COVID Check-In with Jim Ottaviani

Virtual Memories Show
COVID Check-In: Jim Ottaviani

“I really don’t want to test my introversion and find out where the vein peters out and empties into the magma core of horror.”

Jim Ottaviani, award-winning & best-selling author of graphic novels about scientists (think Hawking, Feynman, Fossey, Turing), provides a COVID check-in from Ann Arbor, MI. We talk about how he’s balancing his day job and comics writing with the compulsion to read the news and graph out infection rates. We also get into whether his science background has helped his perspective on the pandemic, how the university model might change when we’re past this, and what new books he has coming (fingers crossed). You also get a story from me about the limits of risk mitigation plans. Give it a listen! And go check out Jim’s work and his 2016 appearance on the podcast!

“This is teaching us what primates really are.”


Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Jim Ottaviani is the author of thirteen (and counting) graphic novels about scientists, ranging from physicists to paleontologists to behaviorists. His latest, Astronauts: Women on the Final Frontier, illustrated by Maris Wicks, features the first women astronauts. Others include Hawking, illustrated by Leland Myrick, tells the story of the renowned cosmologist and icon. Other books include 2016’s The Imitation Game, a biography of Alan Turing illustrated by Leland Purvis, which came out in 2016 and spent more than a month on the New York Times bestseller list; Primates, about Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas with art by Maris Wicks; and Feynman, with Leland Myrick, a book about the Nobel-prize winning physicist, bongo-playing artist, and raconteur Richard Feynman which debuted as a #1 New York Times bestseller list for graphic novels. His books are probably the only ones to have received praise from both Nature and Vampirella Magazine . . . and everything in between, from Physics World to Entertainment Weekly to Discover to Variety to Time.

He lives in Michigan and comes to comics via careers in nuclear engineering and librarianship. Find out more via his site at and on Twitter at @gtlabsrat.

Credits: The conversation was recorded remotely via Zencastr. I used a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Jim by me. It’s on my instagram.

Crazy Apes

I haven’t posted an ape-attack story in a long time (ook!), so here’s the sad story of the Connecticut policeman who had to shoot Travis, an enraged, 200-lb. chimp, to death last year. Travis, you may recall, had mauled a friend of his owner.

It’s a little Reno 911!-like to visualize the chimp actually opening the police car’s driver-side door, while Officer Chiafari was in the car, but his description of the scene and the Ms. Nash’s wounds is downright horrifying, so don’t click through if you’ve got a weak stomach.

Even as Officer C. struggles with PTSD and depression, I think we can all learn from his closing words:

“I consider [Travis] a victim,” he said. “He should have been in the jungle where he’s supposed to be. Not in a house drinking wine and taking Xanax.”

Sometimes I feel that way myself. Then I switch to gin and Ambien. Ook!

The Sopranos Never Ended

Friday night, I was a man on a mission, and that mission led me into the purple-, blue- and green-tinted world of Clifton, NJ’s Bliss Lounge to meet the world’s most devout atheist.

On April 13, 2007, retired boxer Bobby Czyz was involved in a terrible car wreck, one that left him in a coma for around four weeks. I’d been friends with his brother Vince since 1988, so when I read about Bobby’s injuries in the New York Post a month after the accident, I checked to see if there was anything I could do to help out. Vince, living in Turkey, had some stories about the accident and its aftermath, but I’m not one to gossip about a person who made a living out of beating people into submission.

My boss had known Bobby Czyz a lot longer than I knew Vince; he used to go see the fights at the Ice World in Totowa, NJ (where the Duvas started their Main Events promotion) back in the early 1980’s. I had filled him in on what I knew about Bobby’s injuries, which wasn’t much. Last Thursday, he was reading a local paper’s sports section when he came across an article about Bobby’s travails and the upcoming benefit for his hospital fund. The article has a lot about the accident, injuries and recovery, so you can check that out for the gory details (and some examples of Bobby’s sense of humor).

I considered going to the event, at least so I could report back to Vince about his brother’s general condition. Then I checked out the website for the venue, and developed a new Gil Roth Guideline: If I look at a club’s website for more than 60 seconds and still can’t tell if it’s a stripclub, I shouldn’t go there.

I joked with my boss about this new rule, until he reread the article and said, “Larry Holmes is gonna be there? You have to go! He has the third-biggest head I’ve ever seen in my life! You gotta get a picture of him around a normal-sized person!” I wondered if the other listed guests, Chuck Wepner and “Goumba Johnny” had similar claims to fame.

I checked with my wife; I was hoping she’d offer to come along, even if just to stay in the car with the engine running, in case I needed to make a quick escape. She decided I could fly solo on this mission to the heart of Goumbaville, NJ. So I drove down Rt. 3, paid the $20 cover (all proceeds go to the health fund), took a seat at an oval bar with a shifting-color light above it, and ordered the worst gin they had. I figured this would ensure that I barely drank it, as the last thing I wanted was to get pulled over for a DUI in Clifton, NJ on a Friday night.

The lounge’s site contends that it’s “the Northeast’s sleekest and most futuristic venue.” I’ll leave you to decide how futuristic the place is; here’s a collection of pictures from the venue, including security. If the future is going to look like this, color me retro.

I surveyed the club. At only 8:45, it was pretty laid-back; only two dozen or so people were in the place, a few of whom were checking out the sports memorabilia that would be silent-auctioned off later in the night. I figured it would get busier as the night progressed, but I was only planning on being there for a few minutes, enough time for 20% of a drink and a little conversation with Bobby. I’d have to get back home soon, lest my wife fear that I was getting ready to swap my Honda Element for a Camaro and switch allegiances from Springsteen to Bon Jovi.

But if there’s one defining aspect of NJ Italian “culture” more important than the Camaro and Bon Jovi, it would have to be the Sopranos, and one glance around this club told me that David Chase wasn’t making things up. There were a few skinny, dweebish boxing aficionados in attendance, but there were a bunch of men who seemed ready for a casting call for a Sopranos roadshow revival. They were bulky (but not huge) middle-aged men, balding, talking with their hands, chewing unlit cigars and wearing Cuban or Hawaiian shirts. I sat at the bar, about as out of place as ever, thinking, “Ooh! That guy wants to be Silvio! And there’s Paulie!”

Living in a quieter, more rural section of northern NJ, and never having been a clubgoer, I guess I hadn’t realized how closely reality and art hewed, when it comes to Italian-American stereotypes. A few years ago, Amy & I were wandering through an Italian furniture store up here — “I didn’t know you can actually make an entire piece of furniture out of shellac!” — when a salesman got a call on his cell-phone. The ringtone? The theme to The Godfather.

I was disappointed to find that Larry Holmes wasn’t present. There was only one black guy in attendance, and he was around a foot shorter than Holmes, with a normal-sized head. I figured Larry would arrive later, especially since the benefit was scheduled from 8pm to 2am. Of course, we all know that nothing good happens after midnight (Gil Roth Guideline), so I wasn’t going to stick around for him. Or “Goumba Johnny” and Chuck Wepner.

I headed across the room to introduce myself to Bobby. I have to say, the guy gave no visible indication of having been through the ordeal he went through. He told me that he dropped 35 lbs. in the hospital, and put about 15 or 16 back on since getting out.

Bobby and I had met once before at the publication party for Vince’s collection of short stories, but I wasn’t banking on the memory of a guy who’d been in a 4-week coma a few months earlier. I said, “I’m friends with your brother Vince. Published his book about 10 years ago.” He smiled, shook my hand, and proceeded to tell me how well he’s recovering.

It was a brief conversation, but he was energetic and happy to talk about his family (again, no gossip about people who can beat me to a pulp), Vince’s latest writing, and his experiences in the hospital. He told me that his conversation with God (according to the aforementioned World’s Most Devout Atheist) occurred when he was in a coma, but wouldn’t go into details about that.

The two times he flatlined, on the other hand, were alright. He said, “I found out that it’s okay when you die. Nothing happens, but at least you’re not getting punished or judged.”

We shook hands again, and I took his picture. Then I walked past the enormous bouncers, headed out to a parking lot of sportscars and Escalades, got into my Blue Toaster, and drove home.

Bobby Czyz