Ottaviani Relates the Extraordinary Life of “Feynman”

by  in Comic News Comment

Writer Jim Ottaviani’s latest graphic novel is “Feynman,” illustrated by Leland Myrick

Writer Jim Ottaviani has a background in science and spends his days at the University of Michigan Library. He’s specializes in stories about science and scientists, which makes his work sound dry, but Ottaviani’s great skill is in finding the human drama at the heart of the stories and the skillful way he uses the comics form to explain science. Anyone who has read his books, like “T-Minus” about the space race, or “Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards” about early paleontologists knows that his work is more exciting than a lot of action stories. These are adventure stories and they’re hard to forget. His latest book is “Feynman,” a biography of Richard Feynman illustrated by Leland Myrick, which spent a week at number one on the New York Times’ hardcover graphic novel bestseller list before dropping to number two the following week.

Nobel Prize winning scientist Richard Feynman is one of the giants of the Twentieth century. From the Manhattan Project to the Challenger disaster, Feynman worked with some of our time’s great minds in tackling some of the most important scientific issues of the day. Feynman was also a a world class talker and a great teacher, with a gift for not just explaining science, but making it exciting, as well.

Ottaviani’s book, which features a quote from the scientist’s mother on the front cover (“If that’s the world’s smartest man, God help us) is published by :01 First Second. CBR News spoke with the creator about his latest project, the challenges in making biographies exciting works of art, going on tour to support it and his plans for future biographies.

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CBR News: For people who don’t know, who was Richard Feynman and what was it specifically that prompted you to want to write his biography?

Jim Ottaviani: Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who wrote best-selling books, cracked safes while working on the Manhattan Project, painted professionally, played percussion and went out of his way to make sure his life and the lives of everyone around him was interesting. He worked with geniuses like Einstein, Bohr, Dirac and Oppenheimer. His own genius and curiosity led him to influence and work directly on the atomic bomb, nanotechnology, supercomputing and the space shuttle.

In short, he got his fingerprints all over the 20th century.

Was your initial thinking always to tell a story of his entire life while touching on some of his scientific innovations as opposed to one that covered a specific period or only dealt with certain aspects of his life and career?

From his earliest to his last days, Feynman did interesting things, so the entire life was worth presenting. On a more general level, I think showing that scientists can and often do engage and embrace the world, both in and outside the confines of their discipline, is a good thing for everyone — including scientists and non-scientists and scientists-to-be — to read about.

In the “New York Review of Books,” Freeman Dyson reviewed your book in glowing terms. One of the topics that Dyson raised in his review was the question of whether Feynman is rising or has risen to the level of someone like Einstein, a scientist respected both by scientists and the general public, including people who don’t know really understand their scientific work. Do you have any thoughts on this?

I do, and I agree with him: Feynman is almost there. Those last few steps up the mountain are steep, and I don’t know whether we’ll ever use his name as an adjective, as in “he’s no Einstein,” even though Shakespeare, if he was still around and writing plays about physicists, would have gotten plenty of mileage out of the double meaning you get out of pronouncing “Feynman.”

I also think that Feynman’s scientific work is understandable by the public. He worked hard in his later years to make it so. Feynman liked to say that if he couldn’t prepare a freshman-level lecture on a subject, that meant he didn’t really understand it himself. It took years for him to get there with his own theory, and Dyson himself was a great help in translating Feynman, at least in the early days of making his work understood by other physicists. But he did it, and Feynman’s wonderful book “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” is readable and enjoyable for folks like you and me. Not without some effort, but it’s worth it!

What was the challenge in writing dialogue and conversations in the book? Was a lot of taken verbatim from different sources?

Yes, we did a lot with primary sources and Feynman’s own words. Very little was verbatim, though, because the stories he told about himself weren’t always presented as dialogue and we wanted this book to give the reader a sense of being in the room as things happened in real time rather than watching from afar. That means we filled in the gaps, so to speak. But after immersing myself in his own spoken words — we’re lucky that Ralph Leighton, first among many, recorded so many conversations he had with Feynman — it wasn’t hard to get into the rhythm of his speech. I suspect my wife heard a trace of a Brooklyn accent from me some nights after I surfaced from writing.

One aspect of the book is the scientific explanations you utilize throughout. I remember your editor Calista Brill joking to me last year about having to learn quantum physics just so she could edit the book. How hard was it to write those sequences and how important was it to include them?

Those sequences were the toughest to write. They boil down hours of Feynman lectures — which you can and should dip into via — and some of the ideas from the “QED” book we just talked about into less than 10% of the book, but doing so probably took 40% of the effort. Comics is a great tool for explaining science, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy tool to use well.

