It was a Sunday morning back in June 2010, and I must have woken up about quarter to nine. I know that because I groped over to switch my bedside radio on just in time to hear Sir David Attenborough begin that week's Point of View talk on BBC Radio 4. Attenborough is Britain's leading broadcaster on everything concerning the natural world and, over the next 15 minutes, he related what I thought was the most fascinating and bizarre wildlife story I'd ever heard. I'll explain why all this is relevant in a moment, but first let me quickly tell the story itself.
The UK's Large Blue butterfly lays its eggs on wild thyme. The newly-hatched caterpillars drill into the thyme's buds and eat the seeds inside. If there's more than one caterpillar in a single bud, they fight and eventually the winner will eat its siblings too. The one remaining caterpillar then drops to earth, crawls into a crevice in the ground and is, sooner or later, found by a worker ant.
"The ant becomes hugely excited," Attenborough explained. "Crawling all over the caterpillar, licking its skin and sipping nectar that the caterpillar produces from a small gland at the end of its body". Other ants soon turn up to join in the feast, but the finder fights them off in a battle which may take up to four hours.
The caterpillar then flexes its body to tense up and become something which has the shape and texture of an ant larva. The ant is fooled, and carries the caterpillar back to its nest. Once inside the caterpillar makes its way to the nursery, where all the real ant larvae are kept, and proceeds to gorge. "It crawls over its victim, bites its skin and sucks out the contents of the larva's body," Attenborough said as I cowered under the duvet.
If the ants realise the caterpillar's there at this point, they'll attack it, but they'd better act fast, because it soon grows too big for them to defeat.
The caterpillar remains in the ants' nest for a year or more, during which time it grows to 100 times the weight of a worker ant and eats about 1,200 of the ants' larvae. It mimics the sounds made by a queen ant, and so the worker ants treat it like a queen, again licking secretions off its skin. Come summer, the caterpillar transforms into an adult butterfly, loosing a sudden burst of queen ant sounds as it bursts forth from the chrysalis. The ants get wildly excited at this, and form an honour guard for the butterfly as it crawls out of the nest and prepares to fly off and mate.
The most vulnerable ants to this behaviour are Sabuleti ants, because, once one of them takes a disguised Large Blue caterpillar back to its nest, the caterpillar emits a pheromone which matches that of the Sabuleti ants themselves. "Instead of stinging it, the Sabuleti workers treat it as one of their own," Attenborough explained.
Sometimes, a parasitic wasp will detect - by means that we still don't understand - that there's a caterpillar in one particular ant hill and fly in to get it. As the ants attempt to defend the nest, the wasp sprays them with a chemical that makes them attack one another instead. While they fight among themselves, the wasp flies on to find the caterpillar and deposits an egg inside its body. This egg effectively eats the caterpillar from within, ensuring that when the chrysalis eventually opens what emerges is not the butterfly's baby, but the wasp's.
As I lay there in bed, utterly captivated by this tale, I could see every stage of it playing out as a series of comics panels in my head: the ant's vicious battle to keep its hungry rivals from the nectar; the heartbreaking vulnerability of the ants' translucent larvae as the caterpillar sucked their guts out; the wasp's crazy, angled, flight as it invaded the ants' nest like a fighter jet. I could see it all.
I got up, brewed some coffee, and then listened to the whole thing again on the BBC's website to make sure I hadn't imagined it. Then I tapped out the summary above to keep it all fresh in my mind and wondered what to do next.
Discovering that Attenborough had told the same story on television, I tracked down the relevant DVD and discovered how depressingly prosaic the whole process looked when actually filmed. Technically, it was as impeccable as all the Beeb's wildlife films, but the tale's emotional charge demanded a very different approach. Comics, I thought again, would be perfect. I knew I couldn't hope to draw the strip I envisaged myself, so that meant I'd have to find a more accomplished artist to draw it for me.
Over the course of the next couple of weeks, I rewrote the story in script form, breaking it down into a six-page comics story built round what I thought were the most dramatic visuals. I was reasonably pleased with the finished script, but I knew that getting it realised wouldn't be easy.
It's an inescapable fact of comics that even quite a short script requires a big investment of time from the artist drawing it, who has to combine the roles of director, designer, lighting engineer, costumes manager, locations scout, script editor and acting coach in every panel. Not only that, but he has to make the results look pleasing on the page, convey all the essential information at a glance and maintain the story's mood and flow throughout. It was one thing for me to type "the ant licks the nectar with evident pleasure," in a script, but I wasn't the one who had to find a way of drawing it without making the scene look silly or childish.
It was a lot to ask, but I thought there was no harm in trying, so I posted the script on a couple of comics message boards. I added a quick run-through of the background, and asked if there were any talented amateur artists out there who might like to tackle it. There was no money in it - for me or them - but I hoped the story itself might be intriguing enough to outweigh that. A couple of people got back to me about this, but either their style wasn't quite right or their enthusiasm waned when they realised how much work was involved.
And that's where it rested for six months or so. I never quite gave up on the idea of getting the script drawn, but it never showed any sign of moving off the back burner either. And then I chanced across a panel from Hans Rickheit's webcomic Ectopiary on the Fantagraphics website, and thought it had just the creepy look and sensibility my script needed. I bought a copy of his graphic novel The Squirrel Machine a few days later, and this confirmed that I'd found my man. I wasn't going to ask someone as good as Hans to work for nothing, but he was still at a relatively early stage of his career, so his page rate hadn't yet climbed to a point where I couldn't afford him.
The rest was easy. I contacted Hans at the end of January this year, we quickly agreed a price, and he started sending me pages in March. Once I'd seen his art, I knew I could leave most of the storytelling to him, and that let me cut everything from my captions but those sparse few words they absolutely required.
I think Hans did a great job with the script, as you'll be able to see for yourself in a moment. Much as I liked his original B&W pages, I was dying to see the storyís butterflies, wasps and wild flowers in the vibrant hues of real life too, so I commissioned Hans to colour the pages a few months later. You can read the finished strip here in whichever version you prefer: Black & White / Full Colour.