Review: ‘Ocean Renegades’
Writer/artist: Abby Howard
Amulet Books; $15.99
It was just last year that cartoonist Abby Howard released Dinosaur Empire, her book-length comic detailing the latest scientific understanding of dinosaurs and their Mesozoic Era contemporaries, couched in a comedic story about a super-enthusiastic time-traveling scientist and her reluctant student. Twelve short months later comes the second entry in her emerging “Earth Before Us” series, and it is every bit as thorough and enjoyable as the first installment. It’s enough to make me suspect that Howard, like her pair of human point-of-view characters, has discovered the secret of time travel—that would certainly explain how she could make comics this good this fast.
Last year, I assumed her next book would cover the Cenozoic Era, and feature all of the amazing, extinct beasts of the Ice Ages, but I assumed wrong. For Ocean Renegades, she actually jumps even further back in time, hundreds of millions of years before the time of the dinosaurs, to journey through the Paleozoic Era. So she essentially chronicles life from its very inception to the dawn of the dinosaurs, glossing over the first few billion years when life was microscopic, to focus on 541 million years ago to 252 million years ago (give or take a few millennia).
It’s a period of pre-history that isn’t as well known as the so-called Age of Reptiles, which in some ways makes it an even more compelling setting for a comic like this, given how many surprising creatures are introduced. Most kids will already be familiar with the likes of trilobites and the sail-backed dimetrodon, whose lizard-like appearance often gets it grouped with dinosaurs, and some kids who are particular enthusiasts may also already know all about sea scorpions and cameroceras, but Ocean Renegades is filled with many bizarre creatures that would seem just too unrealistic to have ever actually existed if they were encountered anywhere other than a non-fiction science book (comic book or otherwise).
Having already introduced the characters of Miss Lernin and Ronnie, their unusual method of time travel (apparently, any garbage receptacle can be a portal to another time) and the fact that they are A Christmas Carol-like visitors to the times and places on their agenda, Howard plunges in a bit more quickly here.
Miss Lernin is watching Ronnie while her parents are on a business trip, and Miss Lernin decides to take her young charge to visit more ancient animals–at the aquarium. Ronnie is less than impressed with all the jellyfish and mollusks floating around in tanks, and ever so gradually convinces Miss Lernin to show her some ancient animals back in ancient times.
The format is pretty much the same as it was in Dinosaur Empire. After a brief stop to review what exactly evolution is and how it works, the pair start jumping from time to time, Miss Lernin explaining things to a curious Ronnie who peppers her with enough questions, and gasps in wonder enough, to prompt a sense of dialogue. That’s important, as it keeps the book from ever feeling like a lecture.
Howard regularly breaks up the denser, panel-rich pages with large splash pages in which many species are all drawn and named. Howard is particularly adept at drawing plants and animals in a detailed, realistic fashion…but just detailed enough, and just realistic enough so that they aren’t so far removed from her cartoony human characters that those characters don’t look and feel like they belong in the comic.
Much of the time is spent underwater, and at each stop, our travelers see what’s going on above the surface on land, checking out which animals have moved up there, what niches they are filling, what the plant life is doing there. Near the book’s climax, as they reach the Late Permian, life has exploded into diversity above and below the water and, especially, in-between, as this was the heyday of the amphibians (that’s where the creature on the cover, Prinosuchus, hails from), but that heyday gets cut short by a mysterious extinction event (which Miss Lernin can guess at and Howard can draw little suggestions of, but they—and thus we—can’t actually visit there, since we don’t know exactly what happened).
In the end, Ronnie has learned enough about where all those “boring” aquarium animals have come from that when she returns from her Paleozoic field trip to the present, she’s making the same wide-eyed, open-mouthed entranced faces that Miss Lernin was during their first pass through the aquarium. It’s unlikely readers will ever be as fascinated with crabs and sea cucumbers as Lernin is—one of Howard’s effective ongoing gags is that Lernin is so fascinated by science that she has a sort of lunatic enthusiasm—but, like Ronnie, they should see such animals in a whole new light.
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 EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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