Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #352: Fallout by Jim Ottaviani and various artists

Jim Ottaviani has been writing comics about science and scientists for a little over two decades now, and I've only intermittently caught up with him. (See my posts about The Imitation Game, from earlier this year, and Feynman, from 2015.)

Fallout is a much earlier book than those two, published in 2001, and it shows Ottaviani struggling to put all of his material into comics form -- or, maybe, to determine what material should be in comics form.

That's always the question, though: what is this story that I'm telling here? What points are necessary, which scenes do I need to show, and which details are unnecessary or confusing? At this point in his comics-writing career, Ottaviani was still erring on the side of leaving everything in: Fallout not only has over twenty-five pages of notes and backmatter, it also contains entire government memos and long detailed letters crammed onto the comics pages themselves, running in tight columns next to related comics panels over a half-dozen or more consecutive pages.

In retrospect, Fallout does try to do too much, to include all of the sides of what the subtitle calls "the political science of the atomic bomb." And that overwhelms the tighter story that can sometimes be seen peeking around the edges, one that uses Leo Szilard and J. Robert Oppenheimer as contrasts and opposing lenses through which to see the Manhattan Project.

Ottaviani begins well before Manhattan, though -- even the famous letter to Roosevelt from Einstein urging its creation happens well into the book. Fallout starts out looking like the story of Szilard, starting in the interwar years as he fled the rise of Naziism and continuing as he became part of the team that built the first bombs. But Szilard, as Ottaviani tells it, wasn't actually all that important to the actual building of the bomb, and he wants to tell that story, too. So Szilard loses his center of the spotlight for long stretches, as Ottaviani includes nearly everyone on the very large team over many years that was involved in making atomic power into a weapon.

Again, there's too much here: it's not one story, and Ottaviani wasn't ruthless enough to cull it down to a single story that he could tell in one book. Oppenheimer, credited first in the subtitle, doesn't show up for the first time until the book is half over.

The art is similarly varied, from a variety of artists all doing interesting work but not looking like they're doing consecutive pages in the same book: Janine Johnston, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, and Jeff Parker all drawn substantial sections, with Bernie Mirault providing interstitial material, Jeffrey Jones a cover, and Chris Kemple a few pages in one section.

I'm not exactly complaining that Fallout is too long: it's less than 250 pages. The problem is that there's too much crammed on too many of those pages -- those long memos reprinted in full here, when they don't need to be. And that it tries to do too much and loses focus because of that. Fallout isn't quite a really good comics history of the Manhattan Project, but it does contain pieces of about three different really good comics histories of the Manhattan Project. For readers who want a deep dive, or are impressed by ambition, that could be enough.

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