And after all that, I still didn’t get it quite right. A friend of mine who is smarter than me in physics helped correct some bits, and then Calista went at it and showed me where I hadn’t been clear. Then, her husband (who, lucky for us, is a physicist) checked our work and suggested more improvements. So, a lot of hard work went into the science part, and it wasn’t just mine!

How did you end up working with artist Leland Myrick and what was the experience like?

As I recall, Mark Siegel, the editorial director at First Second, was keen on having Myrick illustrate the book. I’d known Leland’s work from way back, and when I saw the sample images, I knew this could be great. But I’ll confess something here; I liked the initial samples so much that when Mark pushed Leland to develop an even looser style for the book, I wasn’t sold on that approach. Why mess with something that’s already great? But then the finished pages started to come in and I saw the light. Beautiful stuff.

The experience itself was more hands-off than previous stories I’ve done, but that worked out well, too. I write detailed scripts, and as long as it’s clear enough to get across the facts of the scene and the emotional tone of it as well, an artist as skilled and imaginative as Leland can and should take over from there. Since Calista made sure the facts and tone were clear, Leland didn’t need me much at all!

Was there a particularly good story of Richard Feynman that you wanted to include but couldn’t because you wanted to avoid making the book 1,000 pages long?

Every single story in his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)” is a good story, so yeah, there were dozens. Just off the top of my head, the one about him reviewing elementary school textbooks, the one where he shows up to class with a black eye, getting hypnotized, the “It just passed you by” story, meeting Mr. Big, most of the quest for Tuva. All wonderful, all had to be left out.

So go read his other books!

Now you’re about to start a major book tour which includes stops at the Smithsonian, Yale, Duke, Columbia. Do you think that this embrace of you and the book speaks to success of your previous work and how more people have come to appreciate comics, or do scientists just love anything about Feynman?

As much as I’d like it to be otherwise and while I’m sure it helps that this isn’t the first book I’ve written about science, I’m confident that this is roughly 95% about Feynman and 5% me. (And when I say ‘roughly’, that means I think the error bars on that estimate are +/- 5%, which allows for it to be 100% about Feynman!)

You self-published for many years, but lately you’ve been working with publishers like Aladdin and First Second. How have you found the experience and do you think that your time self-publishing was important in ways that you couldn’t replicate in other ways?

The most important thing about self-publishing that couldn’t be replicated is that in 1997, when I started putting out books about scientists, nobody else was going to do it. I didn’t work in a total vacuum/complete obscurity, but this is what I heard every time when I talked to established comics companies: “I’d love to read that — when someone else publishes it.” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the message.

The few times I attempted to talk to non-comics publishers, their response was, “We don’t know how to sell that” and/or “Nobody will buy that.”

In other words, if I hadn’t self-published, I wouldn’t have had a body of work to interest the folks who now see comics as viable.

The other thing about starting the way I did is that I have a good sense of what’s easy, what’s hard and how to produce a book, starting with a blinking cursor on a stark white background all the way to dealing with pre-press issues and printers. Understanding all the aspects of getting a story into the hands of readers has served me well every day.

I know that you have other projects in the works and wondered if you wanted to say a few words about them?

Of course; thanks for asking!

I have two big things coming up. I’m not sure in what order they’ll appear, but the one that’s closest to being complete is a book about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas with a little Louis Leakey thrown in for good measure. It’s about the lives and the primate research these three pioneering women — and they were pioneers in more ways than one — did. I’m thrilled with the work [artist] Maris Wicks is doing on the book. It’s beautiful.

The other story is almost as different as it can be. It’s about Alan Turing, the mathematician responsible for modern computer science. He was also instrumental in breaking the formidable Enigma code used by the Nazis in World War II. The arc of his life is tragic, though, and the spine of the story is about a secret he perhaps shouldn’t have kept, but did, and the repercussions of his being honest about something that the society he lived in would rather have kept secret. Like I said, a tragedy. Leland Purvis, who drew “Suspended in Language,” is doing the art for it.

Finally, for people who read “Feynman” and want to know more, if people read only one more book about or by Richard Feynman, what should it be and why?

The one I highlighted in the bibliography of the graphic novel is “Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character,” so I’ll stick with that. It includes everything from “Surely You’re Joking…” plus all the stories in “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character.” It also includes a CD of Feynman telling his Los Alamos stories, so you can hear him in his own words, accent and everything. It’s wonderful.

But really, you should also read “QED.” I’m about halfway through Lawrence Krauss’ “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science,” and I think that’s going to become my new favorite book about (rather than by) him.

It’s hard to know where to stop when it comes to Richard Feynman!