The mere mention of the name Richard Feynman causes any physicist’s eyes to brighten. No doubt, Feynman was one of greatest thinkers of the 20th century, but he never acted like one. He was a goofball — a child in an adult’s body who loved life almost as much as the thrill of discovery. He happened to find his way into physics, but along the way got distracted by a number of hobbies, from cracking safes to drawing nudes to playing the drums. Known by his friends as an expert raconteur, eventually he put his stories into print and published collections such as “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”
“Feynman,” the graphic novel by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick, adapts several of those stories along with some of Feynman’s lectures and speeches. The result is nothing short of marvelous. Each frame captures Feynman’s excitement, and the parts that delve into physics do so in as accessible a way as possible, allowing the reader to marvel at Feynman’s unique teaching style.
The best stories in the book are those that focus on Feynman’s mischief. While working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he would spend his spare time trying to get around the security at the base. It was almost as if Feynman took “you can’t do this” as a challenge rather than an order. And being the brainy guy that he was, he’d typically pass the challenge with flying colors.
Ottaviani’s graphic novel covers many of Feynman’s stories, but also does a particularly good job of presenting some of the scientific ideas that the man immersed himself in. Feynman was a major proponent of the idea that if one could not form an introductory lesson on a subject, then he didn’t really understand it. As a result, he spent a lot of time presenting advanced topics to those outside the field, never explaining them in the traditional textbook manner and often preferring a less mathematical, more conceptual approach.
Though Ottaviani covers the science well and also hits most of the biggest feats of Feynman’s life, it’s slightly frustrating (though understandable) that he’s unable to cover more of the material from the books, lectures and talks. The graphic novel already clocks in at an appropriate length of 266 pages, though there’s likely enough material out there to more than quadruple that.
Additionally, the individual stories are appropriately abridged, offering something like an overview of the material that it’s adapting. While “Feynman” works as a standalone piece, it’s more effective when thought of as a companion piece or introduction to its sources.
“Feynman” does what it sets out to do and does it very well: It captures the essence of a great character, providing an entertaining portrait of his life, in his own words and from his point of view. It’s a beautiful tribute to a great man.
Printed on September 30, 2011 as: Graphic novel presents life of world-renowned physicist