The Race to the Moon in Comic Form: Ottaviani on T-Minus

Jim Ottaviani on T-Minus


In 1969, man first set foot on the moon. In 2009, a new graphic novel will show readers what it took to get there.

Jim Ottaviani’s science-themed graphic novels have covered everything from fossils (Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards) to the atomic bomb (Fallout), and now he’s taking readers all the way to the moon and back. T-Minus, Ottaviani’s new graphic novel from Simon & Schuster, tells the story of the 1960s space race from a perspective that’s rarely been seen before., with art from Zander and Kevin Cannon. Ottaviani gave us the scoop on how his story is unique from other tales of the moon landing, and why this seminal event in human history remains important today.

Newsarama: Jim, tell us about T-Minus.

Jim Ottaviani: Well, it’s the story of the US/USSR space race, told in comic book form, but with a different focus from many other books on the subject, since in addition to the astronauts and cosmonauts and politicians and everyone else who usually gets the limelight, this points the spotlight on the engineers and scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And that perspective is something I don’t think you see too often in books on Apollo and Soyuz.

NRAMA: Why did you choose this unique perspective?

JO: Well, you know me! I’m always interested in the scientists and engineers. And there are so many books – many of them excellent – about astronauts and cosmonauts, and relatively few about the scientists and engineers who built their rockets and spacecraft, that I thought shining the spotlight on these folks would be a) new to many people, and b) kind of fun.

Maybe there’s a c) in there as well: This is aimed at a younger audience than most of my other books. When you think about your chances of becoming an astronaut, they’re very, very small. But being involved in space exploration and rocket science is still possible, if you don’t limit yourself to the goal of strapping into one of these things and flying out of the atmosphere.

So I hope those a few of those readers will tip to the fact that there are fascinating things to do and see and learn and take part in that don’t involve becoming an astronaut, which, as I’ve said, is really, really hard and unlikely for most people.

NRAMA: How did this book come about?

JO: Planning and luck. I didn’t have to be persuaded to write something like this – I’ve always know I would do it at some point! So the plan part was in place. The lucky part was when my agent identified a publisher, in this case Simon & Schuster and their Aladdin division for young adult books, and found that they wanted a proposal for something just like what I wanted to write. Even better, the folks at Aladdin were relatively new at graphic novels, and the suggestion was that we put together a team for the book and package it ourselves.

So I thought of people I’d worked with before that I wanted to work with again, and Zander and Kevin Cannon, with whom I’d done Bone Sharps, Cowboys & Thunder Lizards were perfect. The proposal was actually not just a prose description of the book, but also included some comic pages from the book, so Simon & Schuster would have an idea of what the book would be like.

NRAMA: You sometimes use a variety of artists in your books, but it’s just Zander and Kevin this time, correct?

JO: Yeah, just Zander and Kevin. They’re a pretty seamless mix – you’d be hard-pressed to tell who did what at this point when you see the final art. One thing Kevin does for sure is the lettering, and Zander does a lot of figure drawing, but overall, it’s a pretty tightly-woven braid.Beautiful.

And they’re as keen on getting the story right, and the storytelling right, as I am so that’s beautiful too. The interior design is integrated with the story based on some ideas by me, some by them, the cover design is theirs, I wrote the cover copy. We got to do the complete package – like I said, it’s a tightly woven braid.

NRAMA: The 40th anniversary of the moon landing is coming up this summer. What do you feel people can learn from the space program? There’s often been a sense that we haven’t lived up to our potential when it comes to space.

JO: Well, I think that one of the big things we can learn and think about is that in the 1960s we made this huge push to do something that had never been done before, we took TV cameras along to show every step of the journey, it excited the whole world, and then…we didn’t continue on.

Now, that’s not to say there haven’t been a lot of really interesting things done in space since then. We’ve put hundreds and hundreds of people up there – and we’ve sent a whole lot of robots to planets and out into the solar system and beyond that. But a lot of the excitement is gone – we’ve lost that, for whatever reason.

So I think the important thing to remember and learn is that we once did these marvelous things – that we put together huge teams of people to make the lunar landings happen, and we can solve problems that, prior to being stated, didn’t even exist in the minds of most people.

