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Graphic Novel Review: Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

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And now for something completely different. I was intrigued and delighted when I stumbled across this rather quirky project from First Second Books the other day. It’s a fresh new biography of the famous Feynman: bongo-playing, girl-chasing, and Nobel-winning physics god of generations of undergrads, as much for his barroom stories as for the ubiquitous diagrams that bear his name.

This isn’t the first Feynman bio, and it likely won’t be the last. James Gleick’s Genius set the gold standard, cutting through legend upon legend – Feynman picking locks in Los Alamos; Feynman spending a summer sabbatical learning molecular biology and immediately making a discovery about DNA; Feynman the Nobelist rubbing elbows with royalty and flubbing the etiquette – and getting at the real character-forming events in-between.

More recently, physicist and author Lawrence Kraus, feeling there was too little said about Richard Feynman’s significant work in fundamental physics, focused on tracing the development of the scientist’s major professional work in The Quantum Man. Before his death, the enormously popular Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? collected many of Feynman’s essays, lectures, and well-practiced anecdotes (as told to his friend Ralph Leighton); a few of these greatest hits plus many new ones were later published posthumously in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. And there are many, many more.

As far as I know, however, Ottaviani and Myrick’s simply-titled new book is the very first one to chronicle the man’s life graphically. And it’s gorgeous. Just look at the brilliant cover.

The clean illustrative style seems a perfect fit for Feynman’s light-hearted approach to life, while still being detailed enough to convey subtle facial expressions and body language. Throughout, the man on the page is recognizably, uniquely Feynman, the graphical and textual elements complement each other so beautifully it is like watching the man on video.

But credit also must be given to Ottaviani for weaving scores of otherwise unrelated stories into a portrait of a truly original life. The major source materials for this book are the famous Surely You’re Joking and its follow-up, but these are self-contained recollections, lectures, and musings. Drawing out and tying together the biographical bits and pieces of these much longer stories, and capturing the flavour of each one while quoting only a tiny bit of it requires an inspired touch. Making full use of the visual medium, Ottaviani and Myrick manage to give us all the punchlines in a fraction of the space, meanwhile creating a sense of continuity that is absent in the original, non-chronological story collections on which they draw.

I really like this book. It fills a gap in the Feynman corpus that I didn’t realize was there. It’s not that we need a briefer or more readable version of Feynman and Leighton’s eminently successful books. With Feynman we have something wholly new, a different perspective and focus make this a worthwhile read even for those of us who’ve heard these stories before. That the first edition of what is essentially a graphic novel is in a beautiful hard cover form was another unexpected bonus to me, as this item has a place of honour on my shelf.

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About J.J.S. Boyce