Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Good Stuff: Feynman

Jim Ottaviani is a writer who's been doing comics about scientists for fifteen years now. While he's written about scientists and pseudo-scientists in any number of fields, he's most at home in his own field of interest--physics. His first comic, Two-Fisted Science, was mostly about physicists, including some colorful anecdotes about Nobel prize winning professor and teacher Richard Feynman. Feynman was not only well-known as a theoretical genius who had a hand in the success of the Manhattan Project, he was also known as a quirky raconteur who strove to make his theories clear to laymen. He was most fascinated by everything when it presented itself as a puzzle or game--a code to be cracked. Such activities were fun, but he inevitably was able to apply seemingly random events to deeper theoretical problems. That philosophy of fun was one he also applied to his personal relationships, disregarding the potential disapproval of others with the phrase "who cares what other people think?" Like Albert Einstein before him, Feynman became known beyond the scientific community as the model of "genius scientist", an approbation he did not take seriously. He did take education seriously, in part because quantum mechanics is so difficult to explain that it drove him crazy that he couldn't explain his Noble-winning ideas without a great deal of difficulty.

Indeed, it really came down to the fact that no one could explain quantum electrodynamics (how electrons and photons interact at a subatomic level--that is, light and mass) in an intuitive manner. One thing Ottaviani emphasizes in the book is that it not only bothered Feynman because this was a puzzle solved that couldn't be easy explained, it was vexing because the answer was so inelegant. Seeing the beauty in science and the world was a life-long interest of his that extended to the mysteries of art and why some things simply look right and why some things don't. There's a lot to admire in how Ottaviani approaches his subject, unearthing stories about his early life and peppering the reader with plenty of amusing anecdotes. However, Ottaviani does not shy away from the science. Like Feynman, he tries to keep things as simple as possible for readers without a background in the subject, but there was simply no possibility of creating a full picture of Feynman without discussing his theories in some detail.

Ottaviani takes the risk of immersing the reader in a first-person account of Feynman's life told by the man himself in his later years. It's a risky move because the reader is thrown into the deep end of physics right away, but the charm of the subject quickly helps to quell any narrative difficulties. Ottaviani wisely breaks the book up into dozens of three to four page chapters that each have the feel of an anecdote even if they're carefully crafted to create a narrative. Another smart move was leaving the details of Feynman's theory to the very end; by skipping over its details in the main part of the narrative, the reader doesn't get stuck on challenging material. Instead, the reader gets the benefit of having absorbed Feynman's other but related thoughts on the world before diving into particulars. One also gets to read Feynman's account of working on the atomic bomb, being part of an advisory committee that determined what went wrong with the space shuttle Challenger, his relationships with friends, family and lovers and assorted adventures on the road. Ottaviani packs a lot of material into 250+ pages, but it's so compulsively readable that the book flies by.

The quality of Ottaviani's artistic collaborators has varied wildly over the years, and while Leland Myrick had a difficult task in drawing a comic this long and without many obvious visual hooks, he didn't do the story any favors with his bland art. His thin line is devoid of liveliness, his character design is dull and his page layouts are unimaginative. The art simply does the bare minimum of not getting in the way of Ottaviani's prose. The austerity of Myrick's line is a spectacular mismatch for a personality as colorful as Feynman. The coloring only make things worse, graphically displaying the lack of imagination at work in terms of layouts and backgrounds. This is all very unfortunate, given that Ottaviani turned in the best script of his career and tied story threads together in an elegant fashion.

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