Last week, First Second Books released "Primates", an all-ages historical graphic novel that tells the story of famed primatologists Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas – and to celebrate the book's launch, we got the chance to talk to writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Maris Wicks about their creative process and the inspiration behind this project.
MTV Geek: What compelled you to tell this story, and what about it demanded to be presented as a graphic novel?
Jim Ottaviani: I'd written a short comics story about Biruté Galdikas for my second book (Dignifying Science) and I knew the general outline of Dian Fossey's life story. Oddly enough, I knew the least about Jane Goodall, probably because she’s a household name and I had her safely tucked away in the Famous People Everybody Knows About category part of my brain. When First Second expressed interest in doing non-fiction comics, I knew exactly what I wanted to offer them: a book about Richard Feynman (which became the 2011 book called FEYNMAN, done with Leland Myrick) and a book about Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas. That gave me the opportunity to learn more about all of them, and move everyone, especially Jane Goodall, into the Famous Person I Know Something About category.
As for comics, it's a great medium for stories about scientists, since scientists are some of the most visually-oriented people on the planet. They're also a great way to introduce people to characters and ideas they might never find out about if they were just confronted with a block of prose, or even a documentary. Comics work.
Maris Wicks: For Primates, I was working with Jim's script, so I would honestly have to say that THAT compelled my storytelling. This was my first long (longer than 24 pages) comics project, and it was an awesome experience...A year or two before I started working on Primates, I had quietly decided to pursue "science comics" (oddly specific, I know). A lot of my self-published mini comics had already taken a science-y turn, so when the opportunity to illustrate Primates arose, I was thrilled!
Independent of my comics and illustration work, I have been an educator at the New England Aquarium, and before that, an educator at the Providence Children's Museum, an orchard tour guide at a farm, and an environment/arts educator at summer camp (being a freelance illustrator usually means you've got some non-art jobs on the side; I will spare you from listing all my past food-service jobs). I've always loved science and art, and I think that these non-art education jobs have greatly informed my storytelling. Teaching in classrooms, museums and outdoors, and teaching a wide variety of levels and ages really makes me appreciate the accessibility that comics offer. Yay! Comics!
Geek: The structure for this story involves three separate lives that only intersect at a couple specific points. How did you go about ensuring that the unorthodox format didn't get confusing?
Ottaviani: These three scientists are linked by their connection to Louis Leakey and the general outline of their early careers. They also share certain traits -- curiosity, toughness, courage, and intelligence – but beyond that their stories are as distinctly individual as you can imagine. So telling their combined story required emphasizing those intersections you mentioned, but keeping them separate at the same time.
Maris and I used a few techniques to help readers keep them distinct. First, we made sure each spoke with a unique voice. That was aided by my being able to work from journal entries and letters they wrote. We then extended that to the lettering, so Jane Goodall speaks and writes in italics (which denotes a bit of an accent for North American readers, I think?!), Dian Fossey in a beat-up typewriter font, and Biruté Galdikas in block letters. Finally, we used a different color palette for each section, and made sure captions by the three did so as well. All of those combined help readers, even if it's only at a subconscious level, keep the three stories separate while still seeing them combine as a whole.
Wicks: Just as Jim mentioned above, he had outlined different fonts for each of the characters, and corresponding colors for their narration boxes, so that direction was there for me from the beginning. Each character's environment was also color-specific: Bright, young greens for Goodall, misty grey-green for Fossey, and saturated jungle-green for Galdikas (these were also Jim's suggestions; thanks Jim!).
Early on, we wanted to nail down my visual depiction of the characters in Primates. Before I got started on the pencils (but after I had completed the thumbnails/rough sketches), Calista Brill (our editor) had me draw model sheets of each character at all their respective ages they appear in the book. Similar to model sheets in animation, these became my go-to references for making sure the characters stayed on model. This process helped me to portray the emotionally intense scenes in the book. I can't think of any particular scenes that needed major editing, but we did give Fossey's scene at the end a few goes (where she's addressing an audience of politicians and dignitaries about gorilla conservation, and SPOILER ALERT: she mock-hangs herself as a suggestion for what to do with poachers).
Geek: Were there any moments in which you had to bend facts to strike a balance between complete truth and telling an entertaining story?
Ottaviani: Yes, though in the writing I tried not to bend facts so much as bend chronology to clarify the story. Fortunately, I didn't take an oath in court and commit to telling the whole truth and nothing but...
