Audubon: On the wings of the world

Audubon: On the wings of the world

Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer

Nobrow Press 2016, Hbk, 184pp

ISBN: 978-1-910620-15-1 AUD $29.99

Did you know that the greatest book on American birds was the work of a Frenchman? The ornithologist and artist James John Audubon was born in Haiti in 1785 to a French father and grew up in Nantes. At 18 he moved to America where he made his name – and a profound contribution to natural history and environmental studies. His legacy of four enormous volumes - The Birds of America - depicts life-sized images of every bird he could see, shoot, stuff, paint and portray between 1820 and 1838. 

Grolleau and Royer’s marvelous book is a thrilling introduction to a crucial moment of history. 

Grolleau and Royer’s marvelous book is a thrilling introduction to a crucial moment of history. 

The life of James John Audubon is brilliantly captured in this bande dessinnée, first published in France in 2016 and now in an English edition by UK champions Nobrow Press. In Audubon: On the wings of the world Fabien Grolleau and Jérémie Royer bring storytelling and design smarts along with real empathy for the subject in a book for teenagers and older. And like the subject himself, their book proves to be another valuable French export. 

The story by Grolleau and Royer begins in high drama and never slackens. As James Audubon and co. are drifting downriver focused on the birds above, a massive storm is heading their way. Desperate to save his sketches, and their own lives, the party scramble ashore and take refuge in a cave. Here Audubon broods upon his misfortune until he sees in the gloom an owl staring fixedly at him. So turning disaster to profit, he passes the storm by drawing the patient bird. 

Aubudon's life work really began after businesses failed and he was gaoled for bankruptcy (oh, that Donald Trump were gaoled for his!). Funded in large part by the work of his teacher wife, Lucy, he travelled for more than a decade in America and then to England drawing, painting, researching, writing and publishing Birds of America. During this time Lucy raised children (two others died in infancy) and endured years of isolation. There is something of the 'grand folly' in Audubon's story, a relentless pursuit of a noble cause. In his driving obsession and determination Audubon reminds me a lot of the explorer Matthew Flinders, the first to circumnavigate Australia. Sailing back to England, Flinders was imprisoned by the French on Mauritius for seven years, and died soon after his eventual return.  

"Swamp fever" was just one of the sicknesses Audubon suffered in his grand pursuit.

American institutions found his work too romantic, not sufficiently scientific and his rival Alexander Wilson was in the ascendent. But the English couldn't get enough of Audubon's dramatic images and provided willing support and financial subscribers. Audubon’s book was published in 87 parts then finally gathered into four volumes - double elephant folio size – each over one metre high. You might say Birds of America is an early example of crowdfunded global publishing with a strong environmental theme. Plus ça change, non?  

Alexander Wilson enjoyed the support of institutions and prolonged Audubon's struggle.

Alexander Wilson enjoyed the support of institutions and prolonged Audubon's struggle.

Grolleau and Royer's  book includes examples from Birds of America.

Today, the State Library Victoria has the complete bound set of Birds of America on permanent display in the Dome Galleries. (Matthew Flinders' map of Australia is in the same room.) When I dropped in recently, the page displayed was the bird of Washington, about which there is some dispute. The Library’s copy was purchased for £100 at a knock-down price from teacher William Stallard by Sir Redmond Barry (best known as the judge who sent Ned Kelly to the gallows). More recently, Aubudon’s Birds of America changed hands at Christies for about US$8 million. 

Audubon on Audubon.

Visitors to the State Library of Victoria seeing what James John Audubon saw nearly 200 years ago. Admiss

Visitors to the State Library of Victoria seeing what James John Audubon saw nearly 200 years ago. Admiss

French edition

Sur les Ailes du monde, BE Éditions Dargaud, 2016

Winner of the 2016 Best bande dessinée at the Festival International de géographie.

About the creators

Born in 1972 Fabien Grolleau trained in architecture and has written numerous bandes dessinée for publishers including Delcourt, Sarbacane and Daguard. He is the editorial manager for the independent press Vide Cocagne, which he established with Thierry Bedouet in 2003. The company is based in Nantes, the same city James John Audubon lived in growing up in France.

Jérémie Royer was born in Paris 1979 and grew up in Nice. He trained in advertising design in Nice before moving to Paris to extend his career,  then studied for two years at l'école de bande dessinée Saint-Luc in Brussels. He is part of the studio l'atelier Mille. Jérémie and Fabien worked on Audubon: On the wings of the world for three years.


For more on the original book see the Audubon Society website.





Wake Up, Spring

Wake Up, Spring (Hotel Strange #1)

Florian & Katherine Ferrier

Graphic Universe, Lerner Publishing

Pbk, 9781467785846, AUD $16.95

Translated by Carol Burrell

French edition: Hôtel Étrange l'hiver au printemps Sarbacane, 2010

I met the creators of Hotel Strange, Florian and Katherine Ferrier, in 2011 Angoulême, south-west of France. The couple work and live in Angoulême, which just happens to be home Europe’s biggest comics and graphic novel festival. At that time Hôtel Étrange, issued by independent publisher Sarbacane, was provoking considerable interest. Four more books have since appeared, while Katherine and Florian have become regulars at festivals all across France.

All is calm, all is quiet.

So it is an absolute delight to see Hotel Strange now crossover into English. Katherine’s vivid and dynamic artwork and design match Florian’s witty, energetic stories to create a fresh, welcoming and delightful world of adventure. The hotel setting works rather like the Faraway Tree or the Treehouse books of Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton: it’s a venue to house all manner of curious guests and remarkable stories.

Unexpected guests.

In the first of the series all at Hotel Strange are deeply, deeply asleep when loud knocking startles them awake. Incredibly, they have slept past March 21 – Mr Spring has mysteriously failed to appear. What has happened to him? In search of Mr Spring they must go!

Marietta and Kiki prepare to search for Mr Spring.

The stars of Hotel Strange are the hotel’s keeper Marietta – an enterprising and capable child – and her friend Kiki, an excitable sprite figure whose drôle humour keeps the saccharine at bay. There’s also the bookish Mr Leclair, ghostly Mr Snarf and the practical-minded elf child Celestin to enrich the scene. As the books are designed for young readers the strange and gothic touches are lightly applied.

Kiki hates missing a meal.

Fending off creatures such as Grouchies, Mumblers and a Smog while searching for Mr Spring, there is still time for wild tobogganing, snowball fights, friendship and feasts.

Kiki gets a lesson in skiing.

Here is a fresh comic book series with classic and traditional aspects woven in. Strange Hotel is crowded with quirky characters, quick wit and delightful adventures. Perhaps it’s the wintry setting of Wake Up Spring that suggests the world of Moomintroll, but I can’t quite put my finger on why this graphic novel series also seems to retain a picture book quality. In any case, this is an added layer of pleasure for the reader.

This joy and energy makes Wake Up, Spring a welcome addition to any bookshelf where adventure, play, quirky characters and a sense of discovery have a home. There is even a recipe for sponge cake at the end.

About the illustrator

Katherine Ferrier holds a diploma in bande dessinée for the School of Beaux-Arts at Angoulême. Her work has appeared in magazines for children and teenagers and for major publishing houses including Milan, Fleurus and Bayard. Parallel with producing artwork for publications, Katherine worked for six years as a stylist/designer for the popular children’s clothing brand Du pareil au meme.

Katherine Ferrier at work on book 2