The Good Stuff: Feynman by Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick

Feynman is a graphic biography of the world-renowned physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick, with colors Hilary Sycamore. It was released by :01 (First Second), an imprint of Holtzbrinck devoted to publishing comics of all sorts — their catalog is full of strange and interesting graphic novels, memoirs, and biographies, like this one. (You can check out an excerpt from this book right here on Tor.com.)

The comic covers his life in back-and-forth chunks from his childhood to his death, bouncing from year to year to cover his major accomplishments in science; the people in his life; his attitude toward himself, teaching and his work; his relationships; his awards, and just — Feynman, from every angle.

It’s a thoroughly well-researched book; the recommended reading list at the end is around 30 books & films long, including work about Feynman, by him, about his friends, by his friends, et cetera. There are frequent quotes from Feynman himself scattered through the book from some of these texts, usually the physics bits.

Also, don’t worry if you don’t know a damn thing about physics or math or any of that — you’ll be fine reading this; even the parts explaining quantum electrodynamics make sense, thanks to the creative and simple explanations Feynman gives for his theories.

The book does quite a bit of work with a subject that seems straightforward: a biography in pictures and anecdotes. Like all good biographies, it’s deeply connected to time and place as well as the characters — real folks or not, in a book they’re all characters — and provides in broad strokes the background of the story of Feynman’s life and development, while focusing on specific details in the story. Ottaviani walks the reader through Feynman’s time working with Oppenheimer and the others on the atomic bomb in World War II and the eventual results of their experiments, his winning of the Nobel Prize, the Challenger explosion and investigation, and all manner of other historically significant occasions. But the book never loses sight of the personal in those public, widely remembered moments.

There’s also a thread of social awareness and criticism inherent to Feynman’s life and work. For example, he talks a great deal about his sister, who had the same scientific inclinations as him but faced much greater pressures, socially and culturally, because of her gender. One of the most moving scenes in the book for me is when he’s at home washing dishes with his parents, and his mother is talking. She says that women’s brains are “physiologically incapable of doing science,” and says that his sister can’t possible be an astronomer because of that. The plate his holding cracks in his grip. He doesn’t argue with his mother, but some time down the road, when his parents are still discouraging her from science, he leaves her a book on astronomy. He supports her, because despite the societal pressures of the time, he knew she deserved to be able to do science as much as he did. This is juxtaposed against his cheerful one-upmanship of her when she begins her scientific career, something he relates with humor and perhaps a little embarrassment.

There’s also quite a bit on his appreciation for, well, women’s bodies — the bits where he’s doing his work in a topless bar and is the only one who will testify in court that there’s nothing wrong with the place are pretty hilarious — and his relationships with women throughout his life; some bad, some cringe-inducing, and some good. He’s not a perfect man, and I like that the book doesn’t try to make him seem like one. Occasionally he’s rude, and he has difficulty with people, and he’s not always the most considerate guy in the world — but he’s human, and it’s good to have that alongside his brilliance and his capability.

Feynman was a joy to read; a perfectly balanced mix of science, personal life and reflection that captures what made Richard Feynman so interesting and important, from his safe-cracking habits to his genius to the natural nerves he got the first time he had to give a paper in front of someone like Einstein. The art is fun and playful, but does exactly what it needs to do narratively. Each panel is laid out well and flows into the next. There are no confusing page layouts and never a point in which I had to try and figure out what the artist was doing. Something about the near cartoonish style of it just fits so well with the underlying humor of the story — it’s a perfect match.

I would recommend Ottaviani & Myrick’s Feynman to anyone interested in QED, or physics, or comics, or simply Feynman himself. It was an engrossing, entertaining and occasionally challenging read, and I’m deeply glad that there are creators doing work like this and publishers buying it.

(Oh, and the documentary No Ordinary Genius is a good watch, too — it’s mentioned in the recommended reading, and is absolutely worth giving a peek after reading this to see the man in action. It’ll surprise you how accurate the portrayal in this comic is; his manner of speech, his postures, his movements, it’s all there.)


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

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