Author Andrea Wulf and illustrator Lillian Melcher’s graphic novel The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt brings to life the travels of the 19th century German explorer and naturalist. Von Humboldt was one of the first scientist to make the connection between human activity and its impact on the environment. He first recognized this connection during an expedition to Venezuela, where he witnessed intense deforestation. The impact of human activity was not limited to destruction of forests, since human pollution also impacted glaciers in the area.
The illustrations depict Humboldt’s five-year expedition to South America. Glacier Hub had the opportunity to connect with Melcher for a Q&A to discuss the scientist’s enduring relevance and his emphasis on using images along with text.
GH: What led you to focus on the work and life of Humboldt?
LM: Andrea Wulf had just finished her fabulous best selling book [about Humboldt] “The Invention of Nature.” It was 2014 and it was going through the final editing process. That same year Humboldt’s manuscripts were made accessible to the public. This was huge for Andrea. She was looking through the journals and saw all of Humboldt’s drawings. He drew everything from llamas and penguins to tents and pulley systems. These drawings were what sparked the idea of an illustrated book. In 2016, we found each other through Lauren Redniss who was one of Andrea’s favorite artists and my professor at [Parsons School of Design in New York City]. Andrea and I really clicked and my style fit alongside Humboldt’s writing and the etchings in his books. It was just one of those meetings where we kinda knew it had to be us. I had no Idea who Humboldt was before I read the Invention of Nature. He is just completely erased from history classes here in the states. Because of this, it became a sort of personal vendetta for me. I needed to get Humboldt’s story into as many hands, especially American hands, as possible.
GH: What do you think the advantages are of bringing Humboldt’s work to life through a graphic novel?
LM: Humboldt was a visionary, and his work bounces around so much from subject to subject. I have always felt like his true north was to make natural science accessible to all. He did this by making his books a pleasure to read with poetic language and long descriptions of nature. He also, whenever he could, used imagery to express his ideas. Really his infographics are comics in the sense that they are words and pictures that work together to express a single idea. I like to think that if Humboldt were alive today he would be very interested in the current state of comics. They are being used to tell so many nonfiction stories and I think we will continue to see this. In our case, I think it was the best way to express what was going on in his manuscripts. The stories he tells in them are so human and emotional, even when he is recording data or recounting a climb on a volcano. I don’t think just words do these moments justice. Because of the number of lush illustrations Humboldt commissioned for his books, I think Humboldt understood that as well. Besides the fact that Humboldt was a visual thinker, I think it was about time his important work became accessible to a new audience. My goal was to show a new perspective on a story that has too often been forgotten in hopes to refresh the past. His story and way of thinking are too important to today’s conversations on climate change to be left behind again.”
GH: When Humboldt traveled to South America, he witnessed deforestation and the destruction of many ecosystems. What can we take away from Humboldt’s exploration? How can it be applied to the modern world?
LM: Humboldt was the first to warn us about what is happening today. My personal take away is that, in Humboldt’s time, his way of thinking worked. In the 19th century, there was a major swell of conservational efforts and a new understanding of our natural world. Scientists, artists, and politicians were working together to understand and preserve the natural world. This is the Humboldtian legacy and a way of thinking that is imperative for today.
GH: What are some of your favorite panels, and what do you like about them?
LM: My favorite panels by far are these four panels of Humboldt explaining the theories of vegetation zones to [French explorer and botanist Aimé Bonpland]. I think it really distills their characterizations to a T. Humboldt speaks over Bonpland’s inquiries simultaneously answering him and disregarding him, and Bonpland accepts Humboldt for the way he is. Relaying the friendship between the two naturalists was personally important to me. I feel like it’s a great vehicle to carry the reader through the often busy maze of Humboldt’s mind.
Besides this moment I loved trying to figure out how to depict the climbing scenes. They are constantly climbing mountains and volcanoes. I remember Andrea very early on presenting this challenge and saying something along the lines of: “you know, you need to figure out different ways to draw each one right?” You have to keep in mind this was my first book, and I was fresh out of college. This challenge was, well—mountainous.
I remember I actually walked the track at McCarren Park in Williamsburg [in Brooklyn, New York] near my studio for a day trying to envision what it would be like to walk that long and that far. I would climb up and down on benches trying to figure out a way to draw an upward motion. I read a bunch of Tin Tin. I looked at engravings of mountain climbs from the period. It was so hard to put together because you read a page downward but the motion of the characters had to go against that. Finally, I settled on using the mechanics of Humboldt’s instruments to show distance. So when they are at the peak of Chimborazo everything is in circles because they are so far up the only way the audience could see them is to look through a telescope. I love these pages showing different climbing sequences because I remember how complex it was to make such a 3D action 2D.
I also love our rest pages. They usually happen in transit. They give the audience a chance to reflect and digest while transitioning to the next sequence.”
GH: What are the benefits of bridging the arts and sciences?
LM: The main motivation behind any artistic collaboration is accessibility. Humans understand visual symbolism unlike any other language. By explaining complex scientific concepts twice, once with text then again with an image, one can more fully understand an idea.
All of the above illustrations were rendered by Lillian Melcher.
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