Jim Ottaviani: an italoamerican science comic writer

Those who follow our site know that our association is always interested in how comics can interact with other cultural worlds, as history, or science.

Jim Ottaviani, writer of some of the most interesting biographies of modern scientists, produced by his own publishing house, has issued us this interview.

I read your Wikipedia biography. Why, and how, a former golf caddie and nuclear engineer becomes a librarian and a science biography writer?
Well, the path from caddy to engineer was straightforward: I worked at a golf club to pay for college, and I think my getting to know a lot of members helped me get a scholarship that also helped pay for school. To get from nuclear engineer to writer, with librarian along the way, I simply had to become interested in the lives of people whose equations I was learning. And I did!

Would you be interested in writing science related books and biographies even if they were’t drawn by so good artists?
Probably not. If I knew readers would have to experience the books as drawn by me, for instance, I’d stick with prose since I’m not a good enough (much less fast enough) artist.

Illustrations and drawings give much more “concreteness” to your biographies. Do you somehow interfere with graphical aspects of the work or you let your co-authors completely free?
I do give clear and detailed directions to the artists, but they’re always free to draw or stage a scene differently if they have a better idea. As long as the story gets told well, I defer to the artist’s vision.

Do you think that a “static” medium like comics could help worldwide to raise the interest for scientific culture and improve it? Do you think that younger people could be attracted to science and culture by your works (and similar ones)?
I certainly hope so. There are advantages to static media, the main one being it presents a small technological barrier (paper and ink is almost always going to work, at least during daylight hours!) and the ability for readers to control the pace of their own journey through a story.

In Italy, there is a growing interest in biographies of our important artists and scientist. A small Publishing House (Kleiner Flug) is now working on the biographies of some famous Italian people (mostly artists, but also some scientist, one for all, Galileo). But there is some part of fiction. Are your works completely documented, and didactic, or do you have sometimes to fill in with some fantasy? Do you think it is important to use a certain quantity of fiction to amalgamate, or to make things more suitable for modern readers?
There are fictionalized elements in my books; there have to be given the constraints of book length, reader attention, and interest. A simple example is that I (and others who do similar work) will often create composite characters, and have, let’s say, one or two people represent a scientist’s laboratory assistants rather than showing all the dozens who worked on a series of experiments. It’s unfair to the dozens, of course, but there’s no way to keep things comprehensible and include every person who might have made a contribution, or said an interesting thing.

Most scientists have quite interesting biographies, or, at least, some parts of their lives are strange or can be told as a novel. I am thinking about Einstein, Newton, the Bernoulli Family. How and why do you choose the persons you write about? Do you have fixed criteria?
No fixed criteria. It’s mostly about who interests me most at a given time. There are many people worthy of books about them, but sometimes I’m not the best person to write that book either because I wouldn’t do a good job, or I can’t find the right angle from which to tell their story.

How you develop your work, which are your main sources? Do you also collaborate with some expert in scientist’s biographies? For example in Italy, often, in the universities where there is a faculty of Physics or Maths, there is also some expert about History of these disciplines, and mostly about the people who worked or lived in that faculty. It is the same in the US? And did this help you? What helped you in your research and writing?
I do a lot of reading, and where possible, talk to experts (or even some of the main characters themselves). There are indeed people like you describe in the U.S., but I’ve never collaborated with a professional historian, though. That would be interesting to do someday!

Unfortunately, not all you books have been translated in Italian (some of them have been just translated for the series I cited before). I also read about your italian origin (we are in the same region of Sassoferrato, a little more southward). Never thought about Italian Scientists? I imagine some of them, like Galileo Galilei, or Enrico Fermi, are really famous even in the US…
I agree about both Galileo and Fermi. There are already books about Galileo Galilei, including one in the series from Le Scienze we’re talking about. As for Fermi, I’d like to do a book about him. I’ve read a few volumes myself, and he’d be great for comics. (He does appear in my book Fallout.)

In an interview published in Italy I read some days ago, you said that you began writing these biographies because you “met” these people in the books you were studying and cannot find a “drawn biography”. Why do you think that it is not enough to have a “usual” biography, written, with photos and, eventually, some formula? Don’t you think that, if you have two aspects you have to work on, that is the “story” and the “graphics” you have to be, let’s say, twice as careful to give a “good photo” of the scientist you are talking about? Are you always trying to be precise in describing scientific, historical and graphical sides of the personalities you talk about?
Many people find comics more accessible and easier to approach (and read) than long, non-fiction prose works. For example, I own probably a dozen books about Niels Bohr, some with lots of equations, some that are hundreds of pages long. I like that kind of book myself, but not everybody does! So, my books are intended to reach an audience that would never dream of picking up a 500 page, equation-filled book on a scientist. I do try give an accurate “photo” of every character. As we talked about above, you have to leave things out in the comic book telling of a story, but even all those long books I like leave things out…that’s why I have so many of them: to get a more complete picture.

I also try to connect people, science and comics with my (not professional) reviews of scientific comics, and in a small web-radio, with some pills of scientific profanation. Can you explain why it should be so important to know science and scientists in your opinion? And do you think that these comics can help in this? And how?
To quote Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: Science is the most reliable guide for civilization, for life, for success in the world. I really believe that’s true. Mostly, anyway; there are things where science doesn’t always help (dealing with emotional issues, especially tragedies), but even in those situations it can provide a guide and a good way to approach difficult things. And the world is full of difficult things.

In Italy (but as far as I can see even in the US) there are some anti-scientific movements. Perhaps the most famous nowadays is the anti-vaxxer, but even about climate change, and it looks like this effect is widening (earthquake predictions, lunar landing, etc). Comics can surely help: do you think that it is necessary even to write and draw technical and scientific comics, or fiction stories based on real sciences, or scientists’ biographies are enough?
It’s not enough, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. Anything that helps people better appreciate what science can tell us about the world we live in helps us to live better.

On a comics technical level: how do you begin writing comics? Do you have some writer you have been inspired by? Do you base your writing on a personal style or have some models, both as a biographer and a scriptwriter?
I took inspiration from many writers of comics and fiction and non-fiction. Far too many to list, even! I don’t know whether I have a personal style that shines through my work, but here again there are no specific people I can list as models. I read and enjoy too many authors, I suppose!

If you want to read this interview in our italian translation, you can find it here!

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