Written by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Leland Myrick
272 pages, color
Published by First Second Books
I’ll admit right off the bat that I had no idea who Richard Feynman was a month ago. Feynman tells the story of the Nobel Prize winning physicist who not only worked on the Manhattan Project but had a lot to do with quantum electrodynamics and was kind of a big deal. This hardly sells the idea of reading a biography of the man, though. More importantly, Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s book tells the story of an eccentric genius who was one of the odder people you’d meet, and in a good way. Reading Feynman did what few other books about scientists have done for me; it made me think, "I wish I’d met this guy."
From the moment we meet Feynman here, you can tell he’s a very different kind of guy. Ottaviani opens the book with a lecture Feynman is giving to college students, and as he throws away the idea that all physics work similarly (and that the theory is due to most physicists having a limited amount of imagination), he’s swinging a bowling ball back and forth across the stage, narrowly avoiding being hit. Showy? At a glance, yes. But as you start reading more and more of Feynman, you rapidly realize that it’s not a show. This is how the man’s brain operates; swinging a bowling ball while calling your peers unimaginative is par for the course for Feynman, and that’s part of what makes him such an entertaining subject to read about.
Feynman’s two autobiographies were reportedly told slightly out of order, and Ottaviani replicates that feel in his book about the man. While it primarily moves from childhood to near the end of his life, Ottaviani skips around on occasion, telling the story in an almost conversational manner. Scenes are short and jump to somewhere else with no warning, often in the middle of a page. It took me a little bit of time to get used to this less-structured storytelling, but it was around a quarter of the way through the book it suddenly clicked that Ottaviani was writing Feynman in the same manner that Feynman’s own brain worked, leaping from topic to topic with no warning.
Ottaviani tells not only of Feynman’s great discoveries and moments in life—working on the atomic bomb, solving the mystery behind the Challenger space shuttle disaster, revolutionizing physics—but of his more quirky moments. Sure, some of them cast him merely as a goofball, like how Feynman figured out a way to crack 1940s safes while working on the atomic bomb, until finally the military ordered that if Feynman visited your office, you had to change the combination of your safe. But this is also a book which brings up how Feynman would maneuver himself into long "working" vacations that involved hanging out on the beach, or the fact that he was a major horndog. It’s not digging up any dirt, since Feynman himself included these moments in his autobiographies. But more importantly, Ottaviani by choosing to include them (since obviously much would have to be left out) helps present a more well-rounded portrait of this strange man, and in doing so helps explain to us why he’s such a fascinating person as not only a scientist but as an individual.
Myrick’s art is light and fun, similar to Feynman himself. It’s a simple style, a squiggle of lines to create an entire person. With its bright colors that pop off the page, there’s a certain sense of joy that radiates from the graphic novel. In later parts of the book, Myrick pulls off some nice tricks with form too, like creating people out of a series of 1s and 0s, or illustrating a great deal of Feynman’s diagrams. The one thing I found a little frustrating at times is that Myrick has a limited number of faces that he draws; there are far too many times where I found myself looking for hair style or color to tell characters apart. Fortunately, then I’d turn the page and he’d have little autumn leaves wafting down in the middle of a scene, and I’d be enchanted by the art all over again.
Feynman is a fun book, that rare sort of biography where even if you have no interest in the subject, it will ultimately draw you in through sheer fun. For a person that I’d never heard of before, I’m totally taken by Feynman thanks to Ottaviani and Myrick. Ottaviani’s always been someone who keep an eye on with his books on scientists, and this is another reminder of how he’s managed to carve a name for himself in the comics industry. Definitely check it out.