Stephen Hawking's Comics Biographers Discuss the Wonder and Awe of Science

Hawking Interview - Cover
(Photo: First Second)

Hawking, a new comics biography covering the life and work of cosmologist Stephen Hawking, is coming to stores on July 2, 2019. The new volume from writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Leland Myrick covers the entirety of Hawking’s life, providing an accessible breakdown of his many scientific breakthroughs, as well as an affecting narration of his struggle with ALS and life beyond the classrooms of Cambridge. It represents the second collaboration between this pair, following a similar biography focused on theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (Feynman).

ComicBook.Com critic Chase Magnett had the opportunity to speak with both Myrick and Ottaviani about their process creating Hawking and how this one scientist’s life still has so much to teach readers, no matter their scientific background or knowledge.

ComicBook.Com: Robert A. Caro is one of my favorite historical writers and he’s stated that his books are as much about a central theme, in his case power, as they are the subjects. Reflecting on Hawking now that it is completed, does a specific theme emerge as being what the comic is about, in addition to Stephen Hawking’s life and work?

Jim Ottaviani: First of all, any comparison to Robert Caro is flattering. I read his most recent book Working and really enjoyed that. I will confess, though, that I’ve only read bits and pieces of Caro’s other work. In terms of the larger theme, I think that if I had to pin it down or sum it up in a couple of words, it would be “joy and wonder.” There’s a long period in Hawking’s life, as you saw, where he does not take a great deal of joy or feel a great deal of wonder about what’s going on in his life. Some of that’s understandable because he was dealt a very bad hand health-wise, but at the same time there’s a long period in his life where he didn’t actually use his very obvious mental gifts to their fullest extent. At a certain point he decides to embrace who he is and what he can do. Then things get really interesting for him, the people around him, and for all the rest of us thanks to the discoveries he subsequently makes.

Leland Myrick: I think “wonder” is a really good word for it. I’ve read all of Jim’s work and worked with him on Feynman. I think that the wonder at the beauty of the world, at what actually exists, at thinking about science and problem-solving, all those kinds of things came across first for me when working on Feynman and certainly when working on Hawking. There’s an awe and wonder looking at the universe as it is.

Ottaviani: Thanks a lot. I must say that some of the way that comes across isn’t necessarily in the dialogue, but in the art, right? That’s something you’re particularly adept at expressing.

ComicBook.Com: There’s a moment that speaks to that idea early in Hawking when Hawking mentions that the Penrose diagrams are the most readable element of his first book. It felt like a meta-textual element speaking to the natural pairing of science and comics. How do you approach adapting these concepts to the comics medium and making them accessible?

Ottaviani: I’ve felt this way for a long time and I think Leland does, as well. We really had it emphasized and stated explicitly by some of Hawking’s colleagues when we were in Cambridge. I don’t know if you remember this, Leland, but we were having lunch with Malcolm [Perry] and he said, “We can’t do anything without chalk and something to write on.”

Myrick: Yeah.

Ottaviani: He was even very dismissive of white boards and markers and those sorts of things. He said, “No no no. They’re no good. It has to be chalk on a chalkboard.” I didn’t buy into the tools being quite so important as Malcolm asserted they were, but the point you highlighted remains. Scientists communicate visually and relying only on words or even equations isn’t sufficient to communicate, not just the technical details but the joy and wonder and awe that develops around some of these ideas.

Myrick: There’s another place in the book when Hawking gets a phone call and Jane [Hawking] is there to say, “Stop talking about science.” But all of his dialogue in that part is in diagrams. He’s on the phone and instead of seeing words, we only see him speak in diagrams.

Ottaviani: That’s a wonderful bit. I was just talking to someone earlier today about the use of diagrams and the way Leland deploys image as text, so sometimes the text works as image. There are equations in this book; there’s no getting around it. I don’t think it would be fair to readers to pretend like the diagrams and equations didn’t exist, weren’t important, and weren’t constantly on these people’s minds. But, on the plus side, the way Leland arranges the page, how he leads your eye, and what he does with these things is: They are there, you can look at them, if you’re in the top whatever percent of scientific knowledge you might even know what’s going on, but otherwise they’re interesting set dressing as a signpost saying, “Hey, interesting things are happening over here.” You don’t have to go there with us, but there’s science, and discovery, and innovation going on. I think the way it’s incorporated into the art is particularly effective and it allows you to hit the best of both worlds. The science is there, but it doesn’t take over the storytelling.

ComicBook.Com: How do you strike that balance? Throughout the book there are big concepts and theories that are important to the story, with a lot of space devoted to making them accessible and understood. How do you balance what is essential and what might be best left for that “top percent of scientific knowledge”? How do you define that line?

Ottaviani: I don’t understand all of Hawking’s work, so some things go away because I can’t come up with a reasonable way to depict or describe what’s going on! Then there are multiple passes of other people who read this thing; there are editors who read through the script and then there’s the ultimate editor who has to decide what goes into the book: Leland himself. He decides what really does belong on the page and what we’re better off leaving out because it doesn’t really help the story.

Myrick: First of all, Jim gives me too much credit. Jim writes very tight scripts that are really well written and, as an artist, it’s a joy to work with him. I appreciate the way he uses certain concepts and throws other stuff in that may not be a necessary concept. As you [Jim] said, there are lots of places where if you want to go there, you can go there, but you don’t have to. There’s a chalkboard in the background or a diagram on the page with some other stuff. There were points, in both books I’ve worked on with Jim, where I would do my best Bones McCoy imitation and say while drawing, “Dammit Jim! I can only draw so much. I’m just a monkey with a pencil.”

All: *laughter*

Ottaviani: Because we’ve worked together before and they’ve both been long books, I was given one instruction early on: Try to cut the panels per page down a little bit. So I wrote down a math sign and posted it right behind my monitor: “≤ 6,” meaning no more than six panels. I was looking at that everyday for a year and some change.

Hawking Interview - Event Horizon
(Photo: First Second)

ComicBook.Com: In addition to all of the work you both do in presenting Hawking’s work and making it accessible, there’s just as much time spent on his life outside of science, the physical and familial struggles. How do you balance those two strands of the narrative and ensure they enhance one another?

Ottaviani: This feels obvious, but the contrast between the sacred and profane, the mundane and otherworldly, is a really effective—and I think this sounds very calculating, but it wasn’t on either of our parts, but now that you’ve pointed it out—this juxtaposition of everyday trials and joys with thinking of something much greater and very distant from day-to-day concerns provides a great set of counterpoints. It’s like having humor in an action or horror movie, or a serious bit on a sitcom. They work against each other to keep people interested and often add more depth and reason to engage with the story. Very rarely am I 100% happy or sad with what’s going on in my life. I’ve been very lucky for the most part, but I think there are very few times when people are just one thing. Showing both going on at the same time is realistic and good for the story.

Myrick: There’s also a metaphor for me, as the illustrator, that as I was drawing the book connected the science and the life. That was his chair and the way it changed over time. My thinking was as the story was going it changed along with the advancement of science overtime, going from this chair that he rolled with his own hands, to one that he was pushed in, to one that very slowly allowed him to move and speak so slowly, to one that he could the same more easily with very little movement.

Ottaviani: That is excellent! I didn’t think of that at all.

ComicBook.Com: Hawking is written in first person with Stephen Hawking narrating his own story and explaining the science, often with equations spilling out to the unknown areas beyond speech bubbles. What led you to decide to present this story from that perspective and how did that impact your choices in presenting Hawking on the page, Leland?

Myrick: With his speech on the page, where it’s going off in different ways and out of the bubbles. For me and looking at Jim’s script, there was so much going on in Hawking’s mind and things were happening so fast sometimes that people weren’t necessarily keeping up. That’s what that represented to me as we were doing it.

Ottaviani: I’m glad. Maybe this won’t sound so good, but I just couldn’t come up with a better narrator than Hawking. Some of that may be reflecting back on how we did the [Richard] Feynman book because Feynman tells his own story as well. Who better to do that? Both of these people have very strong public personas. Ignoring that, or not presenting it overtly, would have felt like cheating people from hearing, if not the literal voice, the figurative voice of these two outsized personalities and characters.

I did basically the same thing in a book called Primates for younger audiences. It had Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdakis narrate their own stories as well. That was largely through journal entries, whereas here it’s through their own voice. Even setting aside my own lack of imagination in thinking of a better way to do it, it does seem like a good way to bring the reader in close to the characters and story, and to do it very quickly. I think it’s often an effective technique. I’ll expose some of my own biases: I think voiceover in movies is really awkward. It doesn’t work particularly well for me. In comics and prose, having characters narrate their own stories seems like a very helpful and engaging thing to do.

Myrick: I agree. With the way Jim wrote both scripts, he really brought life to Hawking bringing his own wit and humor, which he wouldn’t have been able to do in another way. With Feynman, his charm came through in telling things in first person. I really think the scripts made their personalities accessible in telling it that way.

Hawking Interview - Thinking in Diagrams
(Photo: First Second)

ComicBook.Com: One of the reasons I was curious about the choice to use first person narration was how it interacted with an increased willingness to critique heroic scientific figures, like Albert Einstein, over the past decade. How did you go about telling the story using Hawking’s voice while still grappling with him as a flawed human being and someone who made notable mistakes?

Ottaviani: I think it’s actually helpful. There are numerous occasions in the book reflecting what actually happened in life, of course, where Hawking is not the triumphant winner who’s always right, both in his personal life and science. Showing him in those moments of human error, and recognizing those moments in himself through the body language the art presents and the verbal language in text, helps you see the person not just as an icon, but as a flawed human being like everyone else.

Myrick: What comes to mind is a scene where he has a slide up behind him that says, “I WAS WRONG.” Remember that one? That was my best Professor X rip-off.

All: *laughter*

Ottaviani: I think it works great and it’s going to pop for readers.

ComicBook.Com: In reflecting on any controversies, while Hawking passed away last year [March 14, 2018], there are still many people who are still living and were part of these events. I’ve spoken with a lot of artists who have expressed some anxiety or trepidation in depicting living subjects. Leland, how do you go about presenting individuals and settings that are still very much part of this world and continuing this story, in some ways, after Hawking’s death?

Myrick: Sometimes with trepidation. For example, there’s Malcolm Perry who is in the book. He’s also the person we met when we went to Cambridge to try and visit Hawking, but he was in the hospital, Malcolm and Anna took us under their wing, showed us around, and made it an amazing experience. Afterwards, I had to draw him into the book. I kind of enjoyed the experience of doing that. Also, you have Kip Thorne who’s in the book from early on to when he’s older now. It was fun to draw him across time and use photos to reference the change. I really enjoyed that.

Ottaviani: With Kip Thorne, you probably bumped into him on the street.

Myrick: Exactly.

ComicBook.Com: Hawking was initially announced in 2013, so much of the book was prepared while he was still alive. Did his death last year impact the shape of the book in any significant ways?

Ottaviani: I would say yes, particularly in the way we ended the book. It’s not drastically different than the way we originally thought about, but there are some subtle changes that we wanted or needed to make because of his passing. There are some things you can say and depict when someone is still alive that just don’t work quite as well when they’re not around to speak for themselves. To my mind, that’s the biggest difference. I don’t know how you felt as you were still in the process of drawing when he died, Leland.

Myrick: It was really just the subtle changes to the ending, the last few pages of the book, partially because the publisher said, “I want it yesterday,” after he passed.

ComicBook.Com: Across the six years that you have both been working on Hawking, a lot has changed in the world, whether we’re discussing science, or politics, or entertainment. Why now? What do you see as being the value of this history for our present moment?

Ottaviani: We could circle back to your very first question and talk about the joy and wonder that, even as we’re looking at the world with horrible situations occurring all the time, there are still things out there that are beautiful, amazing, and accessible to all of us. The things we have created within our minds, the things we are able to see and understand and take enjoyment from are so distant from the moment-to-moment and day-to-day life that we all have to enjoy, suffer, and endure through. That’s amazing to me and I think Hawking provides an excellent example of playing the cards you’re dealt in the best possible way that you can.

Myrick: I entirely agree. I don’t know if you’ve read Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, but it made me think about that. Part of the reason for creating this book is to say that science is really awesome and the world we live in is really amazing because of science. We tend to have this really negative view of where we are in the world right now. If we look at what’s really going on, all of the things we’ve done because of reason and science, we’re really in an amazing place. That’s a good time for any book like Hawking to come out, to remind us of that.

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Ottaviani: This is the sort of story that can and should always work because it speaks to bigger ideas than the tragedies and small joys of the moment.

Be sure to check out Hawking on July 2, 2019 when it will be available from booksellers, comic book stores, and online outlets everywhere.