GREENPOINT — For the past two years, author Jonathan Fetter-Vorm has read, written, drawn and driven across the country in the name of nuclear weapons — 70 years after his grandparents unwittingly helped make the original one.
"My grandparents didn't know what they'd been working on until the August 6 explosion... They were horrified," said Fetter-Vorm, 29, referring to the bombing of Hiroshima during World War II.
"I saw where they worked... my grandmother said I drew the mess hall there right," he said of the Hanford Site in Washington State, where the government acknowledged thousands of staff worked "unaware of what they were building."
"My grandfather was a welder. He helped build the complex system of pipes that allowed the technicians who ran the Hanford nuclear reactor to tell if the core was overheating," said Fetter-Vorm of the site, which he visited and included in his book.
"And of course, he had no idea that that was what he was doing."
His grandmother also did administrative work there, the author added.
Though Fetter-Vorm's connection to the topic is highly personal, his 1940s comic-style, pen-and-ink narrative focuses on the sweeping story of the bomb's conception — from before World War II up through the 1945 bombings.
He said he pored through archived photos and transcribed discussions among scientists and politicians to create the most accurate representation possible of the explosive's birth.
"It's a split between trying to show actual characters, settings, situations from archived photos," he said, "and events that had never been shown before — like a metaphor for nuclear fission and how to visualize what happens in the first few seconds after a bomb goes off."
The Montana native, who created his first graphic novel as a "Beowulf" interpretation in college at Stanford, said an editor from publisher Hill & Wang approached him with the idea to chart the atom bomb's history.
Fetter-Vorm, now a Greenpoint resident, noted that his juxtaposition of text and images could explain complex scientific processes in a way multiple age groups can relate to. He said he hopes his book will land on high school reading lists in the future.
Beyond educating readers about the technical side of the bomb, he said the narrative addresses existential questions about ethics, value and violence. And with those themes in mind, the author was careful with his portrayal of the bomb's aftermath.
"The biggest challenge of the book was figuring out how to do that in way that was honest and not look like a horror movie," Fetter-Vorm said. "I was inspired by a Japanese photographer that documented objects destroyed by the atomic blast, like glass bottles... In a way it's more powerful than showing people, because we can shut down when looking at people."
He mainly chose to show the devastation of buildings and other inanimate objects, but the author had no concerns about the power of his book.
"When people look at words and at images," he said, "they have to slow down... to think about things more."
Fetter-Vorm's book reading and signing, which will also involve projections and his own sketching while he reads, will be held at La Sala in the back of Cantina Royal on North Third Street, Tuesday, June 26, at 8 p.m.