Jim Ottaviani talks "Bone Sharps"

Wed, October 19th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Jordan, Guest Contributor

"Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards: Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology" isn't your usual comic book title. But then, a book about the true story of dueling scientists carving up the Wild West in a mad search for dinosaur bones isn't your usual subject for a comic book either.

"Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards" is the new graphic novel, available now from finer comic shoppes, from writer Jim Ottaviani and the art team at Big Time Attic. The "yarn," as it's described by Ottaviani, is being published by G.T. Labs, a publisher for whom books about scientists isn't the aberration, but the norm. CBR News recently talked with Ottaviani about the book.

CBR News: "Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards" is quite a title. Tell us a bit about it. What's it actually about?

Jim Ottaviani: It's about Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology, of course!

Sorry, that's sort of cheating, since that's the sub-title of the book. To elaborate further, I'll cheat even more and quote from its sub-sub-title: The book guest-stars the world-renowned artist Charles R. Knight, Chief Red Cloud & hundreds of his Indian braves, the gun-totin' & gamblin' professor John Bell Hatcher, colossal & stupefying dinosauria of the New World, and features special appearances by the Cardiff Giant, P.T. Barnum, Buffalo Bill Cody, Ulysses S. Grant, Alexander Graham Bell, and a plentiful supporting cast of rogues & gallants from the eastern scientific establishment and the old west.

As you can see, I love old-fashioned titles, and this book is chock full of guest stars and surprising appearances. But the main story focuses on two scientists and an artist.

O.C. Marsh, an heir to the Peabody fortune, is the first scientist we meet. A bizarre sight on a midnight train ride causes him to strike up a conversation with one of the book's many guest stars, and introduces the reader to Marsh in all his self-importance.

We meet the second scientist, Edward Drinker Cope-- and don't you wish people had names like that nowadays?!-- in his Philadelphia home, where he's a bit riled up about Marsh's latest appearance in the newspapers. (For all you youngsters out there, before blogs, newspapers are what people read to find out about world events and idle gossip and everything in between.) Cope and Marsh are still friendly at this point, so he quickly moves on to work with our third character, the artist Charles R. Knight.

Knight is astounded by what he sees in Cope's house, and agrees to work with him to do a realistic depiction of an amazing dinosaur Cope has discovered. The results are an artistic success, but help sow the seeds for the feud between Cope and Marsh that carries through the rest of the book.

The battle rages from Washington D.C. to New Jersey to the territories-- they're not states yet at this time in history-- of Wyoming and Montana, and everybody from scientists to cowboys mixes it up a little by the end of the story.

It's a yarn, in other words. We've taken some liberties with the actual history, though we haven't departed so far from the truth that people who know the story from their own research and interest in the "Bone Wars" won't enjoy it just as much as folks who've never heard of Cope and Marsh before.

CBR News: So what was it that inspired you to write a book about six shooters, science and skeletons?

Ottaviani: This goes back to my day job as a librarian. I used to buy books for the engineering library, and so I'd see lots of catalogs and purchase lots of stuff with really (really!) dull titles. About five years ago, though, I was working through the new releases and saw a book called "The Gilded Dinosaur." I couldn't justify buying it for the engineers-- they need stuff about differential equations and tribology and such-- but I wrote down the title for myself. I read it, and tracked down more about the main characters, and decided that dinosaurs + the old west = just about the perfect combination of story elements to make for a fun book to write...and read!

That equation certainly appealed to the 10 year old in me, and when the scientist and artist angles get thrown into the mix the adult in me got excited too.

CBR: "Bone Sharps," like all of GT Labs' books, is about the lives of scientists. What prompted you to start writing about scientists?

Ottaviani: Here's the short version of my not-very-secret origin: I do comics about scientists because of Steve ("Whiteout") Lieber, a good friend of mine. We lived close to each other-- shouting distance, in fact-- for a number of years and used to meet for dinner, go to movies, talk about what we'd read, etc. I had loaned him a copy of "The Making Of The Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes, and while we were discussing it he pointed out that a wartime meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg Rhodes had great dramatic potential. When he and I talk about dramatic potential, we usually mean in comics, so I asked him if he'd draw the story if I wrote it up as a comics script. He said yes, and it was a safe bet because he knew I'd never written one before!

A couple of years and a lot of research later we had "Heavy Water," one of my favorite tales from "Two-Fisted Science." It's not the first thing I wrote for that book, nor was it the first thing I published, which was the "Safecracker" 32 page story drawn by Bernie Mireault that appeared in the collection. In fact, "Heavy Water" was the last thing done on the book because (a) it took the most research, (b) it was the hardest to write, and perhaps to draw, and (c) it was the most serious story I'd attempted. But I'm still happy with how it turned out, and all the attention that Michael Frayn's play "Copenhagen," and the more recently released unsent letters from Bohr to Heisenberg have focused on the Bohr/Heisenberg relationship has been great to see. And I take a little pride in having done something before it became all the rage. I'll note that Leland Purvis and I did another take on the story for "Suspended In Language," incorporating the additional research I did for that book.

One other reason to do comics, besides my love of the medium for its own unique strengths: Prose is a solo effort-- all the reader sees is the writer's work. And that's all the writer sees, too. And in movies, there are so many hands involved that the individual touch of anyone is hard to discern. But in comics, two wonderful things happen. First, for readers the work of both the writer and the artist(s) is present and obvious. In other words, there's very little dilution of their vision. And for me, when the artists finish the stories I get the pleasure of experiencing them through somebody else's eyes. The script leaves G.T. Labs as a relatively cold thing, a sort of weird hybrid between an instruction manual and novel. I'm usually very close to the story at that point, so close that I can't always see all its dimensions. It needs an artist to bring it life, and in the hands of an artist it gets transformed into a story and what I thought was complete before becomes something much more.

What could be better than that?

I'm not sure, now that you ask. I've been fascinated by science-- fact and fiction-- all of my life. I was good (though not great) at math relatively young, and though I liked sports and the usual stuff well enough I was always more interested in National Geographic than Sports Illustrated.

So I guess I've always tended to look at the world through a scientific lens, so to speak.

CBR News: How much research went into the creation of "Bone Sharps?" How many books and sources did you consult?

Ottaviani: A whole lot. Measured in years, about three and a half. Measured in books, if you look in the back of "Bone Sharps" you'll see that, as with all of my previous titles, I let you know what I consulted to construct the story. This one has 20 references, but missing from that list are articles and websites and other miscellaneous things I consulted to get myself steeped in the period, or that provided visual reference for Big Time Attic to use. In total, I probably consulted more than 50 sources for this book.

The other thing you may not realize by just glancing at that list is that one of those books is very new; G.T. Labs just published it. This is the autobiography of Charles R. Knight, and is an edited version of a previously unpublished manuscript. The story behind it is that 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. I ended up getting in touch with his granddaughter, Rhoda Knight Kalt, who was delighted to have him appear in the book, and sent me this great, sprawling, almost-but-not-quite book by her grandfather. I pulled a lot of facts from it, and in the end-- while Big Time Attic was busy drawing "Bone Sharps" -- edited it down into something I thought was publishable. I didn't tell Rhoda I was doing it until I was done. In fact, I didn't really know I was creating a new book until I was almost done re-working the manuscript myself! But in the end I had this whole new thing, and it's now out and getting a great reception from dinosaur fans everywhere. Just a guess, but Mark Schultz's illustrations probably contributed to all the positive press!

Anyway, about Charles R. Knight: He's the premiere dinosaur artist of the 19th and 20th century. As Stephen J. Gould says, he's the single most influential person in the field of paleontology, scientist or otherwise. He influenced science, science fiction, and if you've ever been in a big natural history museum you almost certainly have seen his work.

CBR News: The references at the end of "Bone Sharps" aren't the only thing that makes it different than most comics; it also has a fairly unique landscape format. What made you choose that style over the more standard portrait style?

Ottaviani: I didn't choose it, really. I'll digress a little to tell you what I mean... I write complete and detailed scripts that try to work out most of the storytelling problems in advance. Before doing a final draft, though, I illustrate my scripts in stick figure/thumbnail form so that I'm sure that what I've asked for is actually draw-able. I always send those page layouts to the artists for them to look at and use if they want to, and my layouts for "Bone Sharps" had the finished book in portrait format.

It's the artists' show once they have the script, though, since they do the heavy lifting on a book. So Shad [Petrovsky, one of the artists on the book] gave me a call a short while after they got the script and reference material I sent them, and said "How about landscape?" How about it indeed?! I checked with the printer, and it turned out it would be a little more expensive, but not so much that it wasn't worth doing the right thing. And landscape is the right thing for this story.

That's part of the joy of working with great artists and designers like Big Time Attic. They think of things I didn't, and see things in my scripts that I didn't noticed.

CBR News: So what's coming up next from GT Labs?

Ottaviani: Magic. Specifically, the science (or perhaps more accurately, the technology) behind the most famous levitation illusion in the history of stage magic. "The Levi," as it was known, has a colorful history, complete with global intrigue, theft, and a healthy dose of ego. It's also a story that allows me to touch on a number of great themes in some beautiful settings.

Janine Johnston, the artist I worked with on the first chapter of "Fallout," is painting the book and it will be a treat.

I have the next couple of books after that planned out, but haven't done anything more than write notes for 'em yet. I had planned to start writing this past month, but "Bone Sharps" publicity is keeping me too busy. I have dinosaurs by the tail, and they're taking me on a wild ride!

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