Alpha: Directions by Jens Harder

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Alpha: Directions by Jens Harder

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Category: Graphic Novels
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Simply the best, most scientifically accurate summary of what makes the graphic novel form so valid – and of course everything that led to this point in time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 360 Date: October 2015
Publisher: Knockabout
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780861662456

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So, people might still ask me, why do I turn to graphic novels – aren't visual books with limited writing more suited to young people? Yeah, right – try pawning this off on juvenile audiences and the semi-literate. If you can't kill that cliché off with pages such as these I don't know what will work. I know the book isn't designed to be a message to people in the debate about the literary worth of graphic novels, but one side-effect of it is surely an engagement with that argument. What it is designed to be is a complete history of everything else – and in covering every prehistoric moment, it does just that, and absolutely brilliantly.

We start of course with the build-up to, and the bold flash of, the Big Bang. Scale has to jump as the existence of things gets bigger and bigger, but focus has to get smaller and smaller, with the first particles' interactions. Slowly the texture of the universe can form, and eventually we turn to our own area – the Local Group of galaxies, and something being produced from one dust cloud in one galaxy in particular – our solar system.

Throughout the expected images – and I hesitate over the 'expected', as everything just looks so much better than you'd have hoped – we get glimpses of other stories. Here are gods, there are philosophical symbols. As soon as the solar system is active we get the bit of the Bayeux tapestry with Halley's Comet on it. This will surprise, especially when the author attests to being an atheist, but these images dropped in don't to my mind break the scientific, linear flow – they actually make things more understandable and coherent not less, and of course make things more artistically literate and visually poetic.

That broken story carries on – when Earth's waters exist they're Hokusai waves; as soon as dinosaurs are met we also see the fossil hunters; when the script mentions fossil fuels there are the power plants and the miners. But inexorably we get to the birth of humanity, in one pell-mell flood of reasonable, well-crafted historical interpretation from every corner of our history that we've put our mind to it.

You don't have to put your mind to the text, particularly, apart for a few pages where either the translation or the printer's punctuation hasn't helped a perfect understanding. At most there are just a few sentences on each page – captions here and there, that flow very well, add just the right amount of heavy veracity to things, but don't disturb the visual economy. The artwork is what I have to return to again and again, however, because it is just a mammoth undertaking that has reaped so many results. Up to seven years in the taking, it's been almost five years since it was first published in German, and to some extent you can see why it took the time. This is a thick book, and if every page was an A3 original you can think of the detail, even if everything is black and white, with just one colour added per chapter in a revolving scheme of pastel shades to differentiate the eras.

It isn't the whole imagery that took the time, for the language detail is probably at a good GCSE level – like I say, this is not for the completely young. Nothing about this being 'The History of the World – the Comic' talks down to anybody, and it's quite amusing to think of a full-size splash page being given over a solitary eukaryote. This book will appeal to people seeking new ways of interpreting science and history, as well as just fans of perfectly-crafted graphic novels (even if this is clearly non-fiction). You will not have seen anything like it before, and I am sure you will join me in being fully on board with whatever and whenever the artist can produce for us next. It's a stunning advert for him and his form, and will probably be my graphic book of the year.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

If it is a juvenile variant of the above you require, then Sally Kindberg and Tracey Turner titles are the ones to seek out.

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