last page, I began to probe her (as I am wont) regarding her assessment of the work. I interrupted her just as she was getting started with the question: “Was there anything you didn’t get?” A pause of consideration and then we spoke in unison: “What did she sit on?!” We still don’t know. I tried Google and read a couple biographical articles on Galdikas, hoping against hope the event would be described—to no avail. Maybe some day. For now, when I think of Primates, two thoughts pop into mind before any others: 1) Soooooo pretty; and 2) What did she sit on?!

If you read all that and somehow are confused as to what I think, here’s the short version: I very much enjoyed Primates. It’s a lot of fun even if it may leave the reader hoping for more information. I would have happily read the same book had it been 270 pages long. I might even had done so had it been 380. Maybe not, but probably. Primates' three (or, briefly, four) narrators are not as buoyant or rambunctious as Feynman was for Feynman, but they are different people and Primates' use of their voices is comfortable and warm (perhaps in Fossey’s case, warmer than the woman herself). Ottaviani does a good job balancing between the three women and prevents the work from being about any single one of them to the diminishment of the others. I expect the work will age well and will be especially useful in giving younger readers a foothold into the study of primate ethnology.55That the focus of the work is on three women (and not just arbitrarily on three women but justly) may be of help provoking interest in the sciences in young girls—a demographic to whom the sciences sadly seem rather opaque and uninteresting. I think most readers will really really like66This was my wife’s actual evaluation: she “really really liked” the book. Primates and most of those will even learn a thing or eight.

 

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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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