Monday, May 11, 2009

Interview with Jim Ottaviani

Jim Ottaviani is the writer of highly-regarded comics that feature the true stories of science and scientists, comics such as Two-Fisted Science; Dignifying Science; Fallout; Suspended in Language; and Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards. Last week I interviewed Jim (via email) on the occasion of his new graphic 'novel' T-Minus: The Race to the Moon, due out next week from Simon & Schuster's Alladin imprint. Along with artists Zander Cannon & Kevin Cannon (with whom Jim last worked with on Bone Sharps), in T-Minus Jim tells the story-behind-the-story of the famed space race.

YACB: Your new book, T-Minus, is about the race to the Moon. What made you decide to cover this topic?

JimO: There are a bunch of reasons, but here's the one that comes to mind today, in part because I know you're an engineer: I find the space race inspiring because of the tremendous achievements made by U.S. and Soviet engineers in the 1960s, and the way it captured the whole world's imagination. It's rare that something that is essentially a technology-driven endeavor results in such great drama and interest -- I mean, I rely on and enjoy owning a personal computer as much as the next guy, but can't see "Macintosh: The Graphic Novel" as something I'd want to write or someone would want to read.

Now that I've said that, someone will probably do it and prove me wrong, and that would be great.

But back to your question, it was fantastic theater, and the whole world watched it.

YACB: How do you think doing this story as a comic makes it different from the many books/movies/etc. that have covered this topic in the past?

JimO: Besides being comics? That makes it different right off the bat, never mind that Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon are great visual storytellers, so you get really good comics as well. Because it's comics, I think we were able to pack a great deal of story into relatively few pages, so that's another departure. Finally, most of the books you'll read focus only on the astronauts and cosmonauts. Those people were courageous, smart, and interesting, but the scientists and engineers they put their trust in rarely appear in the popular histories. So that's the last one.

YACB: I know that you do copious research for your books. What did you discover about the space race that was surprising?

JimO: One thing I half-knew, and the other thing I didn't know at all. The part that I had an inkling of was the amount of effort that went into this adventure. I knew a lot of people worked hard, but the amount of unpaid overtime put in by hundreds of thousands of people in the U.S. amazed me. You sometimes hear criticism of the space program as a bad way to spend taxpayer dollars. I believe there is and was waste in NASA, and I believe many things could have been done better. But I think we got a lot of bang -- rocket-fueled pun intended -- for our buck.

The other thing that struck me was the environmental message that the astronauts brought back from their journeys. These men, hard-core pragmatists all, type-A test pilots down to the last of 'em, unsentimental almost to a fault...when they saw the whole earth from space they all commented on how fragile and precious it was, and how it put the problems of taking care of the world into appropriate perspective. Read the address to Congress that Aldrin, Armstrong, and Collins made:

It reads almost as if it was a manifesto of the nascent environmental movement. While that's overstating it some, their statements are not what you'd expect from ex-military guys who most would consider representatives of the establishment. I find that remarkable, and uplifting.

YACB: Previously most of your comics work has been self-published, but T-Minus is coming from a 'regular' book publisher (Aladdin). Why the change? Who approached whom?

JimO: No particular reason for the change, other than to try something new. I can't remember the exact sequence of events, but I'm pretty sure they approached my agent. He was putting together a number of non-fiction book proposals, and asked me what I'd do if given the chance. "T-Minus!" I said. Or something to that effect. As you might guess, the original proposal is a distant cousin to the finished book, but the basic idea of telling the story of the space race from an engineering/science perspective, with the Soviet program prominently featured, was there from the start.

As for why... at the risk of sounding nonchalant and careless with my so-called career, it's at least partly true to say that I figured, why not? If they didn't like the proposal, it would get me started thinking about this story, which is one I knew I wanted to do someday, either on my own or with a larger company.

YACB: Your artists on T-Minus, Zander Cannon & Kevin Cannon, previously worked with you on Bone Sharps. How did this pairing come about again? Did working with artists you've worked with before make things easier/better? What strengths do you feel that Zander & Kevin bring to illustrating your scripts?

JimO: The pairing came about because here again, my agent asked me who I'd want to work with, and who could we suggest that would convince them to say yes. I figured it would be easy for them to say yes if we could show Aladdin that if they just let us do our thing, the worst case scenario is that they'd get something as nice as Bone Sharps. Which, as worst-case scenarios go, is pretty sweet.

So Zander and Kevin were my first choice for it, and they were interested, and boom -- just like that we were off and running. And running in step, so to speak, since working with them was easy. It was easy on Bone Sharps, and we'd never done a project together before, and now they knew what to expect from me, and I from them. I don't know how to describe it other than in terms of picking up a relationship right where we left off.

As for strengths, I don't know where to start. They can draw anything. They always serve the story, and never show off their artistic chops just for the sake of showing off their artistic chops... of which they have many. When they make changes to what I specify in the script, they have reasons. They're not always ones I agree with, but they're always worth thinking about and discussing and often worth changing the script and the upstream or downstream storytelling to accommodate their ideas. They fill in the visual gaps in my research. They can draw convincing people and machines and dinosaurs and scenes on earth and in space and in the past.

Is that enough? I'm not done, but I think you get the idea... they're professionals in all the best senses of the word, and yet they're also friends. As collaborators they're as easy and as enjoyable to work with as can be.

YACB: Having now examined in-depth the engineering side of the space program, do you agree with the assertion that what we learned from the process of going to the Moon was worth the cost?

JimO: I don't know if it was worth the engineering cost -- those sorts of things are too hard to quantify. Sorry to punt on that one, but I just can't draw a firm conclusion.

My gut says yes, though, and here's why. I just attended a talk by former astronaut and now Engineering Dean here at U-M Tony England, and in it he pointed out shortcomings of the International Space Station in terms of its scientific significance. One of the things he said struck me as an interesting contradiction, though. In the process of trying to design advanced manufacturing processes that they hope will take advantage of microgravity to produce better chips and such, engineers often come up with ways to make the improvements they wanted in the chips right here on earth. Sort of as a by-product of trying to figure out how to make things happen in space. So sure, that makes the space part beside the point, but there's still obvious value there, right? We got we wanted by virtue of being forced to think differently. And that's what we get when we put ourselves in these situations.

And as far as cost is concerned I will say this: Having looked at the numbers and made comparisons with things like the cost of the Vietnam war and what people spent on alcohol and tobacco during the Apollo era, the space program was a bargain. And as Andrew Smith pointed out in his wonderful book Moondust, if nothing else we got great theater out of it. And the cost of the space race in human lives was very low. Not zero, and we have to remember that always, but compared to war and booze and smokes? The human and dollar cost was very, very low.

And... we got more than great theater. Perhaps the most important is thing we learned is that if we really dedicate ourselves to a goal as a nation, as a species, we can do things in a few years that were unimaginable and inspiring.

YACB: What is your opinion of the current state of the US space program? Do you think that returning to the Moon is a good idea? How about going to Mars? Or should we keep doing near-Earth manned missions and unmanned probes and explorers?

JimO: My opinions are not as informed as I wish they were, but I will press on and not let ignorance get in the way of spouting off!

Current state: The Hubble telescope is magnificent, as are the Mars rovers. The shuttle is going away, about which some will say good riddance. The International Space Station is up there. It's international. It's a space station. It could be better, and better serve science,! space station! I think those are good things for the human spirit. I just read about a possible change to the moon-base plans, so there's not much to say there other than Moon base! I like the idea, but maybe it's not a good one for all its appeal.

Return to the Moon: I've heard a number of convincing arguments, some directly from astronauts, that this isn't the best use of our resources. So I'm neutral to negative on it. But... Moon base! It's hard to let go of that idea.

Go to Mars: It will be very hard, and hard on the people that go. But I think we will try, and I think we should.

near-Earth and/or robotic probes: Gotta keep doing both, I think. Combining those with all of the above is a problem in terms of money, but you didn't ask me how to pay for any of this -- for which I thank you -- so I choose not to make any hard decisions today.

YACB: Knowing what you know, would you want to go into space yourself?

JimO: Yes. Full stop, sign me up, I'm ready to go right now.

YACB: Your publisher, Aladdin Paperbacks is Simon & Schuster's imprint for late elementary and early middle school kids. While all of your previous books have certainly been enjoyed by all ages, were there any challenges in making T-Minus as a book that is specifically targeted towards kids?

JimO: This is the second book I've written specifically with a young adult audience in mind, but the first won't come out for a while longer, so this is the first that readers will see.

Chronology aside, yes, there are challenges, but I was lucky to have my editor at Aladdin, Liesa Abrams, help me both understand them and figure out how to deal with them. They didn't involve dumbing the book down -- I think there's plenty of heft to the story and that adults will enjoy it too. I've been putting it this way when people ask: The young readers will have to bring their A game to the book.

But besides detail stuff like not depicting smoking and keeping a tight rein on the language to make sure it was age appropriate, one of the many things Liesa helped me do was find the right balance between gosh-wow technical material and the human element. It was hard, since we were dealing with iconic figures and far more story than you can fit between the covers of a single book, but our focus on the engineers and behind the scenes helped with the human element.

YACB: What's next for Jim Ottaviani and/or GT Labs?

JimO: Two books from First Second, and I'm working on two other books right now, about which I don't have a lot to say. Or rather I do, but I want to say it to myself first and be sure I mean it before talking about anything as basic as the general outline. But, to prove I'm crazy, one may not be comics and may not be non-fiction. The other is about Alan Turing. I'm excited about both stories! And after that, I think I found an angle on a third book in my science of the unscientific series. And after that... something else, I'm sure. I have a lot of story ideas waiting in the wings!

That concludes our interview. A big thanks to Jim for taking the time to answer my questions. You can read more about T-Minus, including an excerpt, at Jim's GT Labs Website.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The wife and I recently bought T-Minus at Rocketship in Brooklyn. And she's LOVING it! I'm waiting my turn to read it.

Saw Jim O. working the crowd at the MoCCA convention in New York earlier this year, too. Good guy.