Interview: Jim Ottaviani

[Note: The following interview was conducted in July 2009, but has not previously been published.]

Since the 1997 release of his first graphic novel, Two-Fisted Science, writer, librarian, and one-time nuclear engineer Jim Ottaviani, has been telling compelling stories about the lives and work of scientists.  He’s written about everything from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb (Fallout, 2001), to Hedy Lamarr’s invention of an early “frequency hopping” communication sytem (Dignifying Science, 2003), to  Harry Harlow’s investigations into the necessity of love (Wire Mothers, 2007).  Along the way, he’s worked with more than two dozen artists, including Donna Barr, Roberta Gregory, Roger Langridge, Steve Lieber, Dylan Meconis, Linda Medley, and many others.

His eighth and most recent book, T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon, relates the dual stories of the US and Soviet space programs through the late 1950s and 1960s, as they competed to be first to the lunar surface.  But true to form, Ottaviani’s telling of the story focuses less on the astronauts who made the journey than on the engineers and rocket scientists who made the journey possible.

[Danner] Did you do anything interesting to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission this past July?

[Ottaviani] I did a T-Minus signing at my local comic book shop! We showed Apollo footage, talked about space, I signed some books, and we had Tang on hand to quench our thirst and provide crucial vitamin C. So nobody got scurvy and we had a great time.

One scene that really struck me in T-Minus was the montage of the whole world preparing for the Apollo 11 launch—England considering a public notification system, the pope having a special color television installed.  The only recent events I can think of that had that kind of effect were either national disasters or celebrity deaths.  Am I being too cynical?  Or is it possible that, as a culture, we've lost our ability to appreciate extraordinary achievement?

I don't think we've lost that ability. I wonder if one factor among the many that lead to the loss you're talking about is that it's more of an effect of us not all experiencing achievements and events the same way, or even at the same time. Your best friend learns about something new via Twitter and gets the full 140 character impact of that, someone else sees it on Fox News and gets their spin on it that evening, I read about it in the New York Times (online) a day later, you hear an extended piece on NPR that weekend via a podcast from the day it happened, etc. ad infinitum.

I won't argue that more choices—both in terms of venue and in terms of the ability to experience something at a time and place that's convenient for you—is a bad thing, because it's not. But I don't think big chunks of the world stop what they're doing and all tune into the same, live, broadcast the way they used to. And that collective experience does change our appreciation of events.

Again, that's just one thing that contributes to this.

Do you see any potential for space flight to ever again capture the world's imagination the way it once did?

Well, two things about that. First, the world's imagination was captured by Apollo, but it wasn't held for long. If you've ever seen the movie Apollo 13, you'll remember how their mission didn't get much attention until things went wrong. Second, I think the answer is “yes.” Putting people on other worlds will do the trick. The thing is to not make it look like it's just a trick or a stunt, but to get something out of it and make it part of an ongoing expedition to other worlds. There's a lot out there to keep us enthralled and excited.

What about the burgeoning commercial space tourism industry that's been taking its first steps over the past few years?  Do you see potential there, or is it too much of a stunt?

Imagine a long pause here, while I start to imagine a rosy scenario of me riding things that look like jetskis around the New and Improved International Space Station and Resort, and popping in for a quick sip of Tang and freeze-dried pizza when I've had enough of that…and then think about it harder and realize that if that sort of thing ever does happen it's not going to be me on the SpaceSki™ and enjoying LunarDeepDishVeggieDelight®.

I don't think it's a stunt, or at least not any more so than climbing Everest has become. But that's not a flattering analogy, since I don't have a high opinion of what climbing Everest has become.

Providing an experience only to the wealthy—and that's what space tourism will be for a long while after it becomes real—isn't likely to excite, much less inspire, many people. Or at least not much further than to inspire people to say "I wish I was rich enough to do that, but if I was I would spend my money on X, Y, or Z instead."

Though as an aside, and speaking for myself, space tourism would make my top five list of things to spend my fabulous and excess wealth on, once I had fabulous and excess wealth! I may need to reconsider my plan of achieving this by writing comic books…

Anyway, that's more pessimistic than I'd like to be, and I do think the spin-offs of space tourism, such as making sub-orbital flights safe and routine, may have payoffs for the rest of us. But I doubt space tourism itself will inspire enough people to make it worthwhile for that reason alone.

I see your point, but don't most technologies have a long history of serving wealthy early adopters until the development costs get paid off?  I could be mistaken, but my understanding of the history of commercial air flight is that it began by serving wealthy thrill-seekers, until it became economical to offer lower cost flights.  Is there reason to expect a different trajectory for the commercial space flight industry?

Good point. It's true that commercial air flight's transition from "full service with china place settings for wealthy travelers" to "no-service city bus in the sky" only took about 50 years. So maybe I'm just impatient.

The difference I see, though, is that commercial airlines always took you somewhere *else*, and not just up and down. So until there's somewhere to go via commercial space flight, it's not as much like a trip on a plane as it is like really expensive and very cool roller coaster ride. Again, I'd take that ride if I could!

