Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick

First Second






Graphic novels: A different reading experience

I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to read a graphic novel. Maybe they seemed too comic book-ish and juvenile. This impression has now been corrected.

Merriam-Webster defines graphic novel as “a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book.” But the category also includes nonfiction non-novels, such as this biography of the most respected theoretical physicist of our time. In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus, won the Pulitzer Prize, lending the genre both visibility and legitimacy as an art form. The book industry recognized it as a category in 2001.

It’s a different reading experience—not worse, not better, just different. Part of the richness in reading comes from the activation of one’s imagination. In some ways, the graphic novel limits the play of one’s own imagination by providing visuals, much as do films. But the pictures in Hawking were also useful where my own imagination fell short—as in trying to visualize “singularities,” Schrödinger’s cat, or the bending of space and time. (At one point, even the authors admit defeat, displaying a blank panel with only “You might find this hard to visualize.”)

Foremost, this is the biography of a brilliant man, whose extraordinary mind continued to explore the farthest reaches of the universe while his body became progressively earthbound by Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS.) His humor and courage shine through as much as his intellect. At times, he comes across as distant and distracted by his work; admirable in a cosmologist, perhaps less admirable in a father and husband. Admirable, too, is his wife Jane who married him knowing his fatal motor neuron diagnosis, and who remained committed to him, caring for him, raising their family, while earning her own PhD in medieval literature, without much encouragement from her husband. (Hawking thought medieval literature a bit specialized and “esoteric”—unlike, say, the popular appeal and many everyday uses of astrophysics?)

But along with being the biography of an extraordinary mind, Hawking is also a history of humanity’s attempt to understand this mystery called the universe, illustrated with useful visuals and entertaining anecdotes (After repeating “gravitationally collapsed objects” ten times in a lecture, John Wheeler decided to call them “black holes” instead. Good call.) The book provides introductions to the people and ideas that have transformed our understanding of the cosmos—Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Lemaître, Eddington, Hubble, right down to Hawking’s contemporaries Roger Penrose and Kip Thorne.

Not bad for a comic book.



(Note: If astrophysics isn’t your thing, you might try George Takei’s graphic novel, also published this year, They Called Us Enemy, a moving testament about his Japanese American family’s internment when he was a child during WWII.)


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 25, 2019-January 10, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.