From the Earth to Babylon: Gerald Bull and the Supergun

Now that convention season planning is upon us, it’s time for me to go through the stacks of items I picked up at previous shows and madly attempt to catch up. Exhibit A: This limited edition historical graphic novel by Diana Tamblyn she was kind enough to give me at last year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I think it was.

I like non-fiction comics and graphic memoir. I find them, when done well, wonderful ways to learn about people I wouldn’t otherwise know about. However, this volume — perhaps because it’s labeled Part One — left me feeling confused most of the time.

Gerald Bull and the Supergun cover

I got the impression throughout From the Earth to Babylon: Gerald Bull and the Supergun that I was already supposed to know who Gerald Bull was, and what he was famous for. Perhaps that’s true if you’re a Canadian reader, since he was a scientist there, but I’d never heard of him before, and the book doesn’t lay sufficient groundwork to overcome this feeling of uncertainty. Apparently, based on the book’s web page, a large part of his significance relates to his mysterious death by assassination, but that segment of his life, although casually referred to, doesn’t appear here.

The “supergun” similarly isn’t explained to a novice reader. The most coherent part of the book in regards to that subject is an introductory chapter about the Nazis shelling Paris, an event that isn’t connected well to the rest of the content. It’s a neat read on its own, though. The other events don’t come together well in the bigger picture; perhaps if I was more aware coming in of what we were leading up to, of Bull’s life overall, their selection would have made more sense.

Visually, the content resembles illustrated text, with lots of narration and talking heads. I wish there were more panels that were graphically interesting in content or technique.

The key moments, as far as I can tell, of Bull’s life are included, but I never got a sense of him as a person. We’re told of his schooling (at a young age due to advanced intellect) and his accomplishments, but I never got any idea or suggestion of how he might have felt about all this. Many of the significant personal events in his life, such as his marriage, are glossed over in a narrated panel or two in favor of many sequences on what was being built and how much it cost. Perhaps that’s just a distinction between what the author wants to write and draw and what I would rather read about.

I’d also rather have seen more exploration of different perceptions of the man, particularly near the end, when he turns into an international arms dealer after converting university research into his own company. Tamblyn paints this in a “he had to go out on his own because the government didn’t see how important this research was” light, but I suspect her perspective may be shadowed by her relationship with her grandaunt, who was Bull’s personal secretary during the 1950s. She discusses this in her afterword, where she also talks about working with Bull’s family on this project. That will certainly give the storytelling a particular slant.

Tamblyn mentions that this take on his character differs from the “many books and documentaries made about Bull”, so as a reaction, of course this will read differently to someone who’s seen all those and one who hasn’t. Someone already familiar with him may find this a refreshing corrective; the many who aren’t, though, like me, may be confused by the approach or feel left out. This area may also be explored in more depth in the forthcoming Book Two. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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