I have been a fan of Jim Ottaviani's graphic novels for some time now, and was especially pleased to include his latest, T-Minus, in my September column celebrating the Apollo 11 anniversary. Jim writes science stories on a variety of subjects include Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards, a look at the late 19th century competition for dinosaur fossils (my review), Wire Mothers (if you ever wanted to be creeped out by psychology do read my review of this one) and Suspended in Language: A Book About Niels Bohr. See a full list at the GT Labs site.
What I like about Jim's books is that they embrace their subjects fully - he clearly is as fascinated by writing the books as readers will be reading them and this enthusiasm bubbles over in the text. It doesn't hurt that I have always been interested in these kinds of books - dinosaurs, illusions and science history abound in his titles - but T-Minus really put him over the top for me. As someone who grew up on the Space Coast of Florida I was already well versed in the Germini, Mercury and Apollo programs but knew practically nothing about their Russian counterparts. Jim easily shifts the narrative between the two countries in this piece of historical fiction and reveals an enormous amount of information that will both dazzle and impress. Written for MG readers, any space nut will enjoy this one and after reading it I had to know just how it came about. Jim was gracious enough to answer several email questions and share more about his own space geekery.
CM: What made you decide to cover both the US and Russian povs for T-Minus? The Russian portion of the story really blew my mind and I don't recall reading much about it for this age group in the past. Has anything been written on it before for kids? (Laika comes to mind - and did that ever break my heart, hard but beyond that I'm drawing a blank.)
JO: I'm not aware of anything like it for a younger audience, no, and that includes both prose and comics. But that doesn't mean there's nothing out there, of course -- I'd love to read other books like this if they exist!
As for why I included the Russians, it's because it really was a space race. People use that phrase all the time, but after doing so it's as if the readers are watching the Olympics and the only person they ever get to see is the winner of the marathon and all the other runners turned invisible or something. Sure, it was also a race against the clock, since President Kennedy challenged us that way, but it was much more than that.
So the notion that heroes are defined by the strength of their opposition couldn't be more true in this case and I wanted to show the Russian engineers and cosmonauts as the formidable competition that they were. And, as I hope the book showed out, they really were competitors, not enemies.
CM: There's a surprising amount of politics in here - again not what is traditionally included for young readers. The panels on Harrison Storms taking the fall after Apollo 1 were so intense and
unexpected. I grew up on the Apollo 1 story but never heard any of this before and in reading general histories of the event he is not mentioned. What prompted you to include this episode and indeed, to make "Stormy" one of the moral centers of the book?
JO: I read a book about Storms (in Angle of Attack by Mike Gray) years ago, and his story had a great effect on me. He was an engineer trying to do the right thing, but not always succeeding for reasons that he couldn't completely control. He has flaws -- we used the shorthand of him always being in a hurry, and even his speech patterns in the book reflect that -- but he did his best to make sure the program succeeded, even at the expense of his company in the case of the landing mode decision and himself after Apollo 1.
I don't consider his story an overtly political one, though. I think the important thing about Storms was what he sacrificed, and as a representative of what thousands of other people sacrificed as well. So I agree with you that he's one of the moral centers. Between him and C.C. and Max, the NASA engineers, and then Korolev on the Russian side, I tried to show the foundation of the two programs and the kinds of decisions and the amount of work that went on behind the scenes.
CM: Can you talk a little about the research you did for the book? I'm a bit of a research junkie (my friend Gwenda would refer to this as "writer porn") and I'm very intrigued by how you obviously sifted through an enormous amount of information and managed to present in a form that is not only readable but exciting (even though we know how it ends - which makes the narrative tension that much more impressive). So what were you looking for when you started this project - what did you want to learn and how did you tackle such a big research project?
JO: First and foremost, research for this was fun! I've loved the idea of space travel for as long as I can remember, so learning more about it was a joy. It was also easy in one sense; when it comes to NASA and Mercury and Gemini and Apollo, the documentation out there is vast. I had stacks of books and reports and transcripts and hours of video to work with, and everywhere I turned I found another interesting anecdote. Our book could have easily been twice as long and still not cover every great tidbit I turned up.
But the challenge was that most of what's out there is about the technology itself and the guys who rode the rockets, so finding material on the people behind the scenes who created that technology took more effort. That's what I went digging for, and even though there's much less of that, especially when it comes to primary materials like oral histories, there was more than enough to build the book. I have pages and pages -- some of it scripted, even -- of out-takes, in fact! Maybe someday we can do a director's cut.
(Imagine the sound of Zander and Kevin groaning...they did some seriously heavy lifting in terms of making the book visually interesting and accurate.)
JO: Korolev was a giant in terms of influence, but largely because I don't read Russian -- there's a huge biography of him in Russian that I could use only for reference photos -- I relied on only a few main
sources. Before writing the book, I knew of him, but the only details I had beyond the very basics were what I learned from Laika. I agree that Nick's book is wonderful, by the way. He is too, and he shared a
number of his sources with me, and some photos as well.
But the picture I built up of Korolev was mainly informed by James Harford's book. And that picture is of a driven man, one badly treated by his country for a long time, who cared so much about his cosmonauts and getting into space that he almost single-handedly drove the Soviet program forward. That the U.S. engineers thought highly of his achievements -- while not knowing who he was! -- makes me confident that he was indeed as important as we make him out to be in T-Minus.
(Another shout out: While we're talking about excellent graphic novels about space I also want to mention Jim Vining's First in Space, which is about Ham. Jim's working on a book about Wernher von Braun right now, and I can't wait for that!)
CM: You've kind of become my go-to guy on science graphic novels. What is on the horizon? And also, this is a bit of a technical question but who came up with the idea for different fonts for the US and Russian potions of the book? Everyone looked so much alike (all the characters are white guys who generally dress the same way) that the fonts made a huge difference. I'm interested in how you all figured that out.
JO: Next up: A biography of Richard Feynman, complete with quantum electrodynamics and a little bit of NASA as well. Then -- or perhaps before, since it's hard to tell how publishing schedules will work out -- a book about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas which is targeted for a YA audience as well. I'm working on a couple of other projects right now, but they're in the early stages so I'm not ready to say more about them yet. One might be not non-fiction, and yes, the double negative is on purpose.
As for the font, I'm glad you think it worked. The idea to do this was mine, though I got it from Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!. (Note to readers: Flagg! is very much not a YA book...) Back to that notion of heavy lifting, though, Kevin worked out the font itself and did a great job. We went through many iterations of it trying to get just the right balance of foreign-ness and readability, and if I recall correctly you see version Delta or Echo in the book. Because I am a science guy, I tested the fonts out on kids in the neighborhood, in fact, to make sure it did what we wanted it to do: to signal that something was different, but still be readable. They were fine with even stronger -- stranger? -- versions such as Alpha or Bravo, but in the end we stepped back from those just to be on the safe side.
[Post pic of Gemini III in March 1965; Harrison Storms 1959; Russian Chief Designer Sergei Korolov - read more about his impressive and tragic life at the BBC; the crew of Apollo 1, killed in a launch pad fire in 1967 and cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko killed in an oxygen-rich atmosphere fire in his capsule on the ground in 1961.]]