Friday, July 25, 2014

Case Study No. 1467: Jim Ottaviani

GC4K at TCAF 2011: Jim Ottaviani
On Sunday, May 8th, while attending the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I ran around to as many of my favorite kids comics creators as I could and asked them all the exact same questions. Keep in mind, conventions are crazy loud and crazy busy, so there is a lot of background noise. Let me know in the comments if you have trouble hearing anything and I'll translate for you.
Added: 3 years ago
From: GoodComicsforKids
Views: 86

[scene opens with a man speaking directly to the camera]
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] I'm here with Jim Ottaviani, and ... Are you ready for my fabulous questions, Fabulous Jim?
JIM OTTAVIANI: I am ready for fabulous questions.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Alright. Question number one is, how did you get started working in comics?
JIM OTTAVIANI: How did I get started working in comics. It's a long long story, but I think you've only got a very small SD card, so I'll make it really short. I, my original career, you know I'm currently working as a librarian, but my--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] All the best people are!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Secret origin is as a nuclear engineer.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Ooh!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And ... In the course of studying science, engineering, lots of physics because of the nuclear part, I started coming across all these names of physicists. There's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, there's Schroedinger's Equations, there's all this stuff, all these things, and you start to wonder, "Who are these people?"
[he smiles]
JIM OTTAVIANI: And reading biographies, reading histories of science, what I learned was they are interesting, fascinating in fact, people. And I really enjoyed learning about their lives, the periods in which they worked, and what surrounded the discoveries that made them so famous. At the same time, I'm a comics reader, and I love comics, and I'm noticing that, in science periodicals anyway, it's full of pictures anyway!
[he smiles]
JIM OTTAVIANI: So, it took awhile to actually do the math right, but I finally, y'know, added the proverbial two and two together and said, "Science, comics, maybe me, let's do it!"
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Let's do it!
JIM OTTAVIANI: So that's what I did!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Fantastic! Question number two is, did you read comics when you were a kid and, if so, who were your influences ... some of your influences when you were a child?
JIM OTTAVIANI: I certainly did read comics as a kid, I read many more newspaper strips than I read comic books.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Mm hmm.
JIM OTTAVIANI: My comic book reading really didn't start much until college, in terms of a serious comic reading ... but on the comic book side, "Amazing Spider-man," the original issues.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Yeah.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Uh, my company name is GT Labs, a sideways reference to a certain laboratory where a certain nerdy science geek got bitten by a certain spider. Anyway--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] That's awesome!
[she laughs]
JIM OTTAVIANI: Horribly geeky, uh, secret origin for my company name.
[she laughs]
JIM OTTAVIANI: Uh, but mostly it was, like I said, newspaper strips. So, reading "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Peanuts" and "Doonesbury" and all these other things. And one of my most vivid memories from my early years is being, laying on the floor of my cousin's house. Back when they printed "Prince Valiant," full page--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Yeah!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And sorta laying on my stomach, with the comics page in front'a me, and having my whole field of vision taken up by Prince Valiant. And, it's kinda magical!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] It is!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And I'm sure at some point, that has had an influence on me. Even thought nothing I've done is even remotely similar to Prince Valiant ...
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Excellent! Question number three--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] What are you currently working on?
JIM OTTAVIANI: What am I currently working on? I'm gonna give that two answers, because my corporate overlords at First Second require one of these answers to be--
[he reaches over and grabs a copy of the graphic novel "Feynman" from his table]
JIM OTTAVIANI: I am working on promoting ... the--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Da dah dah dah!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Upcoming Feynman book, which is out from First Second ... uh, later this year. But actually physically working on right now, I am working on a script about Alan Turing.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Ooh!
JIM OTTAVIANI: The computer scientist and mathematician, and famed ... now that it's de-classified, World War Two code breaker. I'm working on a shorter story about DC's Metro. And we're in the process of wrapping up a book about Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall, and Birute Galdikas. The primate researchers.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Right ... Fantastic!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Next question, what graphic--
[he holds up four fingers]
JIM OTTAVIANI: This would be four!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] This would be four, thank you! Do that again.
[he holds up four fingers again]
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Four! What graphic novel or comics titles have you read in the last year that you think are fantastic for kids or for teens?
[he smiles and crosses his arms]
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] I know, this is a hard one!
