January 2006

Colleen Mondor


Comic Books and Thunder Lizards

I have been reading and loving comic books all of my life. I can not remember a time when there weren’t a few dozen lying around the house somewhere and quite frankly, if it wasn’t for the Classic Comics that my grandmother bought after my Uncle Mike was born then I don’t think I would have any idea who the Man in the Iron Mask was, let alone what happened on Treasure Island. I don’t spend a lot of time reading about comics because most of the articles waste their time on “how to get your girlfriend to love comics” or “comics aren’t just about guys in tights anymore!” I read comics, and because I am not biased about the manner in which a story is told -- I love a good story no matter the format -- I am lucky enough to find some amazing books that come out of the comics industry and get overlooked by the mainstream press. My latest discovery is the work of Jim Ottaviani and G.T. Labs. A couple of months ago, Ottaviani wrote and published a graphic novel on the frontier days of paleontology, Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards.

Bone Sharps is primarily the story of two men, Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. Cope and Marsh were at the forefront of the dinosaur collecting period in the late 1800s, the so-called “Gilded Age.” Cope was employed as Chief Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and collecting bones was his passion. Marsh was the Director of Yale’s Peabody Museum and also a Professor of Paleontology. While the two men are credited as among the century’s great vertebrate paleontologists, (there were 18 identified dinosaur species in North America when they began their careers, more than 150 when they ended), they also had a bitter feud that ultimately led to great scandal and professional embarrassment. They present the type of compelling story that would be irresistible in any form, but with the addition of fantastic illustrations and period typesetting, Ottaviani’s decision to write about Cope and Marsh as a graphic novel makes it a great choice for a wide age range interested in dinosaurs and the men who sought to understand them.

Surprisingly, Ottaviani did not know much about Marsh and Cope until he came across a catalog listing for a book by Mark Jaffe at his day job at the University of Michigan library in Ann Arbor. The Gilded Dinosaur caught Ottaviani’s eye, although as he wrote recently, “I couldn’t in good conscience spend Michigan tax dollars on it for the engineering library, [so] I wrote down the title so I could read it for my own interest.” This one book set the author down a path, which culminated in Bone Sharps. Along the way, Ottaviani took a few liberties with the story (it is not published as nonfiction) and expanded the role of artist Charles R. Knight who is credited with making the first honest artistic portrayals of dinosaurs. The addition of Knight to the novel became critical for Ottaviani: “As I was reading about Cope and Marsh,” he writes, “I ran across Knight as something of a bit player in their lives. As I got further into the Cope and Marsh story, and I liked the two less and less as people -- which is different from liking them as characters, of course -- I wanted to have a character in the book for the readers to root for, and neither of the scientists could fill that role. When I found out that Knight had met Cope just before Cope died, I became convinced that he was the character I needed.”

The decision to include Knight took on a much greater significance when Ottaviani was able to get in touch with his granddaughter, who forwarded the writer an autobiographical manuscript Knight had written many years before. When Bone Sharps was handed off to its illustrating team, Ottaviani started editing the manuscript and transformed it into a more coherent size and form. “In the end,” writes Ottaviani, “I reduced it down to about one-third of its original size; turning it into something I thought was publishable… [but] I didn’t really know I was creating a new book until I was almost done reworking the manuscript myself.” G.T. Labs published Knight’s autobiography with numerous explanatory footnotes from Ottaviani. It also includes forewords by Ray Bradbury and special effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen, an introduction from dinosaur artist William Stout and appreciations from several current luminaries in the field of natural history. Clearly, Knight had an enormous impact on the way in which we perceive dinosaurs, in fact, according to Mark Norell, Chairman and Curator of the American Museum of Natural History’s Division of Paleontology, Charles Knight “took the fantasy away.” In his Appreciation, Norell writes, “By combining his impressive anatomical and artistic skills and working closely with paleontologists and explorers he made these animals believable. By painting them into backgrounds, showing them dynamically interacting and behaving, he brought the past to life, and showed just how similar the present is to the prehistoric.”

But I’ve never heard of Charles R. Knight (or Marsh or Cope), and I doubt that many other outside of the paleontology field have either.

In many ways rescuing Knight, Cope and Marsh from scientific obscurity is nothing new for Ottaviani, as he founded G.T. Labs in 1997 strictly to publish comics about scientists. His interest is the field is due largely to his own academic background first career, in nuclear engineering, and has directed him to publish a series of collections about everyone from Robert Oppenheimer to Marie Curie. “I think there’s a story or two for just about everyone in the five volumes [published] so far,” writes Ottaviani. “When people ask me about true stories, as if that was sort of weird for a comics or other popular entertainment media, I point out that in any given year there’s almost always at least one Oscar nominee that’s basically a biography. Last year three out of five Best Picture nominees were biopics. Now, rarely are these about scientists, but scientists lead interesting and, frankly, entertaining lives too.”

Of course it helps a lot when the books are illustrated as beautifully as Bone Sharps. The drawing was done by a group of artists known as “Big Time Attic.” Ottaviani presented the idea to the group in 2004 and subsequently they agreed to collaborate with him and draw the 160-page novel -- starting immediately. What they brought to the project was an impressive commitment to period design -- the books looks and reads like a 19th century novel -- and an important commitment to historical accuracy. There were many ways the crew at Big Time Attic could have made this book a cartoon, but there is no moment that the faces of Cope, Marsh and the others do not reflect the emotions that Ottaviani has written. As the author explains, “In Hollywood, they say you have to make sure everybody’s making the same movie; if you’re not you get something that everybody disavows… well, we were all making the same book, from the very first day to the all-nighter when we finished the cover design and layout.” That unified effort is clear in how seamlessly the story unfolds, and part of what makes Bone Sharps a pure pleasure for the reader.

I can’t help but think that if G.T. Labs was around when my grandmother was buying all those Classic Comics then I would know about scientists like Niels Bohr, Emmy Noether, and Lise Meitner today. After reading their stories, I would have been drawn to learn more about them just as Ottaviani was drawn to write Bone Sharps after he first read Jaffe’s book. “When something interesting comes along,” writes Ottaviani, “I read more about it. And sometimes there’s a new story in those words, waiting to get told with some pictures added in.”

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like paleontology can be that exciting. I’m sure that moment when a new fossil is uncovered is amazing, but there are also miles and miles of research that must be done and papers that must be written and experts that must be consulted. It is not a glory field, not to the general public anyway, and I suppose that is why I’m so pleased with Bone Sharps and also with the Knight autobiography. Jim Ottaviani has written a book that includes P.T. Barnum, Oglala Sioux Chief Red Cloud, President Ulysses S. Grant and a lot of dinosaur bones. He also managed to show how obsession and ambition nearly destroyed the careers of two great scientists and how one dedicated artist changed the way we look at the prehistoric past. These books are the history of science, they are American history, and in the case of Bone Sharps it is also a thrilling adventure ride across the Wild West.