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Interview: Writer Jim Ottaviani on Primates

What do Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas have in common? Aside, of course, from being three courageous scientists who revolutionized our understanding of our fellow primates. And aside from sharing a mentor of sorts in famed British naturalist Louis Leakey. Oh, and aside from each devoting their lives to the study of a particular species of great ape?

They’re also the subjects of Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, writer Jim Ottaviani’s latest all-ages, non-fiction original graphic novel about some of the most influential scientists of the twentieth century. They join a small but growing fraternity of scientists like Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh (Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards), Neils Bohr (Suspended in Language), Harry Harlow (Wire Mothers), Richard Feynman (Feynman), and the scientists who sent us to the moon and gave us the bomb (T-Minus: The Race to the Moon and Fallout) in a growing library of Ottaviani-penned comics that wring palpable drama from biography.

For Primates, Ottaviani teams with artist Maris Wicks, whose bright, clear, cartoony art gives the book an immediate, eye-catching, poppy, all-ages appeal. Together they’ve taken the few points of intersection their subjects have shared and built an entertaining introduction to the lives and work of three women who are as fascinating a group of characters as they are important scientists.

And it has apes in it! Everyone loves apes, right?

That’s not one of the questions we asked Jim Ottaviani and Maris Wicks about their work on the book, but we did have the opportunity to ask them plenty of others. Today, we talk to Ottaviani.

GC4K: At this point, you’ve really established a sort of “beat” for your comics writing, in terms of non-fiction science comics. In general, how do you choose your subjects, and how did you arrive at this particular subject for this particular book…?

Jim Ottaviani: I always choose subjects that I’m interested in learning more about myself, since I’ve found that writing a book is a great excuse for reading a lot about fascinating people and things. After I’ve done all the research I think I need the process of crafting a story clarifies it in my mind…and always reveals more that I should know. (As in, I’m always wrong about thinking I’m done; there are always points in the writing where I realize I don’t know enough about something I thought I had a solid handle on.)

As for Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas, like I said, I wanted to learn more about them. I’m also drawn to stories about tough, intelligent, and courageous people changing the way we think about ourselves and our place in the world. These three scientists were and are all of those things, and did just that.

GC4K: What surprised me about the book was that though I knew Fossey and Goodall, I was unfamiliar with Galdikas, and the fact that the Fossey and Goodall shared with one another a mentor of sorts in Louis Leakey. How did you arrive at the particular focus for this book, as it seems any of the above four could very easily support a graphic novel biography of their own?

Ottaviani: You’re right to say that any of the four could support a book on their own. More than one, even!

Not that this was part of some grand plan, but looking back at Primates, I think the paths Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas took to their careers, and their life stories after they chose to become scientists, were different enough that it makes sense to bring them together and have those similarities there for the reader to discover. Leakey is important as the common thread early on, but it’s what happened after they left Leakey behind that interested me most.

And the differences between the scientists are interesting too, of course; it’s important to see that there’s not a single path to greatness.

GC4K: Related to that, while Jane Goodall especially is a household name, how widely-known is her story, do you think, and the connections she has to these other scientists?

Ottaviani: You touched on a key point, because oddly enough, going in I may have known the least about Jane Goodall. I think that’s because she’s a household name and I had her securely tucked away in the Famous People Everybody Has Heard Of part of my brain. I needed to get to a point where I could move her into the Famous Person I Know Something About part, and as we just talked about, highlighting the connections and similarities and differences flowed from there.

GC4K: Your afterword makes a point of declaring that this story isn’t necessarily 100% accurate in every way, and in a few instances, allowances were made for storytelling rather than reporting. How accurate is it, in your estimation? Is there a particular example of a point where things are presented differently to benefit the story?

Ottaviani: I can’t put a percentage on the accuracy, so I’ll quote Kelly Stewart from her review of the book in Nature: “How true to life is it? As someone familiar with all three stories—especially that of Fossey, with whom I studied gorillas in Rwanda —I’d say it’s an accurate rendition.”

In general, the thing we fooled around with the most, so to speak, was the passage of time; in our versions of the journal entries we sometimes left out years and compressed things to keep the story moving along. I hope that where we departed from the whole truth and nothing but the truth we did so in service giving the reader a more vivid sense of what it was like to be in the field, working and making the discoveries. Emotional truth substituting for factual truth when necessary, if you will.

GC4K: You have each of the major characters narrate their own sections. Did this come about because of how much each of the characters have written about themselves already…?

Ottaviani: Exactly so. There’s a wealth of raw material out there, and we worked from that whenever we could. It can be hard sometimes to keep all your characters from talking the way you talk, so being able to read letters and journal entries and books written by the scientists themselves helped give each of them a distinctive voice.

GC4K: How did working with Wicks come about? Did you seek her out for a particular reason, or did the publisher help put you guys together?

Ottaviani: After completing the script we had an idea of the style of art we wanted (Maris-like) and talked about a bunch of possibilities in terms of artists to contact. Calista [Brill] and Mark [Siegel], the editors at First Second, drew up a list of names and so did I, and we agreed on many of them.

What followed was a long period of seeing who was available and interested, and looking at a lot of great art samples. Maris’s were the last we looked at, because when those showed up in my inbox I called Calista up and said “She’s the one, right?” Calista thought so too, and here we are!

Less than a week later Maris and I found ourselves, purely by coincidence, sitting next to each other at a comic book convention. So that worked out great.

GC4K: Were you writing with a particular age group in mind? I ask because there are a few points where the narrative seems a bit oblique, like on Leakey’s not-necessarily-scientific interest in some of his assistants and, especially, in Fossey’s death.

Ottaviani: There are other, perhaps more subtle, examples, but the ones you point out are good ones. If we were making a book for children we’d have left that stuff out, and no doubt some other things too.

So we did have a lower bound in mind, to use a turn of phrase from my engineering days. As with all my books, though, that lower bound is just that —a presumed minimum age, since the idea is for readers on the younger side to bring their A-game to Primates and read up, and for the book to be enjoyable by more than just a narrowly-defined target audience.

So, it’s a book for young adults and adults who aren’t young. As a result, dealing with Leakey’s behavior, much of it admirable but some of it less so, makes sense. This gets back to our desire to tell the story truthfully both in terms of facts and in terms of feelings.

GC4K: I asked Wicks this regarding drawing it, but how difficult is it to write animal behavior, like the scenes of the chimpanzees using tools or doing their “rain dance”?

Ottaviani: Those scenes required a lot of description. Fortunately, Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas were and are good scientists, and that means their descriptions were helpful! We’re also fortunate to live in an age of easy access to video, so the basics of body language and gesture are available to us.

­GC4K: Because of the “bigness” of the story and the larger-than-life characters and the size of the book, did you have to leave very much material out when it came time to finalize a draft for the script? Are there aspects or anecdotes of the characters’ lives you especially regret not being able to include more on…?

Ottaviani: Too many to count! To give you an idea of this, before starting I made a list of scenes I wanted to include in the book. Each is described in two to three lines, and that document runs to 21 single-spaced pages. Do the math, and…yeah, a lot got left behind. Each scene we had to cut broke my heart a little.

But I know that’s going to happen going into any book—the notion that you have to “kill your darlings” is familiar to most writers—and that’s why my books always have bibliographies. With a list of resources I can point readers who get excited about the subject towards some of the source material so they can find out more, and find some of those darlings themselves. They’re not dead; good stories never are!

J. Caleb Mozzocco About J. Caleb Mozzocco

J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.

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