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Interview: Artist Maris Wicks on Primates

A few weeks ago, Massachusetts-based artist Maris Wicks was probably best known in comics circles for her short contributions to anthologies like SpongeBob Comics and AdHouse’s Project: Romantic and Superior Showcase (those, or perhaps her super-cute drawings of superheroes and Star Wars characters on her blog). Now, however, she’s got a big, brand-new graphic novel to her name, the widely and positively reviewed Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, a triple biography about the three great primatologists, which she created with writer Jim Ottaviani.

Yesterday, we spoke with Ottaviani about the writing of Primates, and today we check in with Wicks about turning those words of his into comic book pages.

GC4K: I already asked Jim Ottaviani, but I was curious about how this particular collaboration come about from your perspective? Were you very familiar with Jim Ottaviani’s comics prior to working with him on this?

Maris Wicks: In the spring of the 2008, First Second asked if I would be interested in providing some sample illustrations for a script. When I received the script, I was thrilled to learn that it was written by Jim! I was very familiar with Jim’s work; he’d been one of my favorite writers in comics since I picked up Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards back in 2005. The fact that Jim had written Primates really made me want this project, but I was aware that many talented artists were also asked to submit samples as well. When I found out that I would be the one for the book, I was ecstatic! (Picture me hooting and jumping around my apartment, not unlike a chimpanzee).

GC4K: How full a script did Ottaviani write for you? Did you handle the breakdowns and lay-outs, or was the script pretty exacting about what should appear in which panels and how many panels per page and so forth?

Wicks: Jim’s script was very specific; each page was broken down by panel, and each panel’s shape and size was described as well. For me, this was incredibly helpful. There were so many actual physical locations, and specific interactions between characters; I couldn’t imagine illustrating a book like this without a very descriptive script.

GC4K: Before you started working on Primates, how familiar were you with the subject matter? For example, while I have of course heard of Goodall and Fossey, this was the first I had heard of Biruté Galdikas, and I never realized that Goodall and Fossey shared a mentor of sorts in Louis Leakey.

Wicks: Well then, we are were in the same boat! I was familiar with Goodall’s and Fossey’s work, but I was unaware of Galdikas’ work, as well as all three of these scientists’ connections to Leakey. And just as Primates did for you and me, I hope that it helps to make Galdikas (and Leakey) household names!

Primatology aside, I certainly wasn’t a stranger to science in general. Despite my formal art education, I had kept my science nerd-self happy by pursuing my interests in biology and ecology, teaching environmental education at summer camps, and more recently, working as an educator at the New England Aquarium.

GC4K: Did it take you very long to nail down versions of the real people that appear in the story, and to filter them into your style (which isn’t one I’d use words like “highly representational” or “photo-realistic” to describe)?

Wicks: My initial sample illustrations for Primates were not too far off from what the characters ended up looking like in the final version of the book. I figured that First Second was looking for my (cartoon-y) interpretation of the script, otherwise they wouldn’t have wanted me for the job in the first place, so I wasn’t worried about trying to portray the characters in a photo-realistic manner. I did, however, want to capture the feel of each character’s story, and this “feel” (or rather “emotion”) is something that can come across regardless of style.

GC4K: Did you find it more difficult to get a handle on the human characters or the various species of apes that appear throughout their stories?

Wicks: Well, I love drawing animals, so I loved drawing the non-human primates of the book (and I think that love made it easier for me to draw them). I think the humans were probably a bit more of a challenge…I found it a lot easier to draw an orangutan on model than it was to draw a human on model, but maybe that’s because us humans know what other humans look like (better than we know what other orangutans look like).

GC4K: Can you tell us a little bit about your research process…? I imagine you didn’t visit all of the locales you get to draw in here, but there must have been a great deal of effort that went into drawing real people in various stages of their lives, so many real animals and real places and so forth.
Wicks:  Jim graciously left me with a three-inch stack of photocopies (of pictures, journal entries and articles), as well as a list of books and videos for reference. I didn’t take too many drawing field trips, but when I could, I’d go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and doodle in the hall of mammals.

GC4K: Compared to some of your other work, did you feel any extra pressure while drawing this knowing that, say, Jane Goodall herself might read it, or that professional primatologists might be seeing how you rendered a gorilla and so on…?

Wicks: I think that fact that Goodall or Galdikas might read the book was an inspiration for me! As far as the rendering of said primates, between Jim’s descriptions and references, I had pretty much all of the tools I needed to tell the story.  The abstraction of cartooning does wonders for simplifying actions and gestures, especially when it comes to illustrating animals.

GC4K: Speaking of which, how difficult were the scenes in which you have to show the behavior or communication of the primates, like the chimpanzee “rain dance” Goodall describes, or the scene in which the two male gorillas display in front of one another? Wordless action can often be challenging in comics, but action so far removed from human seems more challenging still.
Wicks:  Again, I have Jim’s descriptions and references to thank for helping me give visual clarity to these scenes. Chimps, gorillas and orangutans already have very expressive faces, and I tried to use this to my advantage during the silent scenes.

GC4K: Did you see any parallels between the work of the women in the book and the profession of a cartoonist? I was struck early on that so much of Goodall’s job, for example, consisted of sitting in the same place for long stretches of time every day, just observing, whereas cartoonists spend long stretches of time every day sitting at a drafting table.
Wicks: There is definitely a quiet isolation in illustrating, but the work is fast and constant.  In field research, there is an immense amount of watching and waiting…the work is slow and often sporadic.  Despite these differences, I quite like drawing outside (when the weather permits).

GC4K: Did you have a particular favorite type of primate to draw, or was one type easier than another type?

Wicks: Ok, so orangutans are totally my favorite, but I loved drawing all three of the non-human primate stars of the book!

GC4K: I know you’ve written and drawn your own work before, and I see you have a Batman short that you’re writing for another artist coming up, and here you’re drawing from someone else’s script. Of the three different formulas of making comics, do you have a favorite at this point…?

Wicks: Hmmm…I think it all depends on the project. I absolutely loved working with Jim, and would do so again. With the Batman story, I collaborated with my partner Joe Quinones (and we’ll be continuing this trend on some small future projects). For my current “big” project, I’m writing and illustrating a comic all about the human body (for First Second)…so, it really does depend on the project.  Regardless of what part I’m creating, I love comics (and the comics-making process) in all of their sequential glory!

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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