Science In The Wild: An Interview With Jim Ottaviani
By Mark Banaszak

PrimatesWriter Jim Ottaviani and artist Maris Wicks bring light to the lives and works of three of the twentieth century's most prominent primatologists in Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas ($19.99, 978-1-59643-865-1).

The graphic novel, released through First Second, covers the real-life stories of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, all students of famed archaeologist Louis Leakey. Each scientist was helped in the beginning stages of her career by Leakey, and went on to established careers both studying and attempting to protect the primates of Africa.

Ottaviani has written and edited several graphic novels exploring the worlds of science, including Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Political Science of the Atomic Bomb, Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists (through his publishing company G.T. Labs), and Feynman, a biography of the iconoclastic theoretical physicist (published through First Second).

BookShelf spoke with Ottaviani about Primates, the joy discovery, and the overlap of science and graphic novels. (Click on the images to see a larger version)

What inspired you to cover these researchers in this graphic novel? Why these three in particular?

I've thought about this question a great deal in recent weeks, and I think the answer is big science. Or rather, its opposite. Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas changed how humanity viewed itself, and our closest primate kin, without relying on huge research budgets, fancy equipment, or academic pedigree. Patience, courage, and smarts is all they had going for them. It was enough!

Were you very familiar with their work before researching this book? Did you learn anything new in researching it that you didn't expect?

I had already written about Biruté Galdikas before, in my second book (Dignifying Science), and I knew the general outline of Dian Fossey's life story. Oddly enough, I knew the least about Jane Goodall, probably because she's a household name and I had her safely tucked away in the Famous People Everybody Knows Of category in my head — so what I needed to do was get to a point where I could move her into the Famous Person I Know Something About category.

As for learning things I didn't expect, the answer is always yes, for every scientist and every book I've ever done. That's usually a reflection of that "…Everybody Knows Of" thing, since the real people are always more interesting, complex, and human than the persona we absorb second-hand.

In terms of specifics, I'm going to disappoint you, I'm afraid, since I'm awash in details at this point, and I started research on the book long enough ago that I can't separate what I knew before I dug into their stories from what I know now. I hope it will suffice to say that I admire all three scientists more than when I started writing.

It seems like you really try to convey the excitement of discovery that these scientists had with their work. How difficult or easy was it to replicate the thrill they would have had?

Thanks for saying so!

When you read first-person accounts of discovery, written by committed scientists who are themselves excited by what they're finding, it becomes easy to feel the thrill they're feeling. This is something I've noticed over and over again: The best scientists write well, even when they're writing primarily for their peers in journals that most of us non-scientists never see. The joy, the humor, and the thrill is there, even if it’s understated and surrounded by technical jargon.

That said, I think the key to conveying that excitement in Primates is what Maris did with the art. Her Jane Goodall, her Dian Fossey, her Biruté Galdikas…all express real emotion through Maris's cartooning. You believe what you see thanks to her skill.

You cover personal aspects of the scientists as well as their primatology work. How did you balance the professional and personal? (Referencing Leakey's potential romantic interests in Jane Goodall, for example)

It wasn't hard. They lived where they worked, and to a large extent they lived their work. So the personal and the professional intertwined naturally in the story.

Well, let me amend that. Upon further reflection maybe it was a little harder than I just made it out to be; I know my original draft was too fact-oriented, and leaned a little too heavy on the science. After thinking about your question more I remembered that my editors (Tanya and Calista) did a good job of pushing for more storytelling moments that provided emotional resonance. They were right to do so, and those moments were there waiting for me once they convinced me that I should look for them.

What do you hope readers take away from this graphic novel (other than a deeper knowledge of the scientists you've profiled)?

You answered it with your third question: to convey the excitement of discovery that these scientists had with their work! If we did that, we succeeded.

You've produced a number of graphic novels on various sciences and scientists. What made you decide to cover these topics in this format?

People ask this often, and my answer is to ask them to perform an experiment: Go to your local bookstore or library (university or public, it doesn't matter) and browse the literature shelves. Flip through a bunch of books; you don't have to read them, just have a look at what's inside. Then head over to the science section and do the same thing. Now…where did you see the pictures?

You probably don't even need to do this in real life to know the answer. Scientists communicate with words and images. Full stop. So what could be more natural than using comics to tell the story of science? In short, I do it because it works.

It's also fun!