Come to Stockholm…
…followed by a science comics writer, since the books themselves were actually
already there when I arrived.
Here's the context: In 1998, I got the most improbable email I, as writer of
alternative/ independent/ small press/ you-name-it comics, can imagine: It came
from an @nobel.se email address, and it was from the secretary of the
physics Prize Committee. After I picked my jaw up from the keyboard, and read
it a second time, I realized I had a fan.
In high places.
Bárány had somehow come across a copy of my first book,Two-Fisted
Science, and had liked it. He was thrilled that comics like this
existed, I was thrilled that he was thrilled, and so we chatted briefly via
email and kept up a sporadic correspondence over the next couple of years.
When the Nobel Institute decided to create a museum as a part of their celebration
of the Prize's Centennial, Anders got in touch again about selling books in
their gift shop, and they ordered a bunch. Hundreds of copies from Michigan
to Sweden made for a very large UPS bill…
Fast forwarding to the summer of 2001, I was in Rome visiting my wife Kat for
the middle month of her 6 month gig at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
As we planned for her return in November, and my return visit to Europe (I do
a good imitation of a pack mule in airports), we thought about where we might
go before coming back to the States-I had never been anywhere in Europe besides
Italy, and she had been only a few places herself. It seemed like we ought to
take advantage of our (geographic) good fortune and do some looking around.
Knowing that the Nobel Museum had just opened, and wanting to visit Scandinavia
anyway, I checked in with Anders to see if he would be in town around the time
we'd be touring. He would, and coincidentally had a slot open during the Nobel
Institute's Fall Cultural Series on Creativity. Would I like to speak at the
Sounds like a no-brainer, but remember, if I say yes I don't just get to talk
about having done it after the fact-I actually have to do it!
I said yes anyway, and too soon afterwards I got the program. When I saw "Nobel
Prize," "Cultural Series," and my name in the same sentence, I wondered if I'd
entered a parallel universe.
I started a long, slow, panic which resulted in brief bursts of nervous note-taking
on ideas for a talk, followed by extended bursts of guilty inactivity. In the
end, I finished making the slides two days before getting on the plane to Europe-but
didn't finalize the talk until the flight into Stockholm.
I had a script before that, of course, but as this supposedly brief article
demonstrates, I tend to go on. That meant that the first draft would have taken
about two and a half hours to read, so unless the question and answer period
took, oh, about negative 1.75 hours, I was going to have trouble fitting into
the scheduled time slot. So I sliced away between take-off and the surprisingly
good Scandinavian Airline Service airline food.
I can name many folks who are more qualified to act as ambassadors for comics,
and did indeed discuss them in the course of the talk, which I called "Comics
art and science: Telling Stories with Pictures (That Don't Move)."
I covered some comics theory, the process of going from ideas to images, and
closed with some thoughts about using comics to reach new audiences, especially
as they relate to the sciences. There were so many great comics to talk about
along the way that most of the things that I cut out on the final leg of the
flight found their way back into the discussion. Fortunately, the audience was
patient, and the extra few minutes I spent on each digression didn't seem to
add up to too much for the group to bear.
It would make for better after-dinner storytelling if there had been some wacky
and mildly embarrassing slip-ups. But it's probably for the best that people
came, paid attention, asked questions, and I didn't call myself or anybody else
a jelly donut even though I tried my hand at speaking a tiny bit of (heavily
Anyway, my hosts
were pleased so that's good enough for me. The only down-side was that earlier
in the day I was recorded for Swedish television, which still mortifies me.
The (blessedly short) spot aired Dec. 10 during breaks in the Prize ceremonies.
Very few Swedes saw it, I suspect, since I'm betting that everybody was standing
in front of their refrigerator instead of watching me during said breaks. Which
is just fine.
At this point, I'll stop talking about the talk, and direct you to the script.
So...find the words at:
Art and Science
As for the rest of the trip to Stockholm, it was wonderful. We went there with
very few preconceived notions of what it would be like. Gorgeous,
as it turned out, even in cold and wet and gray November: One of the guides
at a museum asked, as if we were nuts, "Why did you come here? In November?"
Well, that's when I got invited. The city sparkles with lights and water and
a fantastic blend of old and new architecture. And one of the finest examples
of the new was Kulturhuset (the city's cultural center), where they have a marvelous
comics library. When I visited the display was of Scandinavian comics art, addressing
the themes of technology. Lots of cool originals to see!
More comics stuff: I also visited a comic store while there (Staffars Serier),
and met some of the folks I'd corresponded with in past years. It was an excellent
shop, with a terrific selection of comics from all over the world. Since I wanted
to read something particularly Swedish, I asked them to recommend a couple of
books to me. They suggested two things in particular. Pyton,
by Jan Romare, is a long-running (and mostly wordless) daily strip which I enjoyed
a great deal. It has an unusual pedigree as well, since its creator/writer/illustrator
was once the director of the UN Division in Sweden's Foreign Ministry.
The big find for me, though, was the work of Olle Berg. I'd seen his work in
the huge (2000 page) Comix 2000 volume published
by L'Association in…that's right, 2000. I had enjoyed his contribution, but
have to confess that it didn't make a huge impression the first time around,
probably because I was so shell-shocked by the time I finished the book that
I'd forgotten the work that came earlier in the alphabet. But with a concentrated
dose of Berg in Bonk, I saw the light. Marvelous
work, very graphically inventive, and as hilarious, even though (as indicated
above) I don't read Swedish.
And you don't have to either, since he's done us all the good turn of translating
many of his favorites into English at his website:
Visit now, and perhaps even order a copy or two of his books. I'd loan you mine,
but I'm worried that I wouldn't get 'em back…
More things happened on the trip (including a visit to the Niels Bohr Institute,
where I got to stand in Bohr's office. It
was great. I'm a geek.), a truly Clockwork Orange-like experience in
Germany, and my first live opera experience in Mainz, Germany, where we saw
Kat's cousin Beth perform as the prima soprano in Tosca. I'm never going
to be an opera fan, but this was very hip nonetheless, doubly so when, on the
way back from the Gutenberg Museum that afternoon, we stumbled upon the opera
house we would be returning to that night-which we were able to identify because
of the Four! Story! High! Poster! Of! Beth! hanging on the side.
It put my 2.5 minutes on Swedish TV in perspective, I must say.
by Jim Ottaviani
is the Eisner Award nominated writer and publisher of Two-Fisted Science
and other works. This essay details his visit to the Nobel Prize Museum and
the talk he presented there. If you would care to know more about Ottaviani,
his work, or to order his comics, please visit his publications website: