Astonishing Tales Of Real Scientists!

Jim Ottaviani is on a mission to glorify scientists. But his medium is a little unconventional – comic books. Since 2001 he’s self-published 10 titles through his company, G.T. Labs. Two more are due out soon, both from traditional publishers. Well, semi-traditional – keep reading.

In 2011, Ottaviani will release Feynman, an all-color graphic biography of the American physicist (and dedicated bongo player) Richard Feynman, with art by Leland Myrick. Best known for solving what caused the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, Feynman is a colorful subject with a fascinating, and, at times, tragic life story. Strangely, a comic book biography seems wholly appropriate.

The Imitation Game, Ottaviani’s biography of computer pioneer and mathematician Alan Turing, with art by Leland Purvis, will be serialized online at The title refers to the test Turing developed to determine whether machines can think.

By day, the former nuclear engineering consultant is a librarian with the University of Michigan. After hours, he’s a writer, editor, publisher, comics consumer, blogger and much, much more.

Though his subjects may be atypical for the genre, his titles are clearly inspired by a comic book sensibility. Two-Fisted Science tells the true stories of scientists throughout the age and boasts the artistic contributions of 11 different artists.

Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards is a sepia-toned tale about Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, two scientists who found and fought for the fossil treasures discovered in the American West in the late 1800s. Its horizontal format echoes its Old West settings. The same two scientists will be the subject of a PBS special later this month.

For the better half of any lab duo, there's Dignifying Science, stories about women scientists and the men who didn’t always worship them.

And for the kids there's T-Minus, about the race to the moon and featuring art by Zander and Kevin Cannon (Aladdin 2009). Ottaviani says the comic is for adults as well. After all, he says, "Don’t we all love astronauts?"

Locally, you can purchase copies of many of these titles at Vault Of Midnight or give them a test run at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Ottaviani sat down with Concentrate recently to talk about his work, comics, science and scientists, and the best and worst of self-publishing.

How different is writing science comic books from retrofitting nuclear power plants?

Jim O:  I’m not on the road nine months of the year [now]. I couldn’t do the books if I were also working on nuclear power plants.

Will there come a time when librarianship falls away in favor of authorship?

I don’t know. I’ve fortunate to have a job – and to like what I do. It’s a profession that people trust and respect, even if it doesn’t pay much.

Have any living scientists offered themselves as subjects?

That would be great. I still prefer to work with dead people – the story’s over. You know the end. No, nobody’s gotten in touch saying, “Me! Me!”

Dr. [Biruté] Galdikas got in touch after reading the women scientists’ book [Discovering Beauty]. She liked it. Coming up, I’ve got a book on primate scientists, about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Dr. Galdikas, along with their mentor, Louis Leakey.

Do you identify with any of your subjects or do you take a fairly detached view of them? Any stories you’d like to have experienced?

I identify with all of them. It’s best when you as a writer can connect with your subject. You start to see the world through their point of view. When you find yourself getting emotional, that’s good. T Minus was a pleasure to write – researching, interviewing astronauts. Through it, I achieved name recognition.

How long from idea to book?

The Feynman book writing was finished in 2006. When you ask an artist to draw 200 pages that include quantum electrodynamics, it’s going to be a while. It was worth the wait. (The book is set for an August release.)

Turnaround time from idea to book varies. Primates' writing was finished in 2007. Then the contract for T Minus showed up. It came out in 2009 in time for the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11. [Publishing schedules] very much depend on a publisher’s practices and artists’ schedules. Zander and Kevin (Cannon, the illustrators of T Minus) are super fast. I had worked with them before on the paleontologists (Bone Sharps, Cowboys…). With T Minus, we had the experience of the previous book.

I’d say, “Here, draw a rocket plus a couple of panels…”

When you’re working in sync, you can sketch and the artist says, “I see what you want.” Sometimes they say, “I see what you want and you’re an idiot.”

Graphic novels are traditionally a collaborative medium. Working with 11 artists on one book seems like a challenge – is it?

Every artist has a personal and idiosyncratic definition of what constitutes "on time". It helps that I’m friends with them. They’re good about communicating when they won’t make a deadline. For them, my books are a different kind of project and it’s a pleasure for them to draw real people. At least I imagine it’s enjoyable. The stakes aren’t so high that people choke.

Are any of "your" artists also scientists?

