Flathead grad depicts birth of The Bomb to life

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Patrick Cote/Daily Inter Lake Jonathan Fetle-Vorm presents his graphic novel "Trinity" to a group of students Tuesday afternoon at Flathead High School. Fetle-Vorm's novel details the history of the atomic bomb. Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012 in Kalispell, Montana.

Unlike a traditional book, a graphic novel is lost without the emotional punch that illustrations pack. 

“Trinity,” a graphic novel by 2001 Flathead High School graduate Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, reintroduces the history of the atomic bomb to generations born after the first nuclear bomb test in 1945.

On Tuesday, Fetter-Vorm presented “Trinity,” his first published graphic novel, as part of Flathead High School’s International Baccalaureate Programme guest speaker series.

Throughout the school day, Flathead students filed into the David M. Hashley Theatre to hear Fetter-Vorm read from his novel and participate in question-and-answer sessions.

After placing a transparency of a “Trinity” illustration onto an overhead projector, Fetter-Vorm read: “In the deserts of New Mexico, on a patch of sage brush and sand code-named Trinity, another ancient secret was about to be revealed. Atop a 100-foot tower sat the world’s first atomic bomb.”

 “Trinity” is the fulfillment of a longtime goal for Fetter-Vorm. Already in its second printing, the graphic novel is set to be translated and sold in Japan.

Fetter-Vorm does not read traditional, fictional comic books. 

Instead, he wanted to pursue graphic novels set in a historical context — without costumed super heroes. One of the first graphic novels he was exposed to was “Maus” a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by cartoonist Art Spiegelman about the experiences of his father as a Holocaust survivor.

After high school, Fetter-Vorm graduated from Stanford University, where he studied history and art.

“The important thing is to have something to make your art about. The drawing part comes later,” Fetter-Vorm said. “Take history, take English, take what interests you.”

Art teacher Susan Guthrie and English teacher Sue Brown — who both taught Fetter-Vorm at Flathead — were excited about his accomplishment. 

“He successfully combined art, science, English, history and philosophy,” Guthrie said. “He’s done so much in the 11 years outside of school. He hasn’t stopped seizing the moment.”

Brown said Fetter-Vorm was part of independent study and other classes that were precursors to the International Baccalaureate Programme and his avid interests in all subject areas lent themselves to “Trinity.”

Depicting the atomic bomb through a media platform — such as the graphic novel — makes history and complex science such as like nuclear fission accessible to a variety of readers from teenagers to adults, which Fetter-Vorm hoped to achieve.

Seniors Karl Boveng and Chloe Newlon agreed.

 “I’m probably more likely to read this graphic novel than one of my dad’s long, tiny print, books,” Newlon said. “I think it’s interesting how graphic novels are being used more to depict serious subjects that are maybe more controversial and difficult to present to the public in a way that is sensitive, but also blunt.”

Boveng said he thinks graphic novels are rising in popularity among his generation.

“He picked an interesting topic and did it justice,” Boveng said.

Fetter-Vorm’s interest in writing about the atomic bomb was piqued after hearing stories of his grandfather working on the Manhattan Project that led to the bomb. 

Images of an atomic bomb test also ignited Fetter-Vorm’s approach to the subject matter. The graphic novel took him four years to create.

“A lot of the difficulties of the book was trying to imagine something that is that intense, that dark and try to do it as faithfully as possible,” Fetter-Vorm said.

 

Fetter-Vorm also depended on a portrait of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to create the “Trinity” character.

“Dr. Oppenheimer was the lead scientist. He was a fascinating character,” Fetter-Vorm said. 

Fetter-Vorm placed the portrait on the overhead for students to see. He said it was the piercing gaze that provided guidance and inspiration.

“This is a man responsible for the atomic bomb and one of most outspoken and articulate critics after it was released in the world. He’s a very tortured man.”

Fetter-Vorm said his artistic style was influenced from period photographs and 1940s comics. 

Using pencil, paper, black ink and Photoshop for gray tones, Fetter-Vorm showed the process from storyboard sketches to a page of finalized panels.

Currently, he is completing another graphic novel about the Civil War and has set his sights — and his pen — on a graphic novel about the American West.

 Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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