I know T-Minus is the first book you've written with a younger audience specifically in mind, but do you have a sense of who your readers are in general?  Are your books being read primarily by adults or younger readers?

My best guess is that so far my readers are mostly adults. Maybe T-Minus will change that, but I don't know.

Until the last two, my books have been on more adult topics, so that's probably why. By "adult topics," I don't mean there are things in them that would get somebody in trouble with the school board or get something shelved in a special section of a library, but more that my first few books were unlikely to interest a 4th- or 5th-grader in reading about the Manhattan Project.

Everybody likes astronauts and dinosaurs, though, so my two most recent books seem to have appealed to the broadest group of readers yet. And you never know what works, for whom. I hear about Dignifying Science being used in sixth grade classes, and though I wouldn't have predicted that, I think that's great.

Do you find that your books sell primarily to individuals or more to schools and libraries?

I think [schools] are still discovering my books, and comics in general. I know some graphic novels are targeted specifically for a school market, but I tend not to see those…and I haven't written any. Education is not the main goal of my books—I want them to entertain, first and foremost. I love it when people tell me they've learned something, and read one or more of the sources I referenced in the back of the book, of course, but whenever I have to choose between telling a better story or packing another useful fact/theory/idea/whatever into a book, story wins.

As for libraries, the most progressive were early adopters of comics, well before the general public started reading about Persepolisor manga or Watchmenin their local newspapers. But there are a lot of libraries out there, so I think comics are just beginning to reach their potential audience. The body of work that's worth preserving and being read again and again has increased exponentially since I started writing comics. I hope I'm part of that!

In both T-Minus and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards, you've acknowledged a degree of fictionalization in service to the story.  To what extent do you fictionalize events?  How do you decide when and how to fictionalize events?

The ideal is to fictionalize as little as possible. But any time you depict someone saying something that you don't have an actual sound recording of him or her saying, you've already crossed the line. So you decide on the fly, or at least I do. I draw from documented sources whenever I can, and when I can't I try to portray the truth of a story or a character, even in the absence of complete documentation.

Make that *especially* in its absence! And I know that stuff about truth sounds lofty. I don't mean it to, since the goal is just to make a good story, but I can't think of a better way to say it. And it's in answering the question "What makes a good story?" that you decide when and how to tweak things: If an authentic quote was three paragraphs long and a bunch of it was an aside or not to the point, or if an interaction between characters happened over the course of two separate days and that's not crucial to their relationship, I have no qualms about compressing things to keep the story moving.


Have there been instances when there was aninteresting scientific or historical fact that you found particularly fascinating, but had to leave out because it just didn't fit with the direction of the story?

There have been too many to count over the years—or at least, too many to remember. But I actually have it documented for T-Minus, and there are 36 scenes or fragments of scenes that I'd have loved to get in there if not for space and narrative considerations.

One example: In the best of all worlds there's a scene in the White House during the Apollo 11 trip where Nixon does a quick rehearsal of not one, but two prepared statements for July 20. There was one for success, of course, but there's a gripping one they had on hand in case the landing ended in disaster, stranding or killing Aldrin and Armstrong. It's one of those things you don't consider now, since I think our natural tendency is to think "Apollo 11 succeeded, therefore it had to succeed." But that's not the way things work in real time.  [Nixon’s alternate speech]

I'm curious whether you ever hear from working scientists whose fields your books address.  How do they react to your work?

Occasionally, and the response has almost always been positive. The only negative reaction I remember getting was from three scientists who took offense with the cover of one of my books. In their impassioned letter they mentioned that they hadn't read it, though, and that really surprised me for the obvious reason that their criticism was based on no…how shall we say, data. So I sent them an email in reply, asked for an address to send a copy to, and then sent one for them to read. But I never heard back. Otherwise, so far so good!

Just the cover?  What was their objection?

Yes, it was just the cover for Dignifying Science that caused the problem. And I don't want to make such a big deal of it since this is the only blanket, negative reaction in over 10 years. That's why it sticks in my memory. Readers have pointed out errors or things they think I could have done better, but that's a different sort of response altogether, and one I'm grateful for—it means they've engaged with the books and are sharing their knowledge so I can improve.

Anyway, I don't remember their exact words, but as I recall they didn't like showing Hedy Lamarr in an evening gown, in her dressing room. The intent of the image—beautifully drawn by Ramona Fradon and beautifully colored by Linda Medley—was to surprise people by the juxtaposition, since she's working with lab equipment in that setting. But these folks said the book was disrespectful as a result. I hope they changed their minds once they read the book.

As a writer who collaborates with a great many illustrators, do you find that the artists you work with are enthusiastic about the sciences as well?  Or can it be a challenge to find people interested in drawing about these subjects?

It's no problem at all to find enthusiastic artists. Sometimes I can't afford to pay them what they need to get to do the work, or they can't fit the work into their schedule, but I've found very few that don't want to do a book about scientists. Artists like good characters, and these people are good characters.

