Superman, Spiderman, Feynman, Councilman

Graphic novels for scientific biographies ... or city council reports

[Editor's note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks, like this one, also appear on The Chronicle's website.]

Jim Ottaviani

Jim Ottaviani – University of Michigan librarian and graphic novel author. His latest book is "Feynman," a biography of physicist Richard Feynman.

For  a graphic novel with a title like “Feynman,” my smart-aleck reflex is to pronounce the word silently to myself with deliberately wayward stress – so the final vowel gets its full flavor, instead of an unstressed schwa.

That way, it patterns with Superman, Spiderman, Aquaman, Ironman, Batman and other comic book heros. And that allows me to wonder what special powers this Feynman might have, how he got those powers, what his home planet was …

Of course, the Feynman in Jim Ottaviani’s recently published graphic novel is actually not a comic book hero. It’s Richard Feynman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on quantum physics. (So Feynman’s home planet was Earth, you see.)

Ottaviani explained during his teeter totter ride a couple of weeks ago that he’d not intended the title of his most recent graphic novel to be a word play. It was the publisher who had chosen the title, when Ottaviani had “punted” on that task.

Soon after talking with me on the totter, Ottaviani left town for a book tour. He’ll be back in Ann Arbor in a couple of weeks when he gives a talk on “Feynman” in the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Library Gallery, on Oct. 13, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.

To prepare for his talk, you can buy “Feynman” at Nicola’s Books.

To me, the most interesting part of my conversation with Ottaviani involved the graphic novel as a mechanism for telling a story – in the case of “Feynman,” it’s a physicist’s biography. There’s nothing particularly novel about that – Ottaviani has covered scientific subject matter before in comic book form. His previous work includes a number of books that contain episodes from the lives of Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Marie Curie, among others.

But that led me to contemplate a different idea. What if one of the staples of Chronicle coverage, a government meeting report, were presented in the form of a graphic novel?

Ottaviani’s reaction to the idea: “Do that, please, is all I can say.” At least the title of that comic book (with apologies to Sabra Briere, Margie Teall, Sandi Smith and Marcia Higgins) would be straightforward: “Councilman.”

Though I can’t draw, I did take a shot at creating two panels of “Councilman.”

Ann Arbor city council comic

(Image links to higher resolution file) Councilmembers were in the middle of a routine vote ...

Ann Arbor city council comic

... when suddenly a strange electricity filled the chambers. Had the city's CFO, Tom Crawford, been rubbing a balloon on his head again? It seemed to be more intense than that ...

The images in those panels are constrained by the limits of my “artistic” ability as expressed with software made by Adobe. That’s not how Ottaviani works, of course. He describes each panel in detail, and that description is eventually handed off to the illustrator, who actually draws what Ottaviani has visualized. The illustrator for “Feynman” was Leland Myrick.

How big a project would a city-council-meeting-as-graphic-novel be? The last city council report published in The Chronicle came in around 13,000 words. A rule of thumb for comic book panels, Ottaviani told me, is that each panel should have about 35 words of dialogue. That would work out to 370 panels – if every word in the report were included as dialogue. But clearly, not every word would need to be included as dialogue. Much of the meaning could be conveyed through the illustrations.

In thinking about how to make a comic book out of a city council meeting, I paused to reflect on how The Chronicle approaches meeting coverage. While we include a considerable amount of descriptive detail about the meetings, as well as background to orient the reader, there’s also a lot of material that gets pared away.

Some of the material that gets pared away might be arguably be less important than material we include. For example, why include a photo of a helium balloon trapped against the ceiling of the city council chambers (with a joke caption), but not a description of a liquor license transfer? After riding the totter with Ottaviani, I was rummaging around the Internet for some information about Feynman, and found a succinct answer to that question. It’s in Richard Feynman’s lecture, delivered on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize. From his introductory remarks:

I shall include details of anecdotes which are of no value either scientifically, nor for understanding the development of ideas. They are included only to make the lecture more entertaining.

Included in Feynman’s introductory remarks is the expression of another basic tenet of Chronicle reporting – we’re committed to telling readers what we did to “get to do the work.” So if we had to email or call a source after the meeting, in order to pin down a fact, we’ll tell readers that up front. We think our reports are a plenty dignified way to tell readers exactly what we did. If we didn’t attend a meeting, we won’t report on it as if we did. In Feynman’s Nobel lecture, he puts it this way:

We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks … So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work … So, what I would like to tell you about today are the sequence of events, really the sequence of ideas, which occurred, and by which I finally came out the other end with an unsolved problem for which I ultimately received a prize.

Jim Ottaviani’s complete Talk is worth a read. If you’d prefer to see him talk live, in person, he’ll be talking about “Feynman” at the University of Michigan’s Hatcher Library Gallery, on Oct. 13, 2011 at 5:30 p.m.


  1. September 27, 2011 at 4:44 pm | permalink

    This is the first time I’ve seen the linguistic term “schwa” in the popular media. Congrats to the Chronicle for maintaining high standards!

  2. By John Floyd
    September 27, 2011 at 10:47 pm | permalink

    This graphic novel is not novel? Shesh, Dave, you can do – and have done – better than that.

    @1 Dave Cahill

    If an article includes the term, “Schwa”, the medium that it is in, is not popular.

    My best to the Mrs.

  3. By Rod Johnson
    September 29, 2011 at 10:53 am | permalink

    Schwas are not at all obscure. Both my kids learned about them in elementary school. Google it if you doubt me. When I start seeing “morphophonemics,” “suppletion,” “extraposition,” or “acrolect” in the popular media, I’ll sit up and take notice. (Yes, I am a linguist.)

  4. By John Floyd
    September 30, 2011 at 4:42 pm | permalink

    @ 3, Rod Johnson

    And no doubt you are a cunning linguist, at that.

    Guess it’s time for me to return to elementary school.

  5. By Rod Johnson
    September 30, 2011 at 10:00 pm | permalink

    Gosh, never heard that one before.

  6. By cosmonıcan
    October 1, 2011 at 11:08 am | permalink

    re #’s 4&5: I presume John is regressing to his “Guess What? CHICKEN BUTT!” days.

    If you were ever a 12 year old around here you probably know what I mean.