• Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick
  • First Second
  • 272 pp.

A penetrating and insightful graphic biography on physicist Richard Feynman.

Reviewed by Bill Baker

One of my personal criteria for great autobiography shares a kinship with my feelings on what marks someone as a truly good compatriot: whenever your time ends with either page or person, if it seems that you’ve enjoyed far too short a span of time together, either you’ve found yourself an exceptional read or — more importantly — a real friend.

I mention the preceding only to put into perspective what Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick have accomplished with Feynman, their outstanding original graphic biography (or OGB, one of the nonfiction kissin’ cousins of the OGN, or original graphic novel). Together they’ve so effortlessly, elegantly and engagingly rendered the life story of one of the foremost thinkers of the 20th century that you’ll fervently wish for more time with both book and its subject long before you’ve reached Feynman’s closing pages.

A precocious child whose parents indulged his erstwhile youthful investigations into how things great and small work, Richard Feynman was marked from an early age as a youngster possessed of an exceptional intellect combined with a keen, ever-questing curiosity. These same qualities led to his attending and eventually teaching at the best universities in the land.

Beyond being exceptionally gifted, over the course of his lifetime Feynman was involved in some of the most momentous projects of his generations, from working on the creation of the first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project, to serving on the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Additionally, he experienced not one or two extraordinary moments, but a lifelong string of them, from presenting his findings as a young graduate student to an intimate audience of some of the greatest physicists of his age, including Albert Einstein, to sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with two of his colleagues. And no one can forget his impromptu and exceptionally impolitic demonstration — using only a pitcher of ice water, a glass and one of the now-infamous O-rings — of the root cause of the Challenger disaster during a televised press conference, an act that brought him much public notice.

He dated, loved and married a number of women, and enjoyed a rich and varied social life before he eventually died of cancer. During his lifetime, Feynman championed the right of women to become scientists, starting with his own sister, long before it became fashionable. And he learned, among many other seemingly useless things, how to crack safes and drum, and he did almost all for the sheer joy of discovery and fun of it. In fact, that last idea — doing something for the pure enjoyment of doing — is what led to many, if not all, of Feynman’s greatest and most original work.

Still, Feynman wasn’t without his faults, as he readily admits in his own books. His most obvious flaw was an almost total disregard for some of modern society’s dictates concerning politeness, especially when it concerned those who interrupted his work at an inopportune moment. This and many other rudenesses and errors in social judgment are present in these pages, accompanied by those small but telling tidbits of odd personal information that further define the man.

As might be imagined, pulling together the rich and varied strands of a life as complex and convoluted as Feynman’s would be a daunting task, but both creators have proven themselves ready for the task. Ottaviani’s pitch-perfect script grants each character not only an individual and recognizable voice, but also real personality and sense of depth. His pacing is panther smooth, quickening and slowing without hitch as required. And the transitions between the various epochs and stations of the late genius’s life help propel the narrative forward, rather than act as an informational speed bump. While past efforts in this particular genre have garnered Ottaviani much praise and some attention for its excellence in conception and execution, Feynman exceeds even his past benchmarks.

Leland Myrick is the perfect foil for his partner’s script, and his depictions instill a vital life into the eccentric genius and his many adventures. Myrick’s fluid line dances across the page, skittering and looping almost crazily to outline and delineate his figures, before it transforms into something far more unyielding and rigid, outlining objects and other aspects of the environment. This contrast not only enhances his ability to seemingly capture characters in motion upon the page, but further lends a sense of the organic to his characters, as their soft lines caress or drape themselves across the hard and fast surfaces and edges surrounding them. As an artist, Myrick has an uncanny ability to capture the dance of emotions on his characters’s faces. Even better, his storytelling is impeccable, and his choice of moments to illustrate is just about perfect, if not already there.

Ultimately, Feynman is penetrating and insightful biography done as comics. It’s also a joy to look through and one of the most just-plain-fun-to-read books published this year, in any category. And yet, it works as a serious piece of nonfiction, one that will reward deep and repeated readings. This book deserves a place in every library, comics-centric or otherwise. It demands to be studied not only for the many lessons it offers concerning the crafting of fine comics, but also, even more, for those hard-won lessons it offers on how to lead a life as extraordinary and as sublime as that of Richard Feynman.

A veteran entertainment journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is a columnist for The Morton Report and his graphic novel reviews for ForeWord magazine can be found at ForeWord Reviews. He’s also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work by visiting Bill Baker Presents.

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