On April 2, the graphic novel The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf and illustrated by Lillian Melcher, was released in the United States, the United Kingdom, South America, and a few other regions.
Although I had finished the graphic novel by April 2 (you can read my review here), I had the opportunity on that day to sit down and talk with Melcher about the book she had worked on for two years.
To start, I had to ask if she was familiar with Alexander von Humboldt prior to working on this project. Melcher said no–which would probably be the most common answer for anyone outside of Germany–but as she became more involved in the project she said she learned a lot. What initially attracted her to this project was that it had some tenuous degrees of connection to her alma mater, Parsons, and that it was research-heavy work, the likes of which had colored her senior thesis on Aesop’s Fables.
Of course, there was the matter of collaborating with Wulf, who splits her time between England and Germany. Although the time zone difference was something they both had to get used to, they made it work. As Melcher put it, she was helping Wulf write to make the drawing easier, and Wulf helped her with the layout in order to make the writing easier. They even met in New York City, where neither lives, to just sit down and hash out the thumbnailing together.
The actual real thing just arrived. Advance copy of „Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt“. I think he would like it. Look at the gold on the cover @lillian_melcher @pew_literary @PantheonBooks @johnmurrays pic.twitter.com/Jy0JXKmqas
— Andrea Wulf (@andrea_wulf) January 9, 2019
Within the graphic novel (don’t worry, this isn’t really a spoiler) the two even make cameos, which is what signaled to me a close working relationship in the first place. When I brought this up, Melcher sort of laughed it off, saying she was resistant to the idea at first, but if “[Wulf] was going in [the book], I was going in.”
One thing that’s obvious upon even just skimming The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt is that the design is pretty unique compared to other graphic novels–mixed media and collage dominate this text. The real von Humboldt took “insane notes,” often going back to annotate extensively. Melcher recreated this with her collages, even including sketches she made on spare napkins, “happy accidents” which resembled von Humboldt’s translucent text additions.
Melcher explained that later in the book, as von Humboldt leaves the jungle, panels become more prevalent in the narrative for a reason. This was meant to show von Humboldt’s leave from the jungle, the scientific world of discovery he was immersed in, to Mexico City, the United States, and Europe, the more traditionally structured societies. A great choice for the visual narrative that I’m glad Melcher pointed out to me!
Of course, the narrative was populated by characters other than von Humboldt, and fortunately, he was always very descriptive in his journals. This provided a source for visuals from items like tents and boats to the actual people, colleagues and servants, that assisted von Humboldt.
Melcher had to look outside of von Humboldt’s writing at times, contacting Humboldt University to learn how the scientist would have used his instruments. She also carefully researched indigenous peoples that von Humboldt came across and worked with, following von Humboldt’s unique example for a European man at the time: an example of respect. She wanted to make sure she “respected them the way [von Humboldt] respected them” and represented the different populaces as accurately as possible.
The narrative story of The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt ends with von Humboldt wondering if all his work was worth it if he and it seemed to be so forgotten. Melcher’s take on his final question was that his studies on climate change were important–it’s a very real phenomenon that we’ve had proof of since von Humboldt’s studies. It exists outside of the political implications, and climate change is something we “can’t keep forgetting about.”
Finally, I had to ask Melcher if she had any graphic novels that helped inspire her work, or that she would recommend to the n3rdabl3 staff and readers.
She said a particular inspiration was Haddon Hall: When David Became Bowie by Nejib, especially for the layout with body text and dialogue. Panther by Brecht Evens was also named, as well as You and a Bike and a Road by Eleanor Davis. As for a graphic novel she would recommend in general, she named Leaving Richard’s Valley by Michael DeForge, which also hit bookstore shelves April 2.
The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt is currently available in Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, and South America. For more information on the book, you can check out its site here.