“Hawking,” by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick. (First Second, $29.99.)
Having tackled towering intellects such as Dian Fossey, Alan Turing and Richard Feynman, the great Jim Ottaviani turns to the late Stephen Hawking. The intellectually thrilling result does not disappoint.
Reuniting with his Feynman illustrator, Leland Myrick, Ottaviani tells Hawking’s story from his subject’s point of view, allowing for a more intimate rendering. He ticks through the major signposts of Hawking’s life, from being an arrogantly brilliant but somewhat lazy Cambridge man (“only ‘grey men’ applied themselves, you see”), to marrying his first wife, Jane, the painfully slow realization of his degenerative neuromuscular disease ALS, to writing his bestselling “A Brief History of Time.”
Ottaviani’s dense but highly readable account braids the implacable advance of Hawking’s ALS with his determination to not let his impaired body imprison his beautiful mind. Stops along the way provide helpful side notes on subjects such as relativity to ease understanding of the awesomely brain-twisting reality screws that the book indulges. All of this brightly illustrates the universe-spanning leaps Hawking’s mind took even while his body was confined to a motorized wheelchair and his voice replicated via computer monotone. This might be an illustrated biography, but it’s no children’s book.
“Hawking” is fortunately narrated in the cheeky manner its subject preferred. Addressing fears that the CERN collider would create black holes (a specialty of his), Hawking assures the audience they are safe: “If you are reading this, then my colleagues and I were right.” Ottaviani astutely remembers that Hawking also loved Monty Python and didn’t mind taking the odd “Star Trek” cameo. Such details help humanize a man too often remembered for what he did and not who he was.
“They Called Us Enemy,” by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, illustrated by Harmony Becker. (Top Shelf, $19.99.)
Even though they have (finally) been included in school textbooks, the facts contained in “Star Trek” actor George Takei’s spare and powerful wartime graphic memoir “They Called Us Enemy” are no less appalling for being widely known.
In an act of stunningly blasé racism, on Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the military to create “exclusion areas” from which it could deport any civilians it wished. As Takei notes, it “quickly became obvious” that meant Japanese-Americans. One frame vibrating with modern resonance illustrates the “No Japs” war-fever hysteria as a crowd chanting, “Lock them up!”
That spring, Takei and his family were given 10 minutes to leave their Los Angeles home before being trucked to an internment camp and guarded “as if we were criminals.” Roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans suffered the same fate. The Takeis spent four years behind barbed wire.
As an activist for gay rights and memorializing the internment, Takei marries pragmatic optimism and wily cheer with a steely moralism. That mixture is on full display in this charged account co-written with Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, and illustrated in a brisk old-fashioned manga manner by Harmony Becker. Narrating “slippery” and “deceptive” childhood memories, Takei marvels at believing a sweltering camp in Arkansas was “an adventure.”
While locating beauty in the pain, and noting how the camps accidentally protected them from civilian racism, Takei doesn’t go the “Life Is Beautiful” route. He describes the constant humiliations, the agony of losing family at Hiroshima, and the many Japanese-American volunteers who signed up to fight the Nazis and died proving their loyalty.
“They Called Us Enemy” is a dramatic history lesson, cleanly told and unafraid to link the sins of the past with those of the present.
“How I Tried to Be a Good Person,” written and illustrated by Ulli Lust. (Fantagraphics, $34.99.)
In her acclaimed graphic memoir “Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life,” Austrian artist Ulli Lust told the scabrous tale of a chaotic road trip through Europe’s 1980s punk underground. Adventure abounded, as did drugs and danger. Published in Germany in 2017, her follow-up is a similarly uncompromising look at the joys and perils of a life on the edge.
The fallout of her adolescent rebellion comes in the anxiety storming around her experiments in alternative lifestyles. Another reminder is Phillip, the son she leaves with her parents in the Austrian countryside while “I dream of studying art.”
Entangled by creative frustrations and buffeted by her mother’s thunderous sighs of disappointment, Lust loses herself in an untenable three-way affair visually rendered in rampant NC-17 sensuality. She spends much of the book volleying between intellectual love for Georg, a smart and kindly actor she doesn’t physically desire, and an erotic fixation on Kimata, a Nigerian immigrant she has little in common with. The thrill is electric, but soap-opera jealousies and violent abuse eventually shatter her illusion.
Lust’s tortured quest for a bohemian life of the mind and an untenable romance encompassing “the perfect companion and the perfect lover at the same time” may irritate some less patient readers. But those who have felt even a hint of Lust’s heady romantic yearnings will be jolted by the spotting of a kindred spirit.
Chris Barsanti is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and frequent contributor on comics for Publishers Weekly. He lives in St. Paul.