By Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks
The joy of Primates comes from the exploration of both the lives of three very strong, fiercely independent and driven women and the great apes they studied. The importance of Primates lies not in the actual book itself, but the message the book delivers, the fervent desire to see more done, to carry on the legacy of Goddall, Fossey and Galdikas. That it does both of these things whilst being an entertaining and educational read is to the credit of both Ottaviani and Wicks.
Primates is a triple biographical work, looking at behavioural scientists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas and their pioneering work with Chimps, Gorillas and Orangutans respectively. The three form a perfect trio of women who changed public perception and scientific understanding, all three sharing strength, incredible patience and dogged determination to see their roles through. Primates the graphic novel does a really impressive job of summarising what it was that made these three pioneers so important, capturing the essence of what made these three women such magnificent pioneers.
All three were recruited through the efforts of one man, a spiritual father figure of primate behaviour studies; the great Louis Leakey, a firm believer in tenacity over experience, patience over academic achievements, and a man who firmly believed that women were far more suited to carry out the lengthy field studies that so many men proved incapable of undertaking. He set these three women on their various paths but it’s the strength and determination of these women that comes through in Primates. These are truly legendary names in the scientific world.
The three discovered so much, each of them spending years in the field, struggling with the day to day hardships, with funding crises, with political upheaval, with poaching, with personal lives in chaos, with illness and heartbreak. But in the end they truly loved what they did, giving themselves completely to their work, driven and obsessive.
(Jane Goodall and her chimps)
Goodall’s discovery of Chimps using tools revolutionised our understanding of ape social interaction and brought their lives all that closer to our own. Fossey’s work did so much to dispel the King Kong myth, instead providing us with the more modern image of the gorilla as a gentle giant, peacefully living together in large family groups. Galdikas’ work with Orangs was hitherto unknown to me, but after reading Primates I’m determined to learn more of this woman who moved to Indonesia to study the “wildperson in the woods“.
(Dian Fossey and her gorrilas)
Each woman’s character is so different, and in reality even more different and divergent than the simple story here would allow you to imagine. This in some ways is the chief flaw with Primates the graphic novel, the 130+ pages here needed to be three times the length to even begin to cover the complexities of the three women, or the subjects they shared. Just the various political and social hardships and the difficulties they each had to overcome to be respected within their fields could fill many books this size. Likewise their discoveries in the field of behavioural science and primate research. It’s not that Ottoviani fails to present their tale as a gripping biographical work of fiction, just that there’s nowhere near the depth of material here that the topic so obviously deserves.
Having said that though, there are so many moments in Primates where it’s done right, and often it’s the little things that really impress, the little moments of camp reality, the small triumphs each woman experiences, the repeated joke of Leakey demanding that his Trimates have their appendixes removed, the sense of shared tribulation the three scientists share when they meet, that moment of seeing Galdikas kick of her shoes every opportunity she gets, later identified by Fossey as having gone “bushy”. These are moments to cherish, even as we acknowledge the greater importance of the work we’re reading about. Even in the art and design of the book those little things really pay off; each woman getting a subtly different typeface, noticeable when they get together in the short part 4, Trimates that wraps up the story of all three great behaviourists.
But above all, Primates does a superb job of letting the reader know just how dedicated and passionate and important each of these women were in their field. Their discoveries are covered well, their legacy made clear.
(Galdikas and her Orangutans)
“We anthropologists view coming down from the trees as a major event in hominid evolution, you see. Deciding in advance that it’s important, we’re ecstatic when we find it.”
“But the local Melayu people don’t consider traveling on open ground a major event. And neither do Orangutans. They just do it.”
That was one of Galdikas’ discoveries, that Orangs walked on the jungle floor, but that fact was so well known to the locals Galdikas almost comes across as embarrassed to report it. More fascinating in fact is the fact that Galdikas made this remarkable (to Western science) observation after accidentally slicing her leg open with a machete. In pain, in shock, she still stops to record this on her slow journey back to camp. Again, these little touches, the moments encapsulating the three women’s lives that really makes it such a personal memoir, so full of life and joy.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Maris Wicks at Thought Bubble after seeing her talk at the all-ages panel. She’s a delight to chat to, full of energy and enthusiasm, which describes the artwork in Primates so well. It’s all so easy on the eye, simple and colourful. But simple is a very difficult thing to get right, simple is something many artists aspire to and get very wrong. This level of simple takes a lot of work, and it shows all through Primates that Wicks’ art simply but beautifully effectively captures the lives of the women, their research and most importantly their interactions with their great apes. Little things again, Wicks’s art is constrained here with carefully composed panels, unfussy layout, each page strictly delineated by a strong white border, but there are a few moments through the book where it’s allowed to stretch and bleed out to a full page, and these moments are carefully chosen to deliver such impact…
That’s a great page, and a perfect note to end on. Primates delivers everything Ottaviani and Wicks want to deliver, it’s a loving, informative, well researched, well illustrated piece of biography that may well lead a new generation of readers to find out more about these three great scientist’s work with great apes, and in doing so may well inspire some to carry on the work. That’s a measure of its success.