When you were in grade school, depending on where you’re from, you may not have learned much about Alexander von Humboldt. Thanks to the graphic novel The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf, illustrated by Lillian Melcher, I finally had a chance to learn about this intriguing individual.
To start, I will say that Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist and explorer who lived from 1769 to 1859. This volume covers some of his explorations in South America (1799-1804), with brief forays into other regions, like the newborn United States. The frame is that of an elderly–or perhaps even ghostly, as references are made to scientific discoveries in 2016 and other years after von Humboldt’s death–von Humboldt recalling the details of his journey.
As for the physical book, it’s a hefty, beautiful volume. The cover features drawings of the flora and fauna von Humboldt and company came across in South America, with lettering and details in a wonderful, eye-catching gold. What I’m trying to say is that, if it’s too big for your bookshelf, no worries–it should be out on your coffee table.
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
Melcher’s art within the book itself lives up to her cover, of course. Every page is unique, employing both elements of traditional graphic novels/comic books (neat little sequential panels and splashes) to mixed media art pieces, with a layout that varies from page to page. Although her work makes up most of the illustrations in the book, she uses collage to insert maps, pages from von Humboldt’s actual journal pages or published works, paintings, and even (photographs of) samples of fauna von Humboldt and company dealt with.
Some of my favorite features that I’ve either never seen, or very, very rarely see, that Melcher utilized here is inserting her artwork of the characters into already existing sketches and paintings from the time period, and using artwork that was either drawn or superimposed onto things like napkins or what appears to be strips of cardboard. There’s even a moment where von Humboldt’s sketches are used and he informs his readers that the drawings are his, not Melcher’s, despite a stylistic similarity. (This also suggests that Wulf and Melcher had a close working relationship, which is nice to see!) Ultimately, the book is very lively and is incredibly appealing visually.
That’s not to suggest that the writing pales in comparison, of course. Wulf presents a very clear, easy-to-follow, and compelling narrative. Looking at the list of her other published books, there is one other book on Alexander von Humboldt (The Invention of Nature), but if this book is intended to be a sequel, it does not show. That is to say, I don’t believe I missed anything because I hadn’t read Wulf’s first book on Humboldt. When The Invention of Nature is mentioned in the course of this novel, it is only to say what this latest novel expands upon.
The only narrative choice I found unusual was that it’s immediately established that von Humboldt is looking back on his life, but he personally does make references to scientific observations that came later, that are directly related to his observations and work. It doesn’t derail the narrative anyway, and it does drive home his influence during his lifetime and long afterward. Ultimately, an important point, because he’s simply not a scientist you hear very much about in school despite his obvious influence on the modern world.
And the choice does contribute to an overarching narrative about legacy–von Humboldt wonders if all his work was worth it since he is not remembered and celebrated in an iota of the way he was 200 years ago. It is a universal, human question to wonder about such things. But the book itself stands as a testament to the fact that he was an important person and he has not been forgotten by the general public.
All in all, The Adventures of Alexander Humboldt is a great addition to anyone’s library. It’s a unique graphic novel in many ways and is both visually and narratively appealing. I can see the book being a great fit for anyone of almost any age group, provided that the person has an inquisitive mind. I can certainly attest to its success as an introduction to Alexander von Humboldt, and of course, someone already familiar with Humboldt and/or interested in the history of naturalism or scientific developments would enjoy the book too.
The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt has already been released in Germany but will be on shelves in the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Spain, and South America on April 2. It will be available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere.