Nonfictional and educational comics often run headlong into the dilemma of information dissemination. The critical question facing such works is how to translate the knowledge of higher education to a wider audience who may only have a rudimentary comprehension of the material at hand. This is a conflict educators often confront on a daily basis as they prepare lectures or lesson plans. The process is made even more complicated when the material is one so esoteric as quantum mechanics, yet so approachable as the life of Richard Feynman.
When it comes to physics and translating the realms of Einstein's theories of general and special relativity, quantum theory, hyperspace and string theory, and a host of other post-Newtonian concepts to the uninitiated, the number of qualified, professional scientists can truly be counted on one hand—Michio Kaku, Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Leonard Susskind, and Stephen Hawking. Of course, Kaku, Greene, and Hawking have benefited greatly from even wider exposure on PBS or Discovery Channel productions on physics, bringing the ideas of Maxwell, Bohr, and others to even more people. Yet, before the advent of the Internet and of documentary programs on science, Richard Feynman struggled with the same issues of articulating high concept physics for general readers.
Unlike Einstein, Madame Curie, or J. Robert Oppenheimer, Feynman is not a household name for those not versed in physics. As such, a biography, let alone a graphic one, faces an even greater challenge in not only presenting his life, but also his theories and ideas in a format accessible to most readers. Feynman, like many of his contemporaries and even predecessors, is ripe for a biographical, sequential art interpretation, due in large part to his own use of visualizations as narrative tools. The seemingly unlimited canvas of the graphic novel seems an apt platform for just such an individual story; however, Feynman, while a quite interesting chronicle of the man's life, misses some crucial opportunities afforded the sequential medium.
From the onset, Feynman utilizes Myrick's angular and exaggerated anatomical features to reinforce the almost fictional world readers are engaging. Retelling a childhood story of dinosaurs, Feynman captures the imagination of the young physicist and presents it in an almost fantastical, surreal fashion. Myrick's limited or restrained use of firm lines and the disjointing elements of Hillary Sycamore's color palette give the book an air of the unreal. Yet, when the moments arise when the graphic art should become the story, Feynman disappoints. Situations such as Feynman wrestling with a problem or equation, the experience of the atomic bomb, or even, in his later years, his visualization of formulas are relegated to textual explanation boxes or mere thought bubbles, diminishing their impact and significance in his life.
Additionally, the majority of the narrative is largely omniscient narration, giving the actors very little role beyond static images on a page. While some audiences may champion such an approach that presents a straight, nonfiction interpretation of Feynman based solely on secondary sources or those he wrote himself, creative license and artistic freedom are major facets of the graphic novel format. Although no one wants fanciful or irreverent, unsubstantiated events inserted into the story for drama that betray the reality of Feynman's life, plausible sequences between him and Einstein or Oppenheimer that give life to the narrative would transform the book from a didactic tome of sheer biography into an active, engaging, and memorable text.
Yet some of these criticisms can also be positives for certain audiences. For example, as a straightforward biography, Feynman is impressive. It surveys his life and highlights the major events and episodes that brought him the awareness and respect of the physics community. Furthermore, Ottaviani deserves praise for the original and innovative restructuring of chapter format as well as the progression of the narrative itself. This is something that could not have been equally achieved outside the graphic novel medium.
Perhaps there has of yet been no accurate formula for graphic nonfiction biographies or even a set of guidelines. In essence, this is a good thing because they would, in all probability, be far too restrictive. Yet publishers of graphic nonfiction should look to their fiction brethren who dominate the medium for techniques of visual storytelling that can be borrowed and adapted for the biography environment. Of recent graphic biographies, Feynman is a step in the right direction as it points to, even if it does not fully possess, the necessary tools to render such an iconic life as Richard Feynman in comic illustration.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on August 30, 2011