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Crack Alan Turing's Code in a New Graphic Novel

Talking to author Jim Ottaviani about creating his new graphic novel 'The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded.'

Alan Turing invented modern computing. His theoretical work on a “Universal Machine” created the backbone for much of what we now take for granted in electronic computation. From there, Turing went on to join the fight against the Nazis in WWII and broke the “enigma code,” deciphering Axis messages at an unprecedented rate. Working as a gay man in a time when homosexuality was illegal in Britain, Turing was harassed by the police and government. Eventually, he was subjected to chemical castration and ended his life by ingesting a cyanide-laced apple. Though his life story appears in countless biographies and films, including 2014's Academy Award-winner, a new graphic novel The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded by author Jim Ottaviani and illustrator Leland Purvis hits shelves on March 22nd, 2016.

The Creators Project spoke to author Jim Ottaviani about his experience writing Turing’s life in comic form.

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Pages 30-31 from The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Purvis © Abrams ComicArts, 2016

The Creators Project: This isn’t the first comic based on a scientist you’ve created. How did you meld comics and science?

Jim Ottaviani: My background is in the sciences. My previous life was as a nuclear engineer. I found myself encountering all these names, Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein. And I got curious about who they were as people, and at the same time I’ve been a comics reader for many years. Combining the two interests took a while.

What were some of the challenges involved in bringing Alan Turing’s life to the page?

There were two challenges, one is the abstract nature of his earliest work—how to get that across. Second, he’s so thoroughly modern in his thinking, and how he needed society to treat him as a human being. And yet it was 70 years ago when he was doing his most important work.

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Pages 34-35 from The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Purvis © Abrams ComicArts, 2016

He was also an oppressed gay man in his time. What was it like bringing that aspect of his life to the comic?

This modern man lived in this not-so-distant past, but in terms of the attitudes and the laws it feels very alien to us now. The idea that being gay was a criminal offense, it’s almost inconceivable. I mean we see people being treated not the way they ought to be now, but we’ve at least gotten to a point—not so long ago—that the legal structures finally caught up with decency.

What is the experience like working with an artist to tell these stories?

When we get to some of the scientific events in the comic, Leland will say ‘I don’t get it,’ so I’ve got this additional reader, even before it gets to an editor, who’ll say ‘I don’t understand what you’re trying to get across here.’ And we have this conversation to make it even clearer for the reader. It’s about finding those images, and working with the artist to make sure we communicate what we want.

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Pages 70-71 from The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Purvis © Abrams ComicArts, 2016

Finally, what is it like writing for, and in the voice, of a genius?

In one sense I have a fairly good perspective to bring for the reader because my struggles in visualizing these things are both exposed, and then hidden by, the time I take to understand these concepts and inventions. I translate that into something straightforward as we depict in the story. There are nights where I have no idea what to do and then I’ll get over the hump where I think I understand how to explain it to someone else.

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Cover to The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded, by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Purvis © Abrams ComicArts, 2016

Look for The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded on shelves March 22nd, 2016.

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Intelligent Design: Inside 'The Imitation Game'