Seeing the Unseen

The Challenge of Portraying What We Can’t See, What We Didn’t See, What We Don’t Want to See

The first thing that usually comes to mind when a person thinks of graphic novels and comics is the visual element, often in the form of drawings. Visualizing something as complex as the history of the atomic bomb, however—from its scientific mechanics to its devastating history—can prove to be difficult. Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, the creator of Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, is a graphic novelist whose subjects are the bomb and its history. Fetter-Vorm illuminated the difficulties behind portraying this topic in his lecture, “How to Draw the Invisible,” held on November 11th and part of the Technology and Society Lecture Series, sponsored by the Technology, Culture and Society Department at the NYU School of Engineering.

After reading a brief excerpt from his book, Fetter-Vorm addressed three fundamental issues unique to creating a historic work based on a deadly scientific process that very few people have witnessed.

The first issue—“How do I draw something I can’t see?”—addresses the fact that people who actually witness an atomic explosion usually don’t survive it and that many of its processes are invisible to us. While photo reference exists of the explosions themselves that Fetter-Vorm was able to utilize, he also drew on analogies to explain the scientific designs behind atomic energy. “I wanted to portray how difficult the science was without being too scientific,” said Fetter-Vorm. In one example, he had illustrated intricate lines of falling dominoes in order to assist in visualizing the chain reaction needed for an atomic explosion to occur.

“How do I draw something I didn’t see?” is the second issue, referring to the historical elements of the story that Fetter-Vorm was unable to witness himself. To explain his approach, he described the use of negative space. An example of negative space is the famous “Rubin’s vase”—an optical illusion in which the positive space (the vase itself) also has a “hidden” image in its negative space (two people facing each other). What this idea implies is that the surrounding space around an object can assist in describing the object itself. This principle can be applied to storytelling when an author is writing about a historical figure. J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist who was central to the infamous Manhattan Project, apparently did not keep a memoir while employed there. Fetter-Vorm, however, was able to use the “negative space” in Oppenheimer’s life to get a bigger sense of the picture by researching the histories of the people around him and studying contemporary schematics, maps, films, and photos.

The final issue is “How do I draw something I don’t want to see?” This is arguably the most difficult as it deals with the real human cost of the atomic bomb. The author turned to Japanese post-war photographer Shomei Tomatsu, who, as part of a series, took photographs of everyday objects that were caught in the bomb blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as a result, were twisted beyond recognition. As described by Fetter-Vorm, it’s a way of “not looking at the damage done to people that would otherwise be too traumatic.” He further demonstrated this point by showing an example from his book where a house is dramatically blown from its foundation while being caught in a blast; the imagery succeeds in portraying a visceral effect without gore.

An audience member asked Fetter-Vorm how he dealt with the overall mood of the country at the time in his piece. The artist responded that at the first part of the book, he wanted to reflect the excitement for the sciences, “a great microcosm of exuberance.” He also ironically noted that most scientists who worked on the atomic bomb were unaware of what their research was being applied to.

Trinity is Fetter-Vorm’s first graphic novel, which was selected as the Best Graphic Novel for Teens in 2013 by the American Library Association. He is currently pursuing his MFA in creative non-fiction at Columbia University. The artist is currently working on a second graphic novel, Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, to be published in 2015. Learn more about the Technology and Society Lecture series at