We all know Albert Einstein — he’s the personification of “scientist” in the minds of most of us — but as always, there’s more to the icon (and the man!) than we expect. Jim Ottaviani explains what this means in this Big Idea for his (with artist Jerel Dye) graphic novel retelling of the life of the famous physicist, Einstein.
Though I put Einstein on the cover of my very first book — it was 1997 and nobody was making comics about scientists, so I figured we’d better show someone everybody recognizes! — I avoided writing about him for years.
Einstein was, at least to my mind, a cliché.
And yet he kept appearing, both in books I read and in books I wrote. First Second, my publisher for Feynman and Hawking, noticed. I think his ubiquity, his omnipresence, prompted them to have me take another look, and consider why I was reluctant to write more about him. And to no one’s surprise (except for maybe me; I can be slow on the uptake) Einstein is anything but a cliché.
Maybe my blind spot resulted from the fact that Einstein and his discoveries are almost too perfect for comics.
His theories about the inseparability of space and time? That’s Comics Storytelling 101, and as a minor spoiler, since you’ll see this on the third page of the book, Jerel and I use the space between panels, or the intentional lack thereof, to visually conflate space and time, expanding and contracting it to suit our narrative.
His exploration of how frames of reference influence what reality you experience? Storytelling 101 again, so in our book we told Einstein’s story through the eyes of his friends, family, enemies, and fans.
His life of the mind, where what’s happening in his head is just as real as the world of his senses…at least to him? Comics, again: Einstein’s are the only thoughts you get to see in the book. Everyone else only ever acts, and only ever speaks their mind.
His iconic status? Not to give away too much, but you may notice that Jerel’s depiction of Einstein at the beginning of the book differs from how he draws him by the end.
So if, like me, Einstein feels overly familiar because he’s always there, always quotable?
I hope you’ll join us in experiencing this story — and I use that word on purpose, since this isn’t a typical biography, even though it’s as true-to-life as we could make it — with your own eyes, and that it gives you a new appreciation of Einstein, both as a scientist and as a person.
When you do, I think you’ll find that he’s more than an icon but less than a saint. And you’ll see why Einstein is someone whose name has meant genius for more than a century.
I read a lot of biographies of scientists, but have realized lately that I’ve been focusing so much on semi-obscure people that it’s actually Einstein I don’t know enough about by this point (it keeps surprising me, in a way it shouldn’t, to hear about his antiracism and other civil-rights efforts in the United States). I’m going to keep watch for this one.
“Albert Einstein was a ladies’ man
While he was working on his universal plan.
He was making out like Charlie Sheen
He was a genius.”