There's selection bias going on here, of course: I only approach artists whose styles and sensibilities—based on the work of theirs that I've read—seem like a good fit for the stories I write. But there are plenty of those folks out there. I'm really lucky!

I’ve read that your next two books are on the topics of Richard Feynman and primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Can you tell me any new details about those books yet?

We don't have official titles for either of the books yet, and I only have a general release date for Feynman. It's scheduled for Fall, 2010[Edit: the Feynman book has been pushed back to 2011 by the publisher.]. The primatologist book will probably come out in 2011. I think. Maybe. These things are up to First Second, really!

The artist on the Feynman book is Leland Myrick, and Maris Wicks is drawing the primatologists. I've seen the completed art by Leland and it looks fantastic. Maris has started sending penciled pages, and guess what? It is fantastic looking as well.

[Update, August 2010] I've completed the Turing script [The Imitation Game], it's with the editor right now, and as far as I know we're still on schedule for serialization through I'm happy with it, and having worked with him before, I know Leland Purvis (the artist) will do a great job.  I'm working on some other things right now, but they're in the very early stages so I don't have anything to say about them!

I imagine that writing about a single individual, as you have done in your Niels Bohr biography (Suspended in Language,2004) and the Feynman biography, would be a very different experience than writing about broader historical events such as in T-Minus or Fallout.  Do you approach the material differently, either in the writing or the research?

Neither are substantially different. Finding, or creating, the story may be a little harder when you have to choose among many points of view (a la T-Minus), but it isn't easy even when you're dealing with only one or two main characters. The research doesn't differ at all. Read, find new trails, follow them, read more, find new trails, follow them, read more, and repeat until you can't put off writing any longer or you'll blow your deadline!

The life of Richard Feynman isn't new territory for you; fully half the stories in Two-Fisted Science pertain to Feynman.  What drew you back?

What drew me back is what drew me in the first time around: Feynman the person and Feynman the character and Feynman the scientist and Feynman the self-made myth. He's all of those things, and his life spanned such an important period of recent world history that he's a fantastic character to explore. He was a very public personality, but he's still not as well known as I think he should be. So just like the Bohr biography I did—Niels Bohr is my other physics hero—I hope this new book helps bring his story to new readers.

One aspect of Feynman's career that you didn't touch on in great detail in Two-Fisted Science was his role in the Challenger disaster investigations.  Now that you've completed a book entirely about space flight, can readers expect to see those events explored in your book on Feynman?

Yes, though one didn't necessarily lead to the other. If you're going to do a biography of Feynman you need to cover his work on the Challenger investigation, because it touches on so many important themes in his life.

Two-Fisted Science didn't do this because it only showed small snippets of that life—it didn't pretend to be complete. This book won't be complete either, really, since there's simply too much material out there, both published and unpublished. You should see my stack of reference materials! But the upcoming book will touch on all the major events in his life, especially his public life, and his work on the Challenger disaster was his last major adventure. The story about how he is persuaded to do it is fantastic on its own.

I have to confess, despite my own lay interest in several of the fields he worked in, I was completely unacquainted with Feynman until I encountered him in your books.  Considering how many of the 20th century's major technological and scientific developments he was involved in—from the Manhattan Project, to the space program, to introducing the concept of nanotechnology—why is it that he's not more widely known?

Quick, name ten living scientists! OK, it's you, and you can probably do it. But I'll bet you can name ten living comic book writers or artists *whose work you don't like* more easily. Now, name one of the people who got the Nobel prize for inventing the transistor…you know, the thingees that make computers and cell phones and TVs and digital cameras and all that stuff work. Now tell me who taught "Defense Against the Dark Arts" in the 6th Harry Potter book, and who plays that character in the movie.

My point? I love comics, books, and movies too, and because I'm that kind of geek I can answer all of the above. Lots of readers here probably can too. But you get the idea: Even the most famous scientists don't get the attention even minor media celebrities do.

I certainly see your point about relative celebrity, and I agree.  But given that scientists do occasionally achieve broader fame—Newton, Einstein, Hawking—why not Feynman?  Especially considering his personal eccentricities, artistic pursuits, exploits in amateur safecracking, and embrace of public life, on top of his achievements, he seems like a man born for science celebrity.  So what happened? Maybe that's not a question it's possible to answer, but it was running through my mind the whole time I was reading Two-Fisted Science.

I really don't know. Maybe he needed a whole comic book about him.

More seriously, his books remain in print and are popular with a broad audience, so he's not obscure. But his discoveries are harder to grasp than gravity, relativity, and black holes. Which I guess you could summarize as gravity, gravity, and gravity.

Quantum electrodynamics sounds neat, and it really and truly is. But it's less easily grasped and visualized, and thus explained, than…well, gravity.

To your earlier point, honestly, I would be much harder pressed to create a list of living scientists than I would mid-20th century scientists!

True for me as well, but that's the effect of time and more obvious revolutions. In our defense, I think we're too close to know what the late 20th century means…

Alexander Danner