No Joking: Feynman Is Brilliant

Feynman book cover

I have a confession: I didn’t actually know a whole lot about Richard Feynman. Well, okay, I knew a bit about his role at Los Alamos from a history class, and I knew a little about his outsized personality and love for playing pranks, but I hadn’t actually read or watched any of his lectures, or read any biographies until just recently.

Last month, First Second Books published Feynman, a comic book biography of the “world’s smartest man” written by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick. Ottaviani is no stranger to this type of nonfiction comics. He’s penned a few other science-based comics such as T-Minus: The Race to the Moon; a comics biography of Niels Bohr; and Fallout, a book I read years ago about the making of the atomic bomb.

Feynman is a mostly chronological biography, following both Feynman’s professional and personal life. It does skip back and forth a little bit, but most of it is presented in order, from his time in college to working on the bomb to winning the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics (QED). There are stories about his younger sister, Joan, who was discouraged by their parents from going into science but ended up a scientist anyway. When we follow Feynman to Los Alamos, the story doesn’t focus on the actual work he did, but also relates his safecracking exploits and his frustrations dealing with the Army’s particular type of problem-solving.

The book is brilliantly written. Ottaviani makes Feynman himself the narrator, sometimes with the comics equivalent of a voiceover and sometimes conveying information through conversations Feynman is having with other people. Because it’s comics, Myrick is able to take liberties with the visuals, at times overlaying Feynman’s inner thoughts on top of reality, reminiscent of the visual effects in A Beautiful Mind. There are even some sections about QED which show, briefly and in layman’s terms, what Feynman’s prize-winning work was all about. These are taken from a series of lectures he gave in New Zealand, in his attempt to explain his work to his non-scientist friend Alix. Everything is meticulously researched, and at the end Ottaviani provides a lengthy bibliography showing where he got his information and giving the reader a starting point for further reading about Feynman.

Myrick’s artwork looks simply drawn and is fun to look at. You quickly get used to Feynman’s crooked grin and messy hair. There’s just enough details to evoke the scene but it’s not going for photorealism or Marvel-style dynamic action. Instead, you get a style that seems perfectly suited for relating a biography: it’s true enough that you know these are real events, but abstracted enough that you don’t assume everything is verbatim, either.

Whether you’re a huge fan of Feynman or, like me, just dipping your toes in the subject, Feynman is an excellent portrait of a fascinating man. After reading this, I’m very interested in following up with some of Feynman’s own writings, although my physics is a bit rusty.

You can pick up Feynman from Amazon or straight from MacMillan (First Second’s parent company). You can also see previews of some of the interior pages at MacMillan’s site. Finally, here’s a short video trailer for the book which shows a few frames from the book, set to audio of Feynman himself playing the drums:

Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this book.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad in Portland, Oregon, who loves to read, is always up for a board game, and has a bit of a Kickstarter habit.