Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer's Audubon, On the Wings of the World Is a Rich, Strange and Unrestricted Devotional to Nature

Comics Reviews Nobrow Press
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Fabien Grolleau & Jérémie Royer's <i>Audubon, On the Wings of the World</i> Is a Rich, Strange and Unrestricted Devotional to Nature

Writer: Fabien Grolleau
Artist: Jérémie Royer
Translator: Etienne Gilfillan
Publisher: Nobrow Press
Release Date: April 4, 2017

Unless you’re a serious birder, the name “Audubon” probably evokes nothing stronger than boredom. It calls to mind commemorative plates or a coffee-table book your grandmother might have had, collecting dust. Audubon, On the Wings of the World aims to correct that. Originally released in France in 2016 and picked up by publisher Nobrow, where it was published in England, it now reaches the country where it should be most welcome—and the source of its inspiration. Grolleau and Royer aren’t out to make a traditional step-by-step biography; instead, they attempt to put some of the romance back into this story of a French bastard born in Haiti who pursued his obsession with documenting the birds of America as though it were a mission from god. The result is lovely.

There’s an openness to Audubon that constitutes a great part of its appeal. As the titular young man makes his way across and around the country—stalking, shooting and painting birds in their natural habitat—vistas virtually untouched by humans unfold. Some images resemble the collages of dozens of avian figures Alfred Hitchcock assembled in The Birds, only devoid of menace. Following a terrifying storm, Audubon emerges from a cave to find unknown numbers of different species of birds perched everywhere, in the kind of abundant array you’d find in a painting devoted to the glories of the creator. The story is secular, but it’s also saturated with moments of great awe, like watching a migrating flock of passenger pigeons take days to pass overhead, so numerous they are.

Audubon, On the Wings of the World Interior Art by Jérémie Royer

Grolleau keeps the plot moving briskly, and although he offers some mysticism and a few moments where the timeline shifts abruptly, the writing is quick-footed and rarely wordy. Royer receives the fancy steps in the duet, painting astonishing skies and landscapes as though they were being documented for the first time. Instead of inking his pages, he renders them in pencil and then (presumably) digitally colors them with a light hand. The color palette is gently rendered, restrained, limited to natural hues, and set off to good effect by the book’s uncoated paper. Frequent horizontal panels that run the width of the large pages increase the emphasis on scope and vista. Dreams and hallucinations break into the story from time to time, set off by their softly edged panels. Everything feels rich and strange and unrestricted, much like the continent must have felt in the early 19th century, when Audubon set out on his journeys. In other words, On the Wings of the World wants to do cataract surgery on your impressions of the time, the place and central figure, and it succeeds beautifully.

Audubon, On the Wings of the World Interior Art by Jérémie Royer

Audubon, On the Wings of the World Interior Art by Jérémie Royer