Born November 16, 1963 (Burlingame, California)
American author, librarian
"We are living in the best times ever for good comics, all over the world."
Midway through Jim Ottaviani's 2004 graphic novel/historical biography Suspended in Language: Neils Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped, Danish physicist Neils Bohr (1885–1962) takes a colleague named Léon Rosenfeld (1904–1974) aside to explain to him some of the principles of quantum physics, a very complicated theory about the structure of atoms. As Rosenfeld sits at a table listening, Bohr walks in circles around him. Leland Purvis's illustrations of Ottaviani's words take the reader directly into the Rosenfeld's experience of Bohr's lecture: Rosenfeld spins in his seat, trying to follow Bohr, and the text narrating the scientist's reaction spins around the page, forcing the reader to spin the book, round, round, then round again. Finally, the spinning stops and Bohr himself speaks: "Anyone who thinks they can talk about quantum physics without feeling dizzy hasn't understood the first thing about it."
Similarly, anyone who thinks that graphic novels about quantum physics can't be gripping entertainment hasn't encountered the work of Jim Ottaviani. Beginning in 1997 with Two-Fisted Science and continuing with works like Fallout, which explores the politics and science behind the creation of the atomic bomb, and Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards, a fictionalized account of the early days of paleontology (scientific study of fossils and ancient life), Ottaviani—aided by top-notch illustrators—has been turning stories of scientific discovery into fascinating, even dramatic, graphic novels that have helped to demonstrate the flexibility and intelligence of comics. Ottaviani's works, some of which have been assigned reading in school science classes, provide proof that comics can do much more than recount the battles of superheroes.
Two-Fisted Science (illustrated by Mark Badger, Donna Barr, Sean Bieri, Paul Chadwick, Gene Colan, Guy Davis, Colleen Doran, David Lasky, Steve Lieber, Lin Lucas, Bernie Mireault, Scott Roberts, Scott Saavedra, and Rob Walton) (1997).
Dignifying Science (illustrated by Donna Barr, Mary Fleener, Ramona Fradon, Stephanie Gladden, Robert Gregory, Lea Hernandez, Carla Speed McNeil, Linda Medley, Marie Severin, Jen Sorensen, and Anne Timmons) (1999).
Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb (illustrated by Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, and Jeff Parker) (2001).
Suspended in Language: Neils Bohr's Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped (illustrated by Leland Purvis, with additional illustrations by Jay Hosler, Roger Langridge, Steve Leialoha, Linda Medley, and Jeff Parker) (2003).
Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards (illustrated by Big Time Attic) (2005).
Science comes first
Jim Ottaviani took a long and winding path to becoming a graphic novelist. He was born on November 16, 1963, in Burlingame, California, a city just south of San Francisco. His dad was fresh out of the navy and working as a salesman, and his mom was a schoolteacher. By the time Jim was six years old, the family, which grew to include a younger sister and two younger brothers, left the West Coast and moved to Clarendon Hills, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago. In an interview with Graphic Novelists (GN), Ottaviani acknowledged that he had a pretty terrific childhood: "It was all pretty carefree: I went to school, played in the band, played little league baseball, that kind of stuff. The only trouble I had was the usual stuff like my parents not letting me drive a car when I was eight years old.…"
Though he spent a lot of time outdoors, as he grew into a teenager Ottaviani admitted that he was "sort of a geek, the kid who liked math and science and was reasonably good at it." He was, even as a teen, developing some of the interests that would guide his future work. On the one hand, he was interested in comics; he loved the Peanuts comic strip with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, but it was Steve Ditko's (1927–) Spider-Man stories that really got him hooked on comics. He recalled in an interview posted on the Sequential Tart Web site his reaction to getting a new copy of Spider-Man: "It was the dead of winter, and I started reading it in the back seat of the car on the way home [from the store] and stayed in that back seat long after we'd arrived. I sat on the cold vinyl huddled in my parka 'cuz the garage wasn't heated (and my mom didn't leave the engine running …) until I'd finished reading 'The End of Spider-Man!'" On the other hand, he was also interested in science, and he recalls being fascinated by National Geographic stories about energy and nuclear fusion.
