New Books: Primates

What’s an ideal way to tell a story about science, history, and conservation that gets us to care and wonder about all three? Writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrator Maris Wicks teamed up to create the new book Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, out next month from First Second Books (pre-order your copy here). Here’s Jim and Maris on Primates and why comic books are a great way to raise interest in science and nature.

From author Jim Ottaviani:

Near the end of Primates, we show Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas at the 1974 Werner-Gren Conference on “The Behavior of Great Apes,” discussing what we now call ecotourism. Fossey was not a fan:

So what would she think of an actual comic book about…her? At that time, probably not much, since the state-of-the-art back in the mid-1970s was along the lines of Evel Knievel: The Perilous Traps of Mr. Danger, Master of Kung Fu, and a whole bunch of Giant-Size titles, including one starring a creature called Man-Thing. (No, really.) I do have a soft spot for some of the later issues of Master of Kung Fu, but overall? Dismal and dismissible junk was the rule of the day.

The good news is that comics have changed in the decades since Drs. Fossey, Galdikas, and Goodall met up at that conference in Austria, and you now find them in bookstores, in classrooms, and on coffee tables of the literati. So if Dian Fossey saw what we today call graphic novels, she probably wouldn’t mind playing a leading role in one.

We hope not, anyway, since we think comics are an ideal medium to tell the story of these three pioneering scientists. In comics, the words provide one layer of meaning, the images another, and the reader’s imagination combines the two. Readers also share control with Maris and me of the pace with which the story unfolds—it’s a collaborative experience. And comics demand that readers fill in the gaps between the panels, interpolating the narrative where they’re missing information. It’s a process of discovery.

Imagination. Collaboration. Interpolation. Discovery. Sounds a lot like science-in-the-making to me.

In a way, comics and science are a natural combination—scientists rely on and use images to communicate more than any other discipline. (Thumb through a stack of books in the literature section of your local library, and then do the same in the science shelves. You’ll see.) And in this specific instance, a comic book—or graphic novel, if you prefer to call them that—about primatologists makes even more sense. Their work relied on careful and patient observation, and it happened in visually interesting places full of amazing sights and sounds.

And even though it seems counter-intuitive, the extended periods these scientists spent being still and seeing little of interest lend themselves to panel-to-panel storytelling.

And so with just a few lines, just a little ink on paper, we can see these women at work, and imagine ourselves in their place.

Well, maybe you can. The subtitle of Primates is “The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas” and I know I’m not fearless. But there are people out there who are; they just don’t know it yet. That’s why we made this book. Maybe they’ll discover their own brand of courage, and like these three scientists, forge new connections between humans and the natural world.

From illustrator Maris Wicks:

It is this connection to the natural world that is the root of conservation—in order to care for a place, one must care about it. The driving force behind all three of these scientists’ involvement in nature was their initial desire to explore, to experience. In addition to being the illustrator behind the images in Primates, I am also a part-time program educator at the New England Aquarium, where I try to make these same connections with visitors.

Take a moment to think about your first memorable experience with the outdoors— maybe it was witnessing a tadpole’s transition to a frog, or observing ants in their daily routine, or chasing fireflies on a warm summer night. Whether such a connection gives us a sense of place in the universe, or simply reminds us that we’re part of a larger ecosystem, it cultivates an interest, a pride, and a responsibility for the environment. Some might ask, “Why should I care about these animals that live halfway across the globe?” Part of conservation’s goal (I think) is to get people to see the connection between themselves and their environment on a local level, and to have that interest and responsibility transcend to a global level.

I hope Primates inspires even a fraction of the awe that moved Drs. Fossey, Galdikas, and Goodall (and Louis Leakey, who sent all three women to study the primates in their natural environments) to pursue and share their science. You don’t have to carry the title of “scientist” to make a difference. The simple act of learning about an animal or environment—and sharing that information and enthusiasm with others—plants the seed for care and stewardship.

Jim Ottaviani has written nonfiction, science-oriented comics since 1997, notably the New York Times bestseller, Feynman and Fallout. He lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Maris Wicks lives with fellow primate Joe Quinones and their cat, Biggs, in Somerville, Massachusetts. She has used her opposable thumbs to draw comics for Adhouse Books, Tugboat Press, and Spongebob Comics, and she has written stories for Image and DC Comics.


  1. Yes: “The driving force behind all three of these scientists’ involvement in nature was their initial desire to explore, to experience.”

    Hence the power of this medium for reaching young ppl who are naturally drawn to it, the love narrative like this.

    I hope but doubt that EO Wilson’s new book aimed at getting young ppl interested in pursuing science will succeed this way, but I bet you he used lots of pictures.

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