JIM OTTAVIANI: You know why this is hard? Because I got, because I used to get that question every two-three months, enough that I really wanted to have good answers. And so, what I've started to do is keep a spreadsheet, heaven help me, of everything I read--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Uh huh!
JIM OTTAVIANI: So ... the downside of that is, once it's on the spreadsheet, I tend to forget about it. And usually, people are asking me interview questions via email or via the phone--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Oh, so you just look!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And then I just, like, pop up the Excel and it's like, "This is the past five weeks that I've really really liked!"
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] And then there's me!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And then there's you, doing it live ... and I'm stuck!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Aw, that's alright.
JIM OTTAVIANI: So, great. Great for kids. Can I cheat?
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Yes!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Oh, that's true, you actually won't know if it's been in the last five months! Or five weeks, or whatever it was that you--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] This is true!
JIM OTTAVIANI: You said, what did you say?
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] I actually said a year, but--
JIM OTTAVIANI: Last year ... So I think, one of my favorites in recent memory is Gene Yang's "Prime Baby."
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Hilarious!
JIM OTTAVIANI: I just re-read, uh, "American Born Chinese." Also by Gene Yang ... Uh, I've been dipping back into "Bone."
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Excellent!
JIM OTTAVIANI: For awhile ... Uh, I'm really looking forward to reading--
[he reaches behind him and grabs another graphic novel]
JIM OTTAVIANI: "Anya's Ghost" by Vera Brosgol.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Oh, it's goood! Yes!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And I think that's a great kids' book ... Uh, Hope Larson's "Mercury" was terrific.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Mm hmm.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Raina Telgemeier's ...
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] "Smile" ...
JIM OTTAVIANI: Telgemeier's "Smile" ... Uh, I'm looking forward to Dave Roman's "Astronaut Academy."
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Me too.
JIM OTTAVIANI: But I haven't seen that yet.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] It's pretty!
JIM OTTAVIANI: I think Dave has copies upstairs.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] He's upstairs.
JIM OTTAVIANI: And I haven't gotten upstairs yet.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Yeah.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Got to have breakfast with him, but didn't get to see his book!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Aw!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Bad luck for me!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Yes.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Um, is that enough? That--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] That's good! That's, yeah. That's a nice pool of books, thank you!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Alright, here's another librarian question!
[he holds up five fingers and mouths "Five!"]
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] If you were stuck on a desert island, what book would you bring? It doesn't have to be a comic, it can be prose, it can be illustrations. What book would you bring to keep you company until you're rescued?
JIM OTTAVIANI: [pause] How long until I'm rescued?
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Um, let's say a week.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Oh, just a week?
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Just a week.
JIM OTTAVIANI: Aw man, that's--
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Just the one book, but, y'know, you've got enough time to get it re-read! Or read it for the first time ...
JIM OTTAVIANI: It should probably be something that I should read for the first time, and my wife has been pushing Patrick Rothfuss' "Name of the Wind" on me.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Ooh!
JIM OTTAVIANI: And it, it's really hefty, so that's probably about a week's worth of reading ... I've got the John Adams biography by David McCullough that I haven't read. I'm about eighty pages into the Mark Twain autobiography. Uh, I could probably stand to read "Moby Dick" again. I'm, I'm one of these freaks who actually likes "Moby Dick," and has read it at least one and a half times.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] There are a handful of you, yes.
[she laughs]
JIM OTTAVIANI: Um, so ... but I didn't actually, I didn't pick one for you. What should I say? It should probably be the new book, so I'll go with Patrick Rothfuss' "The Name of the Wind," because I have not read it and my wife really wants me to read it.
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] And you've got something to look forward to.
JIM OTTAVIANI: That's right!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Fantastic! That was my five questions!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Thank you for the five!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Thank you very much! You're, um, you've been a delight to talk to. I really appreciate it. I'm gonna do a quick pan of your table--
[she takes her handheld camera and moves it across the several books that he has displayed at his table]
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Because you've written so many fabulous non-fiction titles for kids, for teens, for adults ... I'm halfway through the Feynman book right now.
JIM OTTAVIANI: [from off camera] Yup!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] Um, and I'm loving it! Which, which is wonderful, and as you know ... uh, "Wire Mothers" was a surprise hit with me. I loved it very much!
[she points the camera back at him]
JIM OTTAVIANI: That's great!
EVA VIOLIN: [from off camera] And thank you so much, Jim. I appreciate talking with you!
JIM OTTAVIANI: Thank you, and you're quite welcome!