As he finished high school in 1981, it was the National Geographic side of his childhood reading that won out in shaping his career. Inspired to study engineering in part by high school math teacher Paul Halac, Ottaviani entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After receiving his bachelor's degree in 1986, he went directly to the University of Michigan, where he received his master's degree in nuclear engineering. He went to work as a nuclear engineer, but quickly grew to dislike it. He told Julie Hinds of the Detroit Free Press: "There were no new power plants to build.… All I was doing as an engineer was patching up plants to meet current safety standards." This meant long stretches of travel to nuclear plants scattered across the northeast, and many nights in hotel rooms.
By 1990, Ottaviani had enough of nuclear engineering. After finishing a second master's degree in the Information and Library Science program at the University of Michigan in 1992, he embarked on his second career as a librarian. For a man who describes himself as someone who craves information of all sorts, it was a dream job. He began as a librarian in the mechanical engineering department at his alma mater, rose to head of reference in the Engineering Library, and since 1996 he has been head of reference in the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library at the University of Michigan.
An explosive idea
Ottaviani had liked comics as a kid; as an adult, he grew to love them. Beginning in the 1980s—when comics publishing began the resurgence that helped feed the graphic novel boom of the 1990s and beyond—he began reading the superhero works of Frank Miller (1957–; see entry) and Alan Moore (1953–; see entry). Later, he read the genre-busting works of artists like Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Harvey Pekar (1939–), and Joe Sacco (1960–; see entries). He wrote reviews of new works for comics journals and talked about comics with his friends, including Steve Lieber, a comics illustrator who lived nearby. One night, he and Lieber were talking about a particularly dramatic discussion between two physicists in a book of history they had both read, called The Making of the Atomic Bomb, by Richard Rhodes. Suddenly, they both had an idea, as he recalled in an interview on the Broken Frontier Web site. "[This dramatic moment] would be great as a book, a movie, a play, something," he thought. Turning to Lieber, he asked: "What if I wrote this up as a comic strip? Would you illustrate it?" Lieber said yes, and a new career opened up for Jim Ottaviani.
From the beginning, Ottaviani knew he wouldn't be a comics artist who did the illustrations for his own stories. He just wasn't that good at drawing. But he had a bunch of interesting stories about scientists and a growing love of writing. With Lieber's advice, Ottaviani began to put some of these stories into words, in short condensed comic scripts that showed the drama of scientific discovery. He also began to locate illustrators for those stories, including renowned artists such as Paul Chadwick (1957–; creator of Concrete; see entry) and Colleen Doran (1963–; A Distant Soil; see entry). With the help of a grant from the Xeric Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle creator Peter A. Laird (1954–) to help people self-publish their comics, Ottaviani was able to produce his stories and publish them, in 1997, as Two-Fisted Science. In fact, he created his own company to publish his works, called G.T. Labs (a reference to General Techtronics Laboratories, where the comic character Peter Parker was bitten by a spider and transformed into Spider-Man).
The Art of Collaboration
Any graphic novelist who is not also an artist faces a key question: how to make sure that the ideas that he or she devised are communicated clearly by the art. For Jim Ottaviani, this question is essential, since he writes his text with a very clear idea of how he wants the pictures to look. His solution is to provide the artist with detailed visual direction: along with the written script, he provides photographs, drawings, scientific formulas, and his own stick-figure illustrations showing exactly how he wants his scenes to play out. In the scene from Suspended in Language that is intended to bring the reader to a point of dizziness, Ottaviani provided step-by-step directions to create the effect that he desired. In this sense, Ottaviani is the detail-minded director, ensuring that his creative vision is realized.
Ultimately, however, Ottaviani does not create the art, and the artist's own vision and talent has a decisive influence on the final product. "One of the nice things about doing comics, and doing them collaboratively," Ottaviani said in an interview with Broken Frontier, "is I don't necessarily have to have a perfect handle on the characters, because the artist will bring things into the story that maybe I didn't see." In works like Fallout, in which different artists illustrated various sections of the book, the characters take on additional depth because of the multiple renderings. The result, Ottaviani relates, is often "a happy surprise," as his collaborators allow him to see a side of the story he hadn't even imagined.
Ottaviani's first book was received by reviewers as an innovation—it was the first comic about scientists—but for Ottaviani, combining words and pictures was perfectly suited to science. "Science is very visual," he told a Broken Frontier interviewer. "If you read any scientific journal … [there are] pictures in every single one of them.… So it's actually a very natural fit. Scientists think and work visually, and comics, of course, is a very visual medium." His second book was similar to the first in that it told biographical stories about scientists, but it had one important twist: Dignifying Science was all about female scientists. Reviewers were mixed in their opinions of the book. Discover magazine praised Ottaviani's stories about Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958; a pioneer in DNA research) and Lise Meitner (1878–1968; who contributed to the understanding of nuclear fission), noting that "it's a tribute to Ottaviani's breezy style that one wants to dig into those references and learn a little nuclear physics." Publishers Weekly, on the other hand, complained that "this collection almost entirely misses the mark, failing to tell clear, interesting stories or to impart much useful information about the remarkable scientists it covers." Ottaviani acknowledged that some of the early work was uneven. "In the first one," he told GN, "there were experiments that didn't work so well, and some that have really stood up."
Creates longer, more intricate works
More impressive than his first two collections are Ottaviani's more fully realized creations of Fallout, Suspended in Language, and Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards. Readers and reviewers noted the strain in adapting scientific ideas to the short stories of the earlier works, as some of the material was just too complicated to fit into such a small package. But Ottaviani told GN that it is not easy to convince an illustrator to take on a full-length graphic novel-type project: "You have to recognize that while writing 200 pages of script for a graphic novel is hard work, doing 200 pages of illustration is really hard work. The illustrator always does the heaviest lifting in this kind of a project." Luckily, Ottaviani was able to turn his experience working with multiple illustrators into one of the most fascinating features of his book, called Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb (2001).
Fallout tells the story of one of the most exciting scientific and technological accomplishments of the twentieth century: the construction of the atomic bomb. But Ottaviani's script does not focus just on bomb-building. Instead, in four chapters and a series of prologues and interludes, Ottaviani explores the complicated motivations and thinking of those scientists who pushed the boundaries of physics in the years before World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allied forces defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan), engaged in bomb construction as part of the U.S. government's Manhattan Project during the war, and endured the anti-Communist hysteria that pitted scientists and friends against each other in the years after the war. Ottaviani weaves his own reconstructions of historical events with actual historical documents to create a narrative that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, and his ample notes at the end of the book point readers to the best sources for learning more about the period.
Adding to the complexity and interest of the book, Ottaviani used seven different illustrators to draw the sections of the book (Janine Johnston, Chris Kemple, Steve Lieber, Vince Lock, Bernie Mireault, Eddy Newell, and Jeff Parker). Each of the illustrators brought his or her own unique artistic style and interpretation of the central characters in the book, especially the lean, tall physicist Robert Oppenheimer (1904–1967), perhaps the most complicated figure in the book. These multiple perspectives served to advance Ottaviani's story. "I wanted to use multiple points of view, setting, and mood," he explained to GN. "In Fallout, each section of the book has a different mood and takes place in a different location and I wanted to heighten that awareness." Taken together, the shifts in illustrator, setting, time, and even narrative voice all aid the reader in comprehending the political and scientific complexity of this period in time. According to Detroit Free Press reviewer Julie Hinds, "By combining words and pictures, the book gives a freshness to the ethical and technical problems faced by the scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. It's as rip-roaring in its own way as Spider-Man battling Doc Ock."
Tackles quantum physics
In Fallout, Ottaviani tackled a complex subject in the science and politics behind the making of the atomic bomb. Yet the topic of his next book, Suspended in Language, is even more complex. Not only did Ottaviani want to provide the life story of Neils Bohr, one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century, he also wanted to offer an introduction on quantum physics, a branch of physics that attempts to correct and unify many earlier theories about the behavior of matter at the atomic and subatomic levels. Bohr is the ideal vehicle through which to tell this story, for he worked and argued with many of the most important scientists of his day, including Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and many others. Through their conversations—expertly illustrated by Leland Purvis, who captures human emotions and scientific formulas with equal skill—readers come to know both the men and the science. "The best thing about Purvis," wrote Carol Fox on the Sequential Tart Web site, "is how he manages to convey a lifetime of relentless trial and error on each face he draws."
Reviewers of the book exulted in Ottaviani and Purvis's triumph at portraying such a difficult topic. Writing for Time magazine, Andrew Arnold commented that "the pacing of the book is such that even if you don't totally get, say, the importance of Planck's Constant or even what it is, Ottaviani's enthusiasm still makes you excited about it." Ottaviani constantly pushes the reader's capacity to understand the physics; then, just as that capacity is reached, he offers a helping hand. For example, after one particularly impressive stretch of physics, Ottaviani says directly to the reader: "So it's OK if you didn't get it. Nobody gets great truths. As Bohr would (and did) say: 'When it comes to atoms, language can only be used as in poetry."' For his part, Ottaviani says that mostly he does understand quantum physics, about as much as anybody can, anyway. But he recognizes that the demands of the graphic novel form call for meeting the reader half-way. "I'm not trying to write textbooks," he told Hinds. "The primary goal is to entertain and tell a good story."
Ottaviani's next work, Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards (released in October 2005), represented a real departure from the world of physics that had occupied him for several years previous. Ottaviani described the book to Broken Frontier: "It's a story about … two scientists who, as we're pushing out west as a country after the Civil War (1861–65; war in which the Union [the North, who were opposed to slavery] defeated the Confederacy [the South, who were in favor of slavery]), start to battle over who can get the most fossil bones and name the most species, and basically become the 'most famoust-est' of them all. They're collectors in the worst sense of the word. They both want it all, and they both want it to the exclusion of everybody else, and they're willing to do bad things, and hire bad people to do more bad things [to] get the most fossils, and that's the story." The book is illustrated by Big Time Attic, an illustrators' cooperative formed by Zander Cannon, Shad Petosky, and Kevin Cannon. As this book prepared to print, Ottaviani was already at work on his next project, about the technology behind the levitation illusions (which made it appear that a person was being lifted by supernatural means) that were so popular in the United States in the late nineteenth century.
Ottaviani loves to write, joking to GN that he gets so immersed in his work that his wife, Kat, will remind him that it's 3:00 in the morning but he's lost somewhere in the nineteenth century. He's not ready to give up his full-time job at the university library, however. For now, he is able to finish a book in about a year and a half, and by running his publishing venture himself, he can concentrate on working directly with illustrators to get the combination of words and pictures just right. As for the future, there are still many science stories yet to be told. Ottaviani told Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon: "The capacity for science—done individually and in groups or expeditions …—is one of the things that makes us human, and has a great potential for changing our collective lot for the better." With Ottaviani to tell the stories, fans can look forward to more engaging graphic novels of scientific discovery.
For More Information
Hunter, C. Bruce. "Review of Two-Fisted Science." Science Activities vol. 34, no. 3 (Fall 1997): 45.
Powell, Corey S. "Review of Dignifying Science." Discover (February 2000): 84; (April 2002): 72; (April 2005): 78.
"Review of Dignifying Science." Publishers Weekly (December 13, 1999): 76.
Applewhite, Ashton. "The Hero Checks Her Oscilloscope: Jim Ottaviani's Comic Books Tell True Tales of Scientists and Engineers." IEEE Spectrum Online. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/careers/careerstemplate.jsp?ArticleId=p020302 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Arnold, Andrew. "Unified Comix Theory." Time. http://www.time.com/time/columnist/arnold/article/0,9565,735726,00.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Atchison, Lee. "The Beauty of Science." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/jan00/ottaviani.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Atchison, Lee. "Succumbing to Pheromones." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/archive/oct01/ottaviani.shtml (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Figuracion, Neil. "A Look Inside the Lab—A Genre Bender Interview with Jim Ottaviani." Broken Frontier. http://www.brokenfrontier.com/lowdown/details.php?id=221 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Fox, Carol. "Review of Suspended in Language." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/reports.php?ID=3455&issue=2004-09-01 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
G.T. Labs. http://www.gt-labs.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Ottaviani, Jim. "Comics, Art and Science: Telling Stories with Pictures (That Don't Move)." Comicartville. http://www.comicartville.com/comicsscience.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Tillusz, Dana. "Jim Ottaviani." ComicReaders.com. http://www.comicreaders.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=712 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Watson, Rich. "Droppin' Science: The Jim Ottaviani Q&A Part 1." Fresh. http://www.orcafresh.net/Watson/wt60402.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained in an interview with Jim Ottaviani on August 22, 2005.