What that means is, when there was a choice between presenting more facts or skipping or compressing some things in service of making sure the story flows better, I chose story.
Wicks: Following Jim's lead, whenever I absolutely could not find a photo reference of something I needed to draw, I would take an educated guess about what it might look like, and just go for it. For instance, sometimes I could find a photo reference of the right city, but not an old enough photo. I'd just omit the modern buildings for that scene.
Geek: Were there any stories or scenes that you wanted to include, but simply didn't fit into the story that you were telling?
Ottaviani: Too many to count! To give you an idea of this, before starting I made a list of scenes I wanted to include. Each is described in 2-3 lines, and that document runs to 21 single-spaced pages. Do the math, and...yeah. A lot got left behind. Each of those broke my heart a little. But I address that, along with the bending we just talked about, in the afterword, which points readers towards some of the source material so they can find out more if they want to.
Geek: Maris, how did you go about researching the images for this book? And what was your process for character design, interpreting these real people in your personal style?
Wicks: Jim was an immense help and supplied me with a 3-inch stack of photocopied references (both photo and text) as well as a list of helpful books and some video clips (mostly of specific non-human primate behaviors, like chimps termite "fishing" or gorillas beating their chests, you know, normal stuff you search for on youtube...).
As for my interpretation of the characters, I was thrilled and flattered that Jim and First Second where open to my cartoon-y approach. As I said above, I had made model sheets (as well as lots of sketches of each character showing different expressions) to make sure I was capturing the essence of Goodall, Fossy, Galdikas and Leakey, a while distilling them into simple cartoon forms.
Geek: Did this project originate as a collaboration, or did one of you come up with the concept and proceed to seek out someone to work with?
Ottaviani: I get to take the credit for the concept and the story, I suppose. Maris, do you want to tell how you ended up drawing it?
Wicks: Sure! First Second approached me in the spring of 2008 and asked if I wanted to submit samples for a script; it would be like a trying out for the book (lots of other artists were also submitting samples). I said "sure!" and when I got the script, I realized it was written by Jim...who just happened to be one of my favorite writers in comics! I wanted to knock my samples out of the park, and do it fast (to show that I could work fast*), so I read the script twice, picked three pages to draw to completion (colored and lettered) and full-color drawing of Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas with their respective Great apes. I completed all this in a little over a week, and sent it off, know that it was plenty possible that I wouldn't get the book. June rolled around, and I was going to be at Heroes Con (a comics convention in Charlotte, NC). The show had released the seating plan, and I went to check to see who my neighbor would be and it was...Jim! I hadn't heard anything from First Second, and I realized that it would be mighty awkward sitting next to Jim for 3 days being like, "haha so yeah, primates...". A DAY before I flew out, First Second contacted me to let me know that I had gotten the book (and my "happy chimp" dance ensued; ask me to do it for you sometime)! So Jim and I got to nerd out about Primates the whole weekend, and it really was an awesome way to start the project.
*when it comes to doing a big book, turns out I'm not THAT fast, sorry!
Geek: So what form did the collaborative process take?
Ottaviani: I write full script, starting with a description of the image, action, and text for the first panel on page one and running through to the last panel of the last page. But after I finished creating what was essentially an instruction manual for making PRIMATES? That's when the book starts to come alive, and as the art arrives I do my best to not look at my script at all unless something doesn't seem to be working. Only then do I allow myself to read what I wrote, and suggest major changes. So in that sense it's a very close collaboration; even though I had an idea of what it should, or at least could, be, in a very real sense there was no book until Maris began drawing it.
Wicks: Jim's script was incredibly detailed, much like a movie script; it was so helpful for a book like Primates where there are real characters and real places. Knowing all the dialogue/narration and panel size and placement ahead of time made laying out each page a lot easier for me (thanks again, Jim!).
Geek: And now that this book is out in the world, what projects are you each working on next?
Wicks: In the next year, look for some Adventure Time Comics covers and back-up stories from me, as well as a Batman: Black and White story that I wrote (illustrated by Joe Quinones). For longer projects, I'm working on a new book for First Second all about the human body.
Ottaviani: Leland Purvis and I have a book coming soon about Alan Turing, the mathematician, code breaker and computer scientist. It's called "The Imitation Game" and it should appear in 2014...maybe sooner.
Further out, the pile of books and notes on and around my desk is rising as I do research for a new book. In brief, and to no one's surprise, it's another history of discovery and an amazing scientist. I hope to be able to say more about it some time soon!