As graphic novels go, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is every bit as good as Maus or Watchmen, if not quite as game-changing. The only other things out there that I can think of that are similar are Chester Brown’s Louis Riel or Ho Che Anderson’s King: A Comics Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
That’s high praise and it’s well deserved.
So what’s Logicomix all about? The core is the story of Bertrand Russell’s and his work — the search for the foundations of mathematics, the most basic kind of truth: logic. His search takes us through the history of mathematics and philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both in terms of following the course of Russell’s life and loves but also encountering many of the main figures in math and philosophy of the era: Frege, Hilbert, Godel and Wittgenstein all make appearances (the authors take some chronological and historical liberties to get Russell to meet all these people). Russell’s relationship with Wittgenstein is explored in particular detail. Russell also deals quite a bit with the relationship between logic an madness both in his own family and in logicians in general.
But that’s just the surface story.
Interestingly, Logicomix the story is structured like an onion, with different and distinct layers. Russell’s personal and professional biography is the innermost layer, the core, but there are also two outer layers that add a real depth and resonance to the story. The layers interweave the history and philosphy of mathematics and logic, the rise of Nazism, Greek tragedy and the relationship between obsessive logic and insanity.
Next out from the centre is the internal framing story — Russell giving a speech to a group of pacifists just as World War II is getting started. It is as part of this speech that he recounts his life story, the innermost layer. The point he is trying to make with his life story as it relate to pacifism is all about the relationship between rationality and irrationality, the core of the scientific world view and the place of logic in human affairs.
The next layer out from the core is the story of the authors and artists creating the comic. Yes, the comic is also about it’s own creation, with the authors and artists as characters talking about what they hope to accomplish in telling Russell’s story, ingeniously contrasting his search for truth and logic with one of the comic’s creator’s participation in staging a Greek tragedy.
The writing itself is crisp and assured. Each of the layers uses a different tone and voice, one that is suitable for the story it is telling. For example the outer layer, the story of the comics creation, uses a light-hearted, colloquial tone. The pacing is tight; there’s no wasted words, no padding or flab for a fairly long book.
The art is perfect — clear and clean yet very expressive. Light when needed, dark and moