Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Graphic Lit: Levitation & Wire Mothers

For several years now, writer Jim Ottaviani has been mining a rather unique niche in the comics world, producing graphic novels about the history of science with a variety of different artists.

Now he’s at it again, with a pair of books — “Levitation” and “Wire Mothers” — that explore what Ottaviani calls the “science of the unscientific.”

What that refers to is the areas where science crops up in unexpected ways in popular culture (though I could be wrong).

Take “Levitation,” for example. Set in the late 19th and early 20th century, when magic tricks seemed less like parlor games and more like impossible feats of wonder, the book explores the history surrounding the well-known trick of elevating a person into the air.

Ottaviani explores not only the science behind that elaborate bit of prestidigitation, he also details the personalities that helped perfect it, from English magician John Maskelyne to American Harry Kellar and his heir, Howard Thurston.

The rivalry between Kellar and Maskelyne is one of the best parts of the book, as Kellar desperately attempts to uncover the trick’s secret until finally committing an act of brazen audacity. These magicians, Ottaviani suggests, might act like noble gentlemen on the stage, but they are brazen cutthroats behind the curtain.

Janine Johnston’s art is appropriately lush, given the subject matter, and provides a fine snapshot of the time period.

“Levitation” is engaging but slight and only provides broad portraits of the egotistical magicians in question. Ultimately I wanted to learn more about them than I did the title trick.

On the other hand, I found “Wire Mothers” fascinating, both in its portrait of psychologist Harry Harlow and in its discussion of his famous experiment involving baby monkeys and the wrought-iron surrogate moms the book’s title refers to.

I remember reading about Harlow’s experiment — where he reared tiny primates on ugly wire and cloth contraptions — back in my intro to psychology course in college and being aghast. Why on earth would anyone attempt to undertake something so seemingly cruel and harrowing?

It turns out Harlow had good reason for his investigations. Believe it or not, there was a time, not too long ago, when psychologists, following the wake of B.F. Skinner, encouraged parents not to be too affectionate to their children, demanding that they refrain from hugging or kissing. Love, in their minds, was a fanciful, fairy-tale notion that could easily be relabeled as “proximity.”

Harlow rightly viewed such theories as dangerous nonsense and used his monkeys to prove to the world that love indeed existed and was absolutely vital to a child’s development.

Ottaviani and artist Dylan Meconis detail not only Harlow’s experiments, but also provide a compelling (if brief) portrait of the man, who suffered from depression and alcoholism, and was thwarted at many turns by colleagues who refused to recognize his accomplishments.

Both “Levitation” and “Wire Mothers” suffer somewhat from the same awkward narrative structure (“Hey there invented character intended to stand in for the reader! Allow me to regale you with lots of exposition!”). Both, however, ultimately provide compelling, educational glimpses into areas of history that have mostly been ignored by the general public.

While ultimately I preferred the urgent humanism of “Mothers” to the cold theatrics of “Levitation,” either book is worth seeking out, whether you have a yen for science or not.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007



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