A Brief History of "Hawking": The latest science graphic novel by Ann Arbor's Jim Ottaviani profiles the legendary theoretical physicist


Jim Ottaviani and his book Hawking

The subject of the book was a scientist who was also a New York Times bestselling author and affiliated with a renowned university. And the writer of this book ... was also a scientist, a New York Times bestselling author, and affiliated with a renowned university. It's only fitting that Jim Ottaviani -- preeminent writer of science comics, former nuclear engineer, and current librarian at the University of Michigan -- wrote a book about Stephen Hawking, the preeminent theoretical physicist and cosmologist.

Illustrated by Leland MyrickHawking traces the legendary scientist's life, from his groundbreaking work in theoretical physics to his best-selling book A Brief History of Time to his advocacy for rights for people with disabilities. 

To familiarize themselves with the source material, Ottaviani and Myrick combed through pages and pages of notes and references, dozens of books, and numerous print, audio, and video interviews. “We also spent a fair amount of time at Cambridge,” Ottaviani adds. “We visited Hawking’s offices, his environment … talked to his friends and coworkers” to get the best possible picture of the late scientist.

Ottaviani has employed this style of deep research for his prior books, too, including Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb, Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, and the bestselling Feynman about the life of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, which was also illustrate by Myrick. Ottaviani's next book, Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, is scheduled to come out in February 2020 and it has his reteaming with illustrator Maris Wick, with whom he did Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birut Galdikas in 2013.

While Ottaviani's genre of choice is enjoying some popularity now, particularly with First Second's Science Comics series, which published Hawking, the Ann Arbor author got his start in the mid-'90s “when there wasn’t much by way of science in comics," he says. "I started as a self-publisher and then slowly publishing world started to expand in what it considered viable genres to explore via comics.” Since 2009, Ottaviani has worked with most of the “big five” publishers in New York. 

A page from Ottaviani and Myrick's Hawking

Given the subjects of Ottaviani’s work, he strives to make it as accessible to as many readers as possible is one of the more important tasks when dealing with subject matter than many might not be familiar with. Ottaviani says that his first job is to make the material comprehensible to himself.

“I’m not an expert in black hole psychics so I have to make sure I can present it in an understandable way," he says. "After that, the editor will make sure he or she understands it. … The artist then is the final judge because he needs to grasp what is happening so that he can draw it in a way that is clear, accurate, and digitally interesting.”

Further, the medium of graphic novels/comics is inherently accessible to many people, Ottaviani says. “People, in general, are drawn to images. When reading a comic, it’s hard to not take in the whole page right away. It’s the job of the writer and the artist to create these compelling visuals that make you want to focus on the images and the words to find out what all is in there. From there, I’ve found that it’s often hard to stop reading because you get that quick hit of satisfaction from the image, which draws people along as they move from panel to panel, page to page. It’s often harder to draw readers in, especially with a weightier topic, when they are faced with thick books full of heavy prose.”

Hawking is a book that can be enjoyed by everyone, but Ottaviani hopes that people who have heard of the University of Cambridge scientist through pop culture references but aren’t sure why he became so well-known will find meaningful information in his work.

“Our book answers that question" about Hawking, Ottaviani says, "and fills out his character and relevance beyond what you would know about him from a guest appearance on [The Simpsons or The Big Bang Theory] or a Wikipedia page.”

Patti F. Smith is a special education teacher and writer who lives in Ann Arbor with her husband.

Jim Ottaviani appears at Literati on Tuesday, July 2 at 7 pm to discuss "Hawking." Visit his website, gt-labs.com, for more info and future appearances.