On Sunday, May 8th, while attending the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, I ran around to as many of my favorite kids comics creators as I could and asked them all the exact same questions. Keep in mind, conventions are crazy loud and crazy busy, so there is a lot of background noise. Let me know in the comments if you have trouble hearing anything and I'll translate for you.

I like that Jim Ottaviani has a secret origin. I like that Jim Ottaviani is enthusiastic about being a librarian. I like that Jim Ottaviani uses the graphic novel format to write amazingly readable non-fiction for kids, teens, and adults (and as someone who doesn't naturally gravitate to non-fiction, that's saying something). I like that Jim Ottaviani works with some amazing artists, including Leland Myrick, Zander and Kevin Cannon, Dylan Meconis, and Janine Johnston. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like Jim Ottaviani.



Jim Ottaviani is the author of several comic books about the history of science. His best-known work, Two-Fisted Science: Stories About Scientists, features biographical stories about Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, and several stories about physicist Richard Feynman. He is also a librarian and has worked as a nuclear engineer.

Ottaviani has a background in science, earning a B.S. at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1986, followed by a master's degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Michigan in 1987. He worked for several years retrofitting and fixing nuclear power plants. Intrigued by the research component of his job, Ottaviani began taking library science courses at Drexel University, and in 1990 he enrolled in the Library and Information Science program at the University of Michigan. He earned his M.S. in information and library studies from Michigan in 1992. He spent several years working as a reference librarian at Michigan's Media Union Library. He now works at the University of Michigan Library as coordinator of Deep Blue, the university's institutional repository.

Ottaviani's interest in writing science-related comics was inspired by Richard Rhodes's book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In discussing the book with comic book artist Steve Lieber, the two decided to write and illustrate a famous meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg during World War II. That projected expanded to include other stories from the history of science to become the graphic novel Two-Fisted Science, including stories written by Ottaviani and illustrated by a variety of artists.

Since the publication of Two-Fisted Science, Ottaviani has gone on to write several other comic books about scientists, including Dignifying Science (about women scientists), Fallout (about the creation of the atomic bomb), Suspended in Language (about physicist Niels Bohr) and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards (about nineteenth century paleontologists). These works are all self-published by Ottaviani's own company, G. T. Labs. The company's name is an homage to General Techtronics Labs, the fictional company where comic book character Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider that led to his becoming Spider-Man.

Two of Ottaviani's most recent works Levitation and Wire Mothers (published July 2007) are the beginning of a planned series on "the science of the unscientific." Levitation the physical and psychological aspects of stage magic. Wire Mothers is tells the story of psychologist Harry Harlow's work in the 1950s on importance of love and affection among primates, in contravention of then-prevailing theories put forward by the Behaviorist school of thought.

In addition to his self-published work, Ottaviani has worked on two short comic books about orangutans, one of which was published by the Orangutan Foundation International. He also has two forthcoming comics in the works to be published by First Second Books, one on physicist Richard Feynman and another on three primatologists: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas.

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