Monday, May 13, 2013

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
St. Martin's Press, 2011
Richard Feynman was one of the best scientific minds of the twentieth century. He served on the Manhattan Project, won a Nobel prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, taught generations of physicists, played a key role on the Challenger disaster committee, and was an internationally renowned popularizer of the sciences. He wrote a significant amount about his work and his life, he's been the subject of dozens of biographies, and his teachings have been in print for decades. The graphic novel biography Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, new in softcover from St. Martin's Press, is thus exceptionally well-researched, if just a little bit dull.

It's not bad, though. Told from Feynman's perspective, it is a fairly comprehensive outline of his life and career, and he had one-hell-of-a both. Far from dull himself, Feynman was notorious for his energetic and accessible teachings of esoteric concepts, and his many quirks from safe-cracking at top-secret military facilities to doing advanced physics at strip clubs. Here you get a very good sense of Feynman as a person, and the impact he had on his field. The novel stumbles and falls, however, when it attempts to explain the work for which he was most famous. It doesn't help that quantum mechanics is notoriously difficult to explain (even to most scientists) and is really, really weird. Feynman himself points out this difficulty on-panel, yet the authors spent page after yawning incomprehensible page trying to explain Feynman's work, essentially as the climax of the novel. It doesn't work, but thankfully the rest does, and Feynman is worth reading as it gives a pretty complete, somewhat entertaining (though somewhat dry) translation of the life of one of humanity's great (and unique) thinkers.

The novel plays an interesting counterpoint to the fictional version of Richard Feyman that has been one of the stars of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra's wonderfully twisted alternate history sci-fi series The Manhattan Projects.  And those who read and enjoyed the Greek graphic novel Logicomix that came out a few years ago - the somewhat meta biography of Bertrand Russel slash history of modern mathematics - will certainly enjoy Feynman.

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