Arts Desk

Meet a Visiting Cartoonist: A Chat with Jim Ottaviani

Jim Ottaviani is a former nuclear engineer turned librarian who writes non-fiction comics in his spare time. He specializes in writing books about science and scientists, then he commissions an artist to illustrate them. His first book, Dignifying Science, comprised mini-biographies of scientists. He followed that with Two-Fisted Science, focusing on women scientists. His other books include T-Minus: The Race to the Moon; Levitation: Physics & Psychology in Service of  Deception; Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow & the Science of Love; Bone Sharps; Cowboys & Thunder Lizards; Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist; Suspended In Language: Book about Niels Bohr; and Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and  the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb. In 2008, he wrote Better Zombies Through Physics, a web comic with Sean Bieri for the science fiction publisher, Tor. Ottaviani interrupted his book tour and answered some questions for us prior to his appearance this weekend.

Washington City Paper: Why will you be in Washington?

Jim Ottaviani: To sign Feynman, the new book I did with Leland Myrick about Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists and geniuses of the 20th century. (And even if you know only a little about physics, you know that's saying a lot!)

WCP: What type of comic work or cartooning do you do?

JO: I write books about science and scientists. It's non-fiction, which in comics is sometimes viewed as dangerous experiment!

WCP: How do you do it?

JO: I spend a lot of time doing research, and then a lot of effort tearing myself away from that research (the temptation to read just one more book is difficult to resists), then it's sitting in front of a blinking cursor and turning the detailed outline and time-line into a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That's a boring answer to read, I know, but it's the truth...and it's not at all boring to live it! You always discover interesting things when you write...

WCP: When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

JO: Apropos to signing at the Air and Space Museum, I was born just in time for the Mercury-Gemini-Apollo era.

WCP: Can you tell us a little about your new book that you'll be in town signing?

JO: Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist who wrote best-selling books, cracked safes while working on the Manhattan Project, painted professionally, played percussion, and went out of his way to make sure his life and the lives of everyone around him was interesting. He worked with geniuses like Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, and Oppenheimer, and his own genius and curiosity led him to influence and work directly on the atomic bomb, nanotechnology, supercomputing, and the space shuttle. In short, he got his fingerprints are all over the 20th century, and he's perfect for comics.

WCP: What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

JO: Exclusively on-the-job. I used to be a nuclear engineer, and now work full time as a librarian. I studied comics I liked, on my own and as a reader, though. You can learn a lot by just reading and thinking and discussing books with friends who are smarter than you. (I have a lot of those.) But when it came to write them, my education came by doing!

WCP: Who are your influences?

JO: Far too many to list!

WCP: If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

JO: Nothing so far. Not that every move I've made has been brilliant, but overall I've been so lucky that I'd be afraid to mess with anything. Plus, I've read more than enough science fiction stories to know that you shouldn't mess with time travel...

WCP: You moved from self-publishing formal experimentation to doing more popular works with large publishers. How did this evolution happen for you, and how do you feel about it?

JO: It was quite natural, really. As my self-published work became better known I started to get, well, better known. That lead to interest from large publishers, and since they were interested in doing stories I was going to do on my own anyway, I figured it was worth seeing how this part of the world works. So far, so good!

WCP: What work are you best-known for?

JO: At this point, I think it's Feynman! This book has certainly been the most well-received, the fastest. Before this, I think it's either Fallout (about J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Manhattan project) or T-Minus (about the space race).

WCP: What would you like to do  or work on in the future?

JO: I have a number of proposals and outlines, ranging from ready to start at the drop of a hat to barely half-baked. Some involve space, some involve cosmology, and all are exciting. To me...but I don't know for sure what will come out after the two books that are already in the pipeline: The book that's closest to being complete is another book for First Second, and it's about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas... with a little Louis Leakey thrown in for good measure. It's about the lives and primate research these three pioneering women — and they were pioneers in more ways than one. I'll add that I'm thrilled to pieces with the work Maris Wicks is doing on it. She's working on the coloring right now, and every new update is like the best birthday surprise gift you ever received.

The other story is almost as different as it can be from Feynman and the primates book. It's about Alan Turing, the mathematician responsible for modern computer science. He was also instrumental in breaking the formidable Enigma code used by the Nazis in World War II. An amazing person, but the arc of his life is tragic, and the spine of the story is about secrets. One he kept, but had he revealed it it might have saved him, and one he didn't... Like I said, a tragedy. Leland Purvis, who drew an earlier book by me called Suspended in Language, is doing the art for it.

WCP: What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

JO: Check the calendar and remind myself of the deadline.

WCP: What do you think will be the future of your field?

JO: If my field is non-fiction comics, then I think it's bright. People have begun to see the potential here.

WCP: You’ve attended the Small Press Expo in the past – do you have any thoughts about your experience? Will you be attending it in the future?

JO: I've attended more than ten times, and have enjoyed it every time. Full stop, 'nuff said! So yes, I plan to attend in the future.

WCP: What's your favorite thing about DC?

JO: Besides all the great museums and monuments, it's Metro. No contest, I love that system. And... I'm doing a comic about it for an upcoming anthology that's focused on DC.

WCP: Least favorite?

JO: I wish I could resist the temptation, but you're catching me in the midst of a book tour and my defenses are down. So: Congress.

WCP: What monument or museum do like to or wish to visit when you're in town?

JO: I always enjoy visiting the National Museum of the American Indian (best lunch on the Mall, and some fine exhibits too), the Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Vietnam War Memorial.

WCP: Do you have a website or blog?

JO: Yes and yes!  www.gt-labs.com and www.gt-labs.com/blog

Ottaviani appears noon-5 p.m. October 2 at the National Air and Space Museum, 601 Independence Avenue NW. Free.

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