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Dinosaurs and Cowboys

-- Publishers Weekly, 10/11/2005

Jim Ottaviani has been writing biographical comics about major figures from science history for years, but his new book, Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh and the Gilded Age of Paleontology, is his most ambitious yet. Drawn by the Big Time Attic collective of Zander Cannon, Kevin Cannon and Shad Petosky, it's a witty, fact-packed graphic novel about the "Bone Wars," the 19th-century fight over dinosaur fossils.

By Douglas Wolk

PW Comics Week: 19th-century paleontologists in the American West—that seems an unusual subject for a graphic novel. What drew you to the story of Cope and Marsh?

Jim Ottaviani: My day job is being a librarian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I used to buy books for the engineering library, so I was constantly getting catalogues from publishers. I saw a listing for a book [by Mark Jaffe] called The Gilded Dinosaur, about the Bone Wars. It sounded fascinating to me—I sought out the book, and got introduced to the story of Cope and Marsh.

PW Comics Week: How did you end up collaborating with Big Time Attic?

JO: It was super-lucky on my part. Last year at San Diego, my previous book, Suspended in Language, about the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, had just come out. Zander Cannon had just returned from Japan, where he'd been living and working for a couple of years—partly as an English teacher, but also on some of Alan Moore's books. He stopped by and said that he and Shad and Kevin were looking to drum up work for this newly formed studio. And I said, "I happen to have a pitch package"—I'd actually never put together a pitch for artists before. A newly formed studio taking on a 160-page graphic novel is ambitious; again, I'm really lucky, I know I couldn't get them now—they're way too busy.

PW Comics Week: Bone Sharps is in an unusual trim size, short and wide across; how did that come about?

JO: When I write the scripts for my books, I usually lay them out in thumbnail form. I'd laid this book out in the usual portrait format, but Big Time Attic sketched out some pages and said, "We're talking about wide expanses of territory, mostly in the American West," and that kind of screamed "landscape" to them. I agreed that it gives the right kind of feel for the story. We tried to keep it within the usual length dimensions so it'd still be an appealing format for booksellers—it won't be sticking 10 feet off the shelf even when it's spine-out.

PW Comics Week: What's your next project?

JO: Magic, actually. I'm a nuclear engineer by training, but working with cowboys and dinosaurs has freed me from the chains of physics, and the book that's up next is about the history of the most famous levitation illusion of the 20th century. It's science, but really, it's more about technology: to make it look as if a person is floating in mid-air required a lot of research. How that evolved—somebody stole it from somebody, and somebody sold it to another person—and the relationship to storytelling and technology is pretty fascinating to me.

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