John James Audubon left a vibrant mark on the world with Birds of America, a collection of 435 massive watercolors that took him decades to research and paint. But the artistic and ornithological fame came at a heavy price: His career was marred by failed business ventures, prison, swamp fever, public ridicule, self exile, and poverty. At the same time, he was regarded as a daring pioneer, savvy observer, poet, scientist, and unaware ladykiller.
Audubon’s history has been documented in great detail over the years, but now, a new graphic novel explores it in a different light. With soft illustrations and introspective dialogue, Audubon: On the Wings of the World guides you through his obsessive quest to gather knowledge on North America’s avians.
The conceit behind the book was simple. Two years ago, Belgian illustrator Jérémie Royer was listening to a radio show about Audubon’s paintings, when the idea struck: The bird man of North America would make the perfect subject for a graphic novel. Royer then sought out French writer Fabien Grolleau, and the two embarked on a 10-month-long project to turn Audubon’s life into a series of comic strips. To portray the hero’s wild adventures, Royer slipped into his natural style, drawing a world of muted browns, greens, and peaches inspired by his hikes around Brussels. He also studied Audubon's Birds of America plates online and was fascinated by the author’s commitment to detail. “It was so realistic, the rendering of each feather and color, along with the fact that he would stage the species as if they were still alive and place elements of landscape around them,” he says. “It was science before art. But for others in his time, it was art before science.”
Audubon wanted Birds of America to be a hallmark of ornithology. So when his American peers said his work belonged in an art collection and not a natural history museum, he packed up his paintings and took them to Liverpool. The Europeans were transfixed by his studies and expertise—Charles Darwin included. In the novel, a young Darwin approaches Audubon at a presentation to share his theory of how birds descended from dinosaurs. Audubon finds this comical, despite his own peculiar musings.
Within a year of his arrival in England, Audubon was printing and binding copies of Birds of America. But the title didn’t cross the Atlantic until almost a decade later. In parallel fashion, Royer and Grolleau’s book was published in Europe first—but the duo soon realized that they needed to bring Audubon’s story back to the States. The graphic novel finally got its U.S. debut in April, thanks to a new distributor, Nobrow.
While the graphic novel is a celebration of Audubon’s work, it doesn’t shy away from the naturalist’s controversial moments. As much as he admired birds, he also killed thousands to study, shooting droves of Passenger Pigeons and even a mating pair of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. He abandoned his wife, Lucy, and their children for years, and showed little compassion for Native Americans and African slaves. Audubon was also deeply prideful—especially when it came to his mentor and rival, Alexander Wilson. But these flaws were eclipsed by his dogged pursuit of knowledge, which helped illuminate a field people knew little about and ultimately sparked a conservation movement. “Audubon’s passion of birds drew his life forward,” Royer says. It’s clear in Birds of America, and it’s clear nearly 200 later, in Audubon: On the Wings of the World.
Keep scrolling for an exclusive excerpt from the graphic novel. Tap or double click on the pages to zoom in, or go full screen with the icon on the bottom right. Buy Audubon: On the Wings of the World, by Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer, Nobrow Press, 184 pages, $16, on Amazon.