Feynman (First Second)

The biography of an eccentric, forward-thinking genius: physicist Richard Feynman.


272 pgs. Color; $29.99 hardcover
(W: Jim Ottaviani; A: Leland Myrick)
If Jim Ottaviani’s goal was a career as a sensationalist author, he picked the wrong subject matter. The full-time librarian writes comics about science history including T-Minus, his chronicle of the race to the Moon, and Fallout, his take on the making of the atomic bomb. His latest is Feynman, a biography of renowned physicist Richard Feynman.
The Feynman we meet is an eccentric, forward-thinking genius ravenous for all kinds of knowledge. Feynman enjoyed parents who were encouraging of his scientific pursuits and tolerant of the occasional downsides—like the boy’s basement experiments causing power outages—but surprisingly discouraging toward Feynman’s younger sister Joan, who Richard secretly nudged toward a successful scientific career. In his early twenties, Feynman delivered lectures to the likes of Wolfgang Pauli and Albert Einstein. He was soon recruited to the Manhattan Project and joined the race for the atomic bomb, occasionally occupying himself with distractions like developing a safecracking method to entertain his colleagues and scare the officers overseeing the project. His first wife Arline died during the Manhattan Project and Ottaviani and Myrick make it one of the most touching moments of the book. Feynman would later go on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics and sit on the panel investigating the Challenger shuttle disaster. There are a lot of wonderful anecdotes in there I didn’t summarize—like Feynman’s hazing at MIT, the bidding war over his services between Cornell and Caltech, or the humorously coded letters his wife sent him while he was helping invent the atomic bomb—but they’re interesting, revealing, and often are more engaging than the larger, more well-known stories.
Ottaviani’s Feynman comes off as a likeable genius who thrived on throwing himself against the boundaries of his own knowledge. He was not unaware of his extraordinary intellect, but was still humble, turning down high-paying jobs because he couldn’t imagine being worth the massive sums he was offered. Ottaviani picks great moments to share with us, and the overall impression you’re left with is of a man who savored every rich drop of his life and never accepted anything without vigorous questioning.
If there’s anything negative I have to say about Feynman, it’s that I question the wisdom of telling the story in the first person from Feynman’s perspective. On one hand, we feel like we’re getting to know Feynman personally rather than just getting a history lesson. On the other, a healthy chunk of Feynman’s stories work hard to prove how very clever their subject was. Getting those stories “from the horse’s mouth” makes it hard to avoid the sense that we’re being told a story by a guy who’s just a little too glib and self-indulgent, in spite of the fact that Feynman died decades before this biography was published.
Leland Myrick’s art turned me off at first, but it quickly won me over. It suits the biography well, with a sketchy, soft quality that seems more like a less-defined reflection of reality than cartoon.
Feynman is a good, thought-provoking and at times touching biography. I wouldn’t say it lacks appeal for those who aren’t science-minded, though if you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t need a graphic novel to explain physics to you, you’ll probably appreciate it more than a humble Internet reviewer who learned most of his science from Stan Lee. | Mick Martin
Click here for a preview of Feynman, courtesy of First Second.

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