While I don’t have a huge amount of experience reading science-themed graphic novels, I do sort of have a sense that they come in two different broad categories.

The first is basically transforming a boring, stilted, text-heavy textbook into a boring, stilted, illustration- and text-heavy graphic novel. In other words, the producers think that anything in graphic novel format will by definition be more interesting and engaging than something that’s purely text-based.

The second involves taking advantage of the strengths of the graphic novel format to re-imagine how scientific knowledge can be presented to an interested audience. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, which I reviewed ecstatically a while back, is a great example of that category.

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth is another. Written by Jay Hosler and illustrated by Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon, it’s an absolutely stupendous example of how to explain some tricky scientific concepts to a broad range of audiences.

It’s an informal sequel to The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA and shares a setting and a broad approach. Although I haven’t read the prequel yet, I have purchased it and will get to it very soon.

And speaking of the setting of the book, I really like the way the creative team integrated scientific information into an amusing narrative. The setup is basically an Earth evolution museum on the planet Glargaria — The Glargarian Holographic Museum of Earth Evolution. The King of Glargaria and his young offspring are touring the museum with a particularly sycophantic scientist tour guide who explains evolutionary concepts in the context of some unspecified problems that Glargaria is having.

The framing is very sprightly and amusing, with a very light touch. The black and white art is very cartoony but it sets the right tone. The art is clear and accessible, just right for a young audience. A lot of the information is actually conveyed via banter between the three characters making it very easy to digest and surprisingly entertaining.

Here’s a example (p. 38):

Guide: Fossils are any preserved evidence of ancient life. They can include the impressions of a leaf in mud, an insect trapped in amber, petrified poop, or hard animal parts like shells, exoskeletons, and bones that have turned to rock.

King: Earth life can turn to stone? Their warriors must be terrifying.

Guide: Well, they turn to stone only after they’re dead.

Offspring: They’re zombie stone warriors? Awesome!

You get the idea.

Overall, the book is terrific and I recommend it without hesitation.

In terms of content level, it’s probably most appropriate as a supplement for high school biology but certainly college and university students would find it a useful refresher on basic concepts. It might also be useful for breadth course for non-science students. It would be perfect for any school or public library of any size. My older son is in grade 12 and found it useful and amusing, if basic. I certainly learned quite a bit reading it.

Academic libraries might not find it pitched to the right level for their patrons so most will probably want to skip it. However, it might make a good addition to any “light reading” collection. Academic libraries that support education programs or that collect graphic novels as objects of study will definitely want to get this as it’s a fantastic example of the educational uses of the form.

It would also make a terrific gift for any science-loving person of any age.

(Book provided by publisher.)

Hosler, Jay; Kevin Cannon; Zander Cannon. Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2011. 150pp. ISBN-13: 978-0809094769

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