I mean, take your average person in 1962 when Kennedy said, “We will go to the moon by the end of this decade.” That wasn’t a shared dream at that point, not in the US or Russia, but people got excited about it. And they did something that most considered impossible.

We have similar, seemingly insurmountable problems today. Some of them we’ve already been able to name. So if we look back at what we were able to do in a fairly short time by dedicating our resources, intellectual and financial, to a shared goal like this, I think that’s a very hopeful thing. It gives you a feeling of, “Yeah, we could do things like this again! We could solve some of these problems that we’re having!”

NRAMA: What’s next for you?

JO: Well, there are two books in the pipeline for First Second. One is a biography of Richard Feynman, one of my physics heroes, and the other is the story about the three most famous primate researchers: Jane Goodall, Diane Fossey and Birute Galdikas.

Like I said, they’re in the pipeline; I’m pretty sure the Feynman artwork is complete or almost complete, and that book will probably come out next year, though you’d have to check with First Second about that. The Goodall/Fossey/Galdikas book will come out the year following that. And I’ve got a whole bunch of proposals in the pipeline, though nothing close to finished yet.

NRAMA: Do you see yourself branching out into fiction in the future?

JO: It’s possible! One of the proposals I have is actually a novel – it could be a GN or a prose novel, but it’s something I’m working on to send out to publishers. It’s also possible I’ll put it out myself through G.T. Labs.

NRAMA: How much research do you do for one of your GNs?

JO: It’s almost impossible to answer that question. To give you an idea, let’s take a look at the full bibliography for T-Minus…[thumbs through pages] let’s see, with annotations the full bibliography runs eight pages. So I guess the correct answer is, “A lot!”

The space race is a nice thing to work on because it’s so well-documented. But there’s a lot to research for any book – you want to get a feel for the times. You want to understand the social situation, the political situation – and have a lot of cool visuals for your artist to draw.

For T-Minus we wanted to be careful about anachronisms – when it comes to the space race, there are a lot of people who are obsessive about this! I’m one of them. So we were extremely careful about getting things right visually. I’m sure there are some mistakes, because the story is complex, but at least they’re not there because we couldn’t be bothered to try and get it right!

At the same time, there were things we had to do with the book that were not 100 percent accurate historically. For example, the total number of people who worked on the Apollo, Gemini and Mercury programs is estimated at around 400,000 people in the US. In a 128-page book, if you wanted to show them all you’d have to find a way to get about 3,000 people onto each page!

So you have to composite some people, to help the story move along. But the goal is to keep the reader moving through the story, so they understand the facts and the details regarding how things went down.

I should mention, I have 37 pages of script outtakes and scene descriptions we couldn’t fit into the story. So maybe one day there’ll be a director’s cut of T-Minus that will be five times as long as this version!

NRAMA: And finally – give our readers the hard sell as to why they should pick this up.

JO: I’ll paraphrase from some of the ad copy I wrote for the book and the Junior Library Guild, for which this book is going to be a featured selection: Everybody always talked about the moon, but nobody ever did anything about it. That is, until Jules Verne wrote a novel, and in doing so did the math showing how to get there. And a Russian named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky checked Verne’s figures and decide liquid fuel, multi-staged rockets were the way to go. And then an American named Robert Goddard started building and flying ‘em. And eventually, we got there. But I haven’t seen a man on the moon since 1972. I want to see men and women there again, and then watch them head out to Mars, and then keep going. That’s why I wrote this book

And besides being a great adventure, we learned a lot about the moon. Even better, we learned even more about the Earth. I don’t want to spoil too much, but one of my favorite parts of the research was reading the accounts of astronaut after astronaut who said something to the effect of, “ I set out to go to the moon, but the most significant part of my journey was looking back at the Earth on my way to the moon, and even more so coming back.”

It really speaks to the idea of having one goal when you start a great endeavor, and discovering another even greater one by the time you finish. Every single astronaut – and these are hard-core, type-A, career military men – every one became poetic when talking about looking back at the Earth.

That image of the Earth rising over the moon became the symbol of the environmental movement, and it was taken by a bunch of test pilots fighting to look out the window. They got caught up in the wonder of it all.

I’d like to see something like that happen again. As cool as it is that we have the Rovers on Mars, what I live for is the day when I see “Live from Mars” on TV, just like I saw “Live from the Moon” 40 years ago.

T-Minus launches this May.


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