(Science) Comics 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.

Professor Anders 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 Museum?

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 rehearsed) Swedish.

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:
    Comics, 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:            www.olle-berg.com

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.
©2002
by Jim Ottaviani

About the author:

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: