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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

FEYNMAN by Ottaviani&Myrick

Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick

Jim Ottaviani has been doing comics about science and scientists for over a decade now, with various artists and mostly published through his own GT Labs imprint. I've been reading them for almost as long as he's been publishing them, and they've been consistently entertaining and educational. And none more for me than the sections in TWO-FISTED SCIENCE [1997] that dealt with physicist Richard Feynman. Those stories led me to read several of Feynman's own books, which were a delight and which I've gone back to many times over the years.

So I was more than a little excited to learn, at the 2010 Toronto Comic Arts Festival, that he was working on a new full length comic book biography of Feynman with artist Leland Myrick, to be published as a full-colour hardcover by First Second.  The pages I saw at the time looked really good, and when the book was formally announced it was right up there on my list of most anticipated books of 2011. Fortunately I ended up waiting significantly less time for it than I expected, as Ottaviani had advance copies at the 2011 TCAF a few months ago, and I was fortunate enough to win one. The book is now in general release, and I highly recommend it, both to those new to Feynman and those who are already familiar with his history.

For those who are new to him, Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a physicist who worked on the atomic bomb in the 1940s, won a Nobel Prize in the 1960s and played a key role in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in the 1980s. He also led a colourful life outside of those highlights, and was able to tell his stories in an engaging irreverent and eccentric style. Ottaviani adapted several of the stories, mostly dealing with the 1940s, in TWO-FISTED SCIENCE. This longer work allows him to expand on those stories and add a lot more, building up a fuller picture of Feynman's life. 

Even with 272 pages, Feynman's adventures were numerous and varied enough that Ottaviani can only hit the highlights, but he does a good job of picking the stories, giving enough of the context and letting Feynman's own words tell the story with the artwork. In addition to the science, there are stories of Feynman growing up, falling in love, losing his first wife, his friendships, the politics of the various situations he found himself in (from the secrecy of the atom bomb research days to his life in academia to the Space Shuttle investigation). For those who never heard these stories before, there's enough to be satisfying and extensive notes pointing out where you can find out more, and for those who have heard them before it's a nice refresher to see them in a new context. In particular the stories really come to life with Myrick's artwork, which is expressive and gives a nice feeling of the various times and locations.

I will admit that, twenty years removed from my last math/physics classes (and having used very little of that stuff in the interim), I found the brief parts of the books that deal with the actual details of Feynman's research a bit rough going, especially the first time through the book.  However, the book answers that problem through some advice that Feynman gave to his younger sister.

And indeed I picked up a bit more the second time through, and maybe someday I'll understand it all. Anyway, you don't need to have any aptitude for the physics to appreciate the bulk of the book, and even those brief bits where you do there's some visually interesting stuff to pick up each time through.

The publisher has a long excerpt of the book and more information over here.

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