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posted February 9, 2000
Jim Ottaviani and Various
Dignifying Science is a nice book. It may be too nice of a book. The slim volume, self-published, is the third in Jim Ottaviani's ongoing series of science-related comics. A first volume profiled a period in the life of public science personality Richard Feynman, and the second used that same story as the foundation for several other profiles in an omnibus collection called Two-Fisted Science. All of those stories, like the ones in the current volume, are written by Ottaviani and drawn by a collection of artists, most of whom are drawn from the independent side of the fence.
Dignifying Science profiles women scientists, a conceptual choice which forces Ottaviani and his collaborators to negotiate a number of issues that the other comics avoided. Thehe choice brings up the spector of highlighting versus ghettoizing women scientists by placing them in their own volume; the arrangement also begs for specific thematic treatment that finds links and similarities in the scientists' stories.
Ottaviani's is professional and solid, but never exemplary. Ottaviani obviously has sympathy for his subjects (he has a background in scientific research), and effectively communicates the scientific ideas in each profile. Ottaviani's work is mature and non-intrusive; in fact, it's hard to separate his contributions from the those of his collaborators, to the point that it would not be surprising if they were solo efforts. At the same time, Ottaviani's dialogue is ordinary, and those experiments in a more daring formal approach -- the Rosalind Franklin profiles, filled with various flashbacks and multiple perspectives -- are more labored than thrilling. But Ottaviani has a good ear for inner monologues, and his enthusiasm for the subject matter makes the footnotes concerned solely with scientific matters (as opposed to those focusing on quirks of personality or on trivia related to the subject matter) leap off the page.
Due to the mutability of Ottaviani's writing, the strength of each individual profile depends greatly on the artist. None of the artists provide quality work on the level of contributions by Bernie Mireault or Dave Lasky in the first collection, although the veterans fare far better than the relative newcomers. Ramona Fradon, one of the more accomplished and interesting DC artists of the mid-1960s, provides a visually compelling although slightly stiff cover illustration (Hedy Lamarr), while Marie Severin begins (Marie Sklodovska) and ends (Marie Curie) the book with two very interesting, meticulously-illustrated pieces that rely on very subtle figure drawing. Alternative mainstay Mary Fleener's back cover (Emmy Noether), in her signature style, may be intended to touch on the matter-of-fact sexuality such women reluctantly and often cluelessly exude. If so, it is an interesting choice.
Of the younger artists featured, Carla Speed McNeil's profile of Hedy Lamarr is the most artistically accomplished, combining the occasionall cartoon overreaction with studied work on the faces that does justice to existing photos. Anne Timmons' piece on Birute Galidikas is solid but suffers from the occasional misfiring on a face or figure drawing. Jen Sorensen and Lea Hernandez, both stylized cartoonists working within definite traditions (humor cartooning and anime, respectively) seem overmatched by the subject matter, and have a difficult time holding one's attention in "Lise Meitner" and "Barbara McClintock" respecitively as a result. The team-drawn profile of Rosalind Franklin is the least effective in the volume, despite the most potentially interesting story. (Franklin was either an extremely difficult personality or worked in extremely difficult circumstances, or both.) The artwork provided by Donna Barr and Roberta Gregory in the Franklin story is missing their usual energy, while Linda Medley's short contribution is conceptually intersting while othewise perfunctoy. The bulk of Franklin's story falls to Stephanie Gladden, whose animation-inspired style seems inadequately nuanced to convey the story's themes.
Editor and writer Ottaviani has a chance to carve himself an interesting niche amongst working comics writers. There is no reason that similar stories wouldn't appeal to mainstream magazines, and there shouldn't ever be a lack of comics artists willing to provide short stories on such compelling figures. The fact that the Dignifying Science is solid and competent further increases the chance that there will be more comics like this one, even if doubt remain that few will satisfy as art.