Ottaviani & Wicks Monkey Around with "Primates"

Jim Ottaviani has been crafting stories about scientists and their fields of study for years. In 2011 he released a biography on Richard Feynman with artist Leland Myrick from First Second Books, simply titled "Feynman," which proved to be a triumph on many levels and arguably his greatest work to date. Available June 12, his latest book titled "Primates" is made in collaboration with artist Maris Wicks and features linked stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas -- three leading primatologists who all made ground-breaking and earth-shattering discoveries about the behavior of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, respectively.

Ottaviani and Wicks spoke with CBR News about "Primates," touching on the research involved in the book and their own personal discoveries made throughout the creative process.

CBR News: Jim, where did "Primates" begin for you?

Jim Ottaviani: "Primates" began in 1998 -- I began planning my second book called "Dignifying Science." It's a collection of stories about women scientists, and in it I wrote a piece on Dr. Birute Galdikas who studies orangutans in Borneo. She was the least well-known of the famed "trimates" recruited by Louis Leakey, so she seemed like a great subject for a story. Years later I wanted to learn more about primatology. First Second thought it was a good idea too, and here we are!

What was the thinking behind combining the separate stories of these three women into a single book?

Ottaviani: It turns out that even though Dr. Goodall and Dr. Fossey are better known by most people, that doesn't mean I knew as much as I wanted to about them, and as I learned more it became clear their combined story was a powerful one. As is the case with most of the books I do, the thinking was that creating a single story would be a great way to introduce others to these remarkable scientists and their work.

Maris, can you speak on your colorful life journey that led to you working on "Primates?"

Maris Wicks: I graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 2003 with a Bachelor's in Illustration. I started drawing comics -- mini-comics at first -- around 2001. In 2002 I went to my very first convention: SPX. Comics and illustration were just hobbies at this point, and over the next few years I had a number of random money-making jobs -- orchard tour guide, pie baker, afterschool teacher, Americorps volunteer, museum educator, canoeing instructor -- you get the picture. All the while, I kept making minis and going to conventions and meeting comics people. Eventually, I ended up in Boston with a job at the New England Aquarium working as an educator.

Around this time I had an idea: I want to draw science comics! I loved science and I love comics, so this idea made sense. In addition to drawing the animals I was working with -- sharks, anyone? -- I shifted my art focus to either science-y minis or little autiobio comics about all the neat marine bio stuff at work. In the spring of 2008 I was approached by First Second to create samples for a script -- "Primates!" -- which I completed immediately. The voice inside my head was all like, "OMG -- science comics?!" As I waited to hear back about my samples, I realized Jim was going to be at the same convention as me -- Heroes -- and he was going to be sitting next to me. If I didn't get the book, or if I hadn't heard back, that weekend had the potential to be rather awkward. Two days before I flew out, I found out I got the book and then I nerded-out with Jim about primates for the whole weekend.

What kind of research was involved in writing and drawing the book?

Ottaviani: I've had the good fortune of doing some travel and work with primary sources on other books, but for this one it was a lot of exhaustive library time. I surrounded myself with stacks of books and articles and read until I couldn't find an excuse to not start writing. So then I wrote -- and in the process of writing I always find more stuff I should read.

I know I'd never be accepted in the primate enclosure at the Detroit Zoo, anyway. It's a tough crowd.

Wicks: Jim gave me a giant stack of photocopies containing both photo references and journal excerpts from each of the three scientists. I also checked out a bunch of books, some recommended by Jim, others just for habitat/animal references. I'm close to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, so I'd go draw some of the primates in the collection there. They've got skeletons and taxidermied specimens of all the great apes -- well, except for taxidermied humans. They don't have those.

Jim, "Primates" targets a younger audience than many of your other books like "Feynman." Why that choice and to what degree did it affect the book's creation?

