We had a chat with Jens Harder ahead of the 22 October release of ALPHA!
ALPHA is the first in a graphic novel trilogy covering the world and mankind’s evolution, beginning with a speck in the sky and ending with the rise of the Neanderthal.
Firstly, congratulations on ALPHA – it’s an incredible achievement. What first inspired you to tackle such an enormous subject?
The whole topic attracts me very much since my childhood. When I became six or seven years old, I started to absorb every image I could find in books or palaeontology exhibitions or in a nice dino-park close to my hometown (and later I started also reading the textbooks to understand the background). So it was unavoidable to start someday with a comic book about the “making of the world”. After my first international success Leviathan (NBM, 2003) I thought about what the next book could deal with. And very soon me and my French publisher Thierry Groensteen fell in love with the idea of drawing the evolution, not only a part or detail, no – the complete story!
There’s a lot of religious imagery in the book, particularly during the “creation” section. What prompted you to include religious readings alongside scientific imagery in such a way?
It was absolutely necessary for me to collect as many different visualisations as possible to show the evolution of everything. To give not only examples of the current state of knowledge (which would be too boring in my opinion as a concept for such a book), but also older ideas or perceptions. For a long time people couldn’t imagine a universe without gods working hard on all existing phenomena. So I decided from the very beginning to confront not only older with newer scientific images, but also different scientific with different religious representations to give an idea of how our knowledge developed in the last few thousand years, how different our view on the world was (the attitude while observing the sky or animals or volcanoes or whatever in former cultures), and how far we are now (or at least the most of us) from the thinking of people of the antiquity or the medieval.
How long did the project take altogether? Were there any particularly difficult moments in time to depict?
Four years, with some shorter interruptions, for everything – research, storyboard, text, drawing, colouring, lettering and lay-out.
The most difficult part was (and is and still will be for a very long time) the beginning of life! Too many unsolved riddles, unanswered questions, contrary theories and hidden aspects. And very little existing material to quote or adapt for my technique of collecting and re-drawing pictures from other sources.
What was your favourite era to draw in this first collection?
For several reasons the Cambrium! It was the first big so-called evolutionary radiation, a big step from invisible to visible life (visible means in this case not only big enough to be found, but also hard enough to resist time and to form fossils). The Cambrium produced a strong increase in taxonomic diversity: the number of species, their forms, nutritions and ways of living exploded very quickly. A high number of new innovations appeared for the first time: eyes, legs, teeth, claws, armatures, shells, etc. It was very inspiring to draw all these new trends, as well as the connections to other topics, contexts and times, to later developments, especially to highlight the potential of these novelties. Extra bonus: In this era I could deal at first with the amazing boards of the famous German biologist Ernst Haeckel to illustrate the richness of the newly-developed sea life.
Why do you think so many graphic novels shy away from the subject of science? Should graphic novels be used more as teaching tools?
To answer the first question: I have no idea. But most of the authors maybe have other interests and intentions, when they start a book project. But time´s changing – if you think of some publications from the last few years like Feynman (First Second, 2013), Logicomix (Bloomsbury, 2009) or lately Unflattening (Harvard University Press, 2015).
Concerning the second question: For sure! The only example I know about the use of comics in education so far is the Germany-based Goethe-Institut, which gives its students in different countries German-language comics for an easier approach to the language. So there is really a lot of work needed to convince schools, universities or other institutions to be open to the use of comics in general – graphic novels are only a small part of it and maybe best suitable for history lessons or biographical stories.
And finally, how is the next part of ALPHA coming along? What can we expect from it?
BETA …civilisations will tell about and show the “rise” and development of mankind. Volume I (which is finished already since the end of 2013) deals with the time from the emergence of the first Australopithecine 4 million years ago until the first year of our modern calculation of time. Volume II will continue with our last two thousand years until … um … today!
ALPHA is published by Knockabout on 22 October. Read about why we’ve made it our book of the month here.
Like what you see? Check out our full range of Knockabout titles here.