Andy Warner’s previous collection of short comics, A Brief History of Everyday Objects, detailed a wide variety of inventions from the toothbrush to the bra. In this new series he has refined his focus to reach younger readers, taking out the more mature humor of his earlier book, and starting what I hope will be a long-running series of quirky historical facts with a volume focused on domesticated animals.
A comic introduction explains Warner’s own history with animals and how they are intertwined with the lives of humans, especially in the three categories the book is divided into: “Creatures we find cute”, “Creatures we find useful”, and “Creatures that find us useful”. Within these categories, Warner explores animals like horses, from prehistory to modern times, chickens, “from the jungle to the nugget,” raccoons, rabbits, bees, and many more. Each mini-history encapsulates the origin of the animal and their first domestication or contact with humans, their significance in history, and how they interact with people today. Warner finishes up with another comic-style afterword, some additional drawings and maps, and an index.
Warner’s detailed cartoons show a diversity of skin tones, hair textures, and cultures, although a number of prehistoric people have lighter skin than seems historically accurate. The various animals shown are from across the world, from cockroaches in ancient Egypt to guinea pigs in Peru, horses in Mongolia and dogs from South America to China. Warner’s cartoons are humorous, but he generally stays away from stereotyped depictions, especially of older and non-Western cultures. The scope of each cartoon is limited, but he makes room to show the perspectives of indigenous and non-Western peoples. For example, the history of the horse includes the role of horses in the Spanish invasion of South America, the changes they brought to indigenous peoples in the southwest of North America, and their role in the expansion of the Mongolian empire. The chapter on rabbits includes their role as a food source in ancient Rome, their devastating introduction to Australia via British colonization, and their shift to pets.
Warner’s comics have fun while staying as realistic as possible. The animals he shows are drawn in a quasi-realistic style, with magnified drawings showing details of their anatomy and a sprinkling of smaller images showing them interacting with humans. Prehistory humans are generally shown wearing skins or rough clothes toga-style, while later images are more historically detailed. Warner depends for his humor on unexpected and quirky facts and humorous asides from the various historical people. When faced with a massive aurochs and the fact that, “they had enormous horns that could gore and hooves that could trample,” a dark-skinned and curly-haired woman nervously says “Ha-ha. Ok! We get it. Can we talk about something else now?”
This is a strong addition to the growing genre of nonfiction graphic novels. Readers who enjoy the humor of historical comics like Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales and Action Presidents and those who like the information and narrative style of the Science Comics are sure to enjoy this smorgasbord of furry facts. This will also draw in readers who enjoy browsable nonfiction like National Geographic fact collections and would make a good starting point for class assignments on different animal and historical topics.
Andy Warner’s Oddball Histories: Pests and Pets
By Andy Warner
Little, Brown, 2021
Publisher Age Rating: 8-12
NFNT Age Recommendation: Middle Grade (7-11)