Ottaviani: I can't remember who decided to target the story at younger readers. It may have been First Second, it may have been me or it may have been my agent at the time. It's hard to think of it any other way now -- especially since I don't think of it as a book for younger readers specifically at this point. Sure, it's designed to work well for them, but to me it's a book that appeals to anyone interested in primatology and the scientists who work in that field.

The same goes for the art. The only criterion I recall is we all wanted a lively, open style. I don't like to use the words realistic vs. cartoony, so I'll say that on a scale ranging from photography to animation, Calista, Mark, and I all agreed the art should be closer to animation.

When I think about the story I can't see anyone else's work but Maris's. We considered a lot of great artists and all would have brought something different to the book. But when I picture Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas in my mind's eye, they flicker between the images of the real people and the way Maris drew them. Both are equally real to me.

Wicks: I feel we're never too young to start learning about the natural world. It's nice to provide a bridge to younger readers where the content of a scientist's work might be a bit complex, but the initial spark that inspired that scientist to pursue their work is easily understood.

A major challenge of "Primates" is depicting the discoveries made, which today are known, but were huge revelations back then. Talk about how you decided to convey those scenes and how you found a way to get across the enormity of what was learned.

Ottaviani: I write a complete script and include lots of details -- most of which a skilled artist like Maris can ignore, picking and choosing the most important bits. At this point, I'd have to look at what I wrote and compare it to what Maris drew to figure out where what I suggested and what she drew differ. For what it's worth, my policy when reviewing a finished page is to not look at my script. I just read it and if it works, it's done -- who cares whether I suggested something slightly different. I usually only ask for a change if what's there doesn't work or reflect what really happened, or if I want to make sure the reader saw a particular image because we have a similar image later -- we want the current one in the back of the reader's mind when the time comes. Then we figure out how best to make that happen.

What I like most about what Maris did is she depicted the intensity of what happened. It wasn't always by using the biggest, splashiest image, either. Each panel is filled with subtle cues to make you feel the right thing; as you said, you knew what was important just by looking at the art. I'll bet the words were secondary!

Wicks: Jim does a tremendous job of using the narration and journal-style entries of each characters work to create the shared experience of those discoveries.  Once all three scientists are out in the field, there is a real sense of quiet. This silence allows for each discovery to sing out and hopefully recreate the awe felt by each individual character.

Louis Leakey is the fourth main character in "Primates," playing a central role in the lives of the three women. Who was Leakey and have you considered creating a book about him?

Ottaviani: Leakey was an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist. He was interested in establishing human evolution through the fossil record, and he and his co-workers and followers -- many of whom were members of his own family -- pretty much did just that. He was also interested in our closest evolutionary kin, which led him to recruit Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas to study their behavior. I never seriously considered writing a book about him until you asked this question. Now? Hmmm...

Wicks: I viewed Leakey as the common denominator for Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas -- his support of female scientists was a unique trait during that time in history. Without him, these women may not have had the chance -- or funds -- to do the work they accomplished. In the book, he's like the literary common denominator, the common thread tying all three of them together.

Not to make you two play favorites, but I'm going to make you play favorites: chimpanzees, gorillas or orangutans?

Ottaviani: I'm most partial to gorillas and orangutans.

Wicks: In real life, orangutans. To draw, chimpanzees.

What projects are you each working on next?

Ottaviani: Leland Purvis and I have a book coming soon about Alan Turing, the mathematician, code breaker and computer scientist. It's called "The Imitation Game" and it should be out in 2014, if not by the end of this year. I'm up to my neck -- and the pile of books and notes on and around my desk is still rising -- in research for another book, which I can't talk about just yet. I'm really excited about it and hope we can announce it soon. I've also written a novella which may show up next year in some form. Fiction -- it's hard. Who knew?!

Wicks: I'm currently at work on a new book for First Second, which I'll be talking about more this summer. I can tell you three things: it's science-y, I'm drawing it and I'm writing it.

Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks' "Primates" goes on sale June 12 from First Second Books

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