‘Primates’ graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

June 18, 2013 | 2:44 p.m.
primates cover Primates graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

The cover for "Primates," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

primates 44 Primates graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

A page from "Primates," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

primates 45 Primates graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

A page from "Primates," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

primates 46 Primates graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

A page from "Primates," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

Author Jim Ottaviani has made a name for himself writing graphic novels about some of the greatest minds in science, including Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr and Galileo Galilei. The Eisner Award nominee’s latest comics project, out last week from First Second books, is no exception. “Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas,” beautifully illustrated by Maris Wicks, explores the lives of the three greatest primatologists of the last century and the scientific research these women performed in Africa and Indonesia, studying chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans.

Ottaviani, a former nuclear engineer whose other graphic novels include “Two-Fisted Science: Stories About Scientists” and the New York Times bestseller “Feynman,” says that comics and science are a natural fit. Hero Complex caught up with Ottaviani to talk about science, comics and “Primates.”

HC: What was the catalyst for this project? Why Jane Goodall and company?

JO: Not surprisingly, I’ve thought about this a lot in recent weeks, and I think the answer is Big Science. Or rather, its opposite. I’d call it Small Science, but Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas changed how humanity views itself and our closest primate kin, without relying on huge research budgets or fancy equipment, and there’s nothing small about that. The catalyst for all this was an earlier book. While researching Biruté Galdikas’ story for that, I realized I wanted to learn more about her predecessors in primate research. It took almost 10 years to get a chance to do so, but stories about intelligent and courageous people changing the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world are always relevant.

HC: Much of your work in comics —  “Two-Fisted Science,” “Feynman” and now “Primates” – deals with science. Why do you think comic books are a good place to explore science and the history of science?

The cover for "T-Minus: The Race to the Moon," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. (Aladdin)

The cover for “T-Minus: The Race to the Moon,” written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon. (Aladdin)

JO: This is a question I get asked often, and I’m glad because it means I get to suggest an experiment. So…  Go to your local bookstore or library and browse the literature shelves. Flip through a bunch of books; you don’t have to read them. Just have a quick look at what’s inside. Then head over to the science section and do the same thing. Now tell me: Where did you see the pictures? You probably don’t even need to do this in real life to know the answer — that’s called a Gedankenexperiment, by the way, which is German for “thought experiment.” There’s your science vocabulary word for the day. Anyway, scientists communicate with words and images. Always have, always will. So what could be more natural than using comics to tell the story of science? The shorter version is, I do it because it’s fun and it works.

HC: How closely did you and Maris work together to create the book?

JO: I write a detailed script (“Page 1, panel 1: Jim is sitting at his desk in Michigan, answering questions for the L.A. Times. It’s late at night, so his eyes look a little tired, but the questions are interesting, so he’s smiling.” Etc.) so the story elements are all there — I hope — when I hand the reins over to the artist. That said, once Maris began drawing, the story was no longer mine; it was ours. She moved things around, re-staged certain scenes and did all the heavy lifting that it takes to breathe life into the words. Sometimes what I wrote didn’t work on the page visually the way I hoped it would, though. Sometimes she had a better idea for how to get an idea across. So we would talk, along with Calista [Brill] our editor. It’s an iterative process, trying to find the exact right moment and expression to depict. And if in the end what readers see is not what I wrote, nobody will ever know. Not even me. I’m not kidding about that. I try not to look at my script as the art comes in, only going back to read it if something doesn’t ring true as drawn. Comics are drawn books, so if the drawing works, it’s the right drawing regardless of what I initially thought it should be.

HC: In your afterword, you mention that you studied “the things the scientists said and did, in their own words whenever possible.” How long did this kind of intensive research take? Were there any specific parts of your research that instantly jumped out at you?

JO: In one sense, the research started in 1997, when I began working on [2009’s] “Dignifying Science”… that closed with a shorter version of Biruté Galdikas’ story. I won’t pretend I worked nonstop on the bigger story ever since, but doing the book that became “Primates” was always in the back of my mind. As for things jumping out, Goodall’s daily climbing ritual, the clueless reporter who visits Fossey and Galdikas cutting her leg come immediately to mind. But there were so many of those a-ha moments that I can’t recall most of them.

HC: In addition to your reading, did you spend time observing chimps and gorillas and orangutans in your research for this book?

A page from "Primates," written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

A page from “Primates,” written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Maris Wicks. (First Second Books)

JO: I didn’t have to do much of that myself, but Maris did. To use movie terminology, I did the writing and directing, but she had to shoulder the acting burden, so with very few exceptions the primate body language is hers. And she nailed it. For the sake of Joe [Quinones], her partner, I hope she’s not a Method actor.

HC: If “Primates” inspires people to action, what would you have them do?

JO: Two things, and you can do them simultaneously: Learn more, because there’s plenty more to learn. If you enjoy “Primates,” you’ll enjoy digging into the books we suggest in our bibliography at the back of ours. Also in the back of our book are links to organizations founded by or organized around the work of Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas. If there’s one thing those three scientists have taught us, it’s that one person can make big changes to the world. You can get involved in conservation, you can get involved in education, you can do a lot of things.

HC: Did you talk to Biruté and Jane? How do you think they’ll feel about these portrayals?

JO: I spoke with Dr. Galdikas on the phone after “Dignifying Science” came out. She liked the book, and as a result of our conversation I ended up doing another comic for the Orangutan Foundation soon after. I’ve never had the honor of talking with Dr. Goodall, though. I sent them both notes throughout the process of creating our book and did talk to the Orangutan Foundation a number of times — that’s how we got permission to use that great photo of all three scientists you see in the book — but they’re very busy people so I’m not surprised that I didn’t hear back.

Just before this interview I read a review of our book in Nature (which is one of the top, if not the very top, international journals of science with a capital ‘S’) written by a researcher who worked with Dian Fossey. She liked the book, and with regards to how true to life it is, she called it “an accurate rendition.” She said other nice things as well, but that was the phrase that slumped my shoulders with relief. So, I’m not sure what they’ll think of “Primates,” but I, of course, hope they’ll be happy with their portrayal. I think we depicted them as what they are: Real scientists and real people. A little — OK, a lot — tougher and smarter than most of us, but real.

— Noelene Clark | @NoeleneClark


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One Response to ‘Primates’ graphic novel explores work of Goodall, Fossey, Galdikas

  1. Aaron B. says:

    PRIMATES is a fine book and deserves all the praise it gets. I think there should have been a little more on Galdikas' work, but all in all it treats all three researchers quite appropriately. Best of all — PRIMATES can serve as an educational piece as well. Teachers should take note.

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