None are scientists that I know of. The artist who drew the cover for Fallout majored in physics, but that was decades ago. That’s the only direct science link.

What happens if there's a difference of opinion about art direction?

The artist usually wins – their labor in drawing a single panel so far outweighs the labor of writing that panel. Their work is critical to staging and pacing. The reader will see what the artist drew, not the script. You both think that story's important.

The artist really contributes to the book as it develops?

For my book coming out online in 2012, there are so many things you can do out in the Web that couldn’t be done in print. Leland, the artist, came up with one panel that would stretch from wall-to-wall in a normal room. It has the characters continuously walking in a landscape. It would be prohibitively expensive [to do that] in print – and hard to fold out and in.

That book is The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing, an early computer scientist. He solved a famous math conundrum, and wrote a paper that laid the theoretical foundation for all modern computers. Cracking the German Enigma Code in WWII was his greatest achievement but nobody knew he had done it until the 1970s.

He made important contributions to math and computer science as well as the defeat of the Nazis. But he was openly gay and persecuted for it. He committed suicide.

Why did you begin by self-publishing?

Self-publishing doesn’t have the same stigma in comics as in prose. I don’t care too much about [the distinction between] comics and graphic novels.

My first seven or eight titles were self-published. Everything’s in print, every title (on G.T. Lab’s roster.) G.T. Labs’ world headquarters is in my basement. The trade-off is gaining an advance against royalties, the royalties themselves, and a boost in profile. Also, I’m a horrible, horrible, horrible marketer.

How did your transition from self-publishing to bigger publishing houses take place?

It took place because of my “growing fame." Just as the paleontology book was finishing I saw Matt Madden at a wedding. (Madden is a comic artist who lived in Ann Arbor in the 1990s.) He told me, “You need an agent.”

He introduced me to his agent and within two months I had a two-book deal (with First Second) and another one in the works (T Minus, the race to the moon with Aladdin, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

Who do you imagine your audience to be?

It's a cliché, but I write for myself because I enjoy the subjects. I pick one I want to learn more about – sometimes I don't find a story. Sometimes I say, "There's no story there" or "I don’t want to write about this yet."

Were you a comic book aficionado before you started creating your own?

I read tons and tons of comics, online and in a 32-page staple-bound traditional format. I have no desire to read the vast majority of those a second time. I swap a lot (with friends). Print books will probably go away. They may come back. I’m part of the problem. I read comics and treat them as ephemera.

I saw comics occasionally as a kid, read newspaper comics. Peanuts, of course. Calvin + Hobbes. I really loved Doonesbury. I still read eight or nine daily comics – all online. Doonesbury is still running and still brilliant. Cul-De-Sac by Richard Thompson. For Better or Worse is in re-runs. In college, I was reading mainstream comics.

Comic books have long struggled for literary legitimacy. They’ve gained ground but probably won’t be nominated for a National Book Award. Should they be taken seriously?

Well, Art Spiegelman's Maus already won the Pulitzer so that's done. National Book Awards? I think it will happen. The tarnished brand, not (the merit of) individual works, has kept it from happening so far.

At the University, we actively collect comics now. We have [Professor] Phoebe Gloeckner in the School of Architecture + Design. That means we have a reason to collect comics. Students can consult the collection when they’re taking her class or writing a thesis.

What is the future of comic books with the rise of digital books and devices like the iPad?

If you peel off the book part and ask "What is the future of comics?", it’s bright. They translate quite well into the digital world.

I love the physical book – the color, the jacket. I like the paper. I like to stick my face in and smell the ink. A printed book is a particular experience that you want. It's an object that has meaning.

The vast majority of new content will appear online first. Then there'll be a print edition, if warranted. Cory Doctorow has been talking about this for a while: 500 to 1,000 hard-core fans buying a $250 special edition, maybe with tipped-in illustrations, make it desirable as an object. The story doesn't need this container any more.

When you’re a publisher, a writer and a librarian, being precious about the object falls away.

Constance Crump is Concentrate's senior writer. She's also an Ann Arbor-based writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine. Her previous article was MASTERMIND: Dave Konkle.

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All photos by Doug Coombe


Jim Ottaviani with former Ann Arborite John Tebeau's "Birth of Venus"

Jim enjoying some classic Weird Science.

Jim with an Al Hirschfeld illustration.

Jim in his Ann Arbor office.

Jim with some original Krazy Kat art.

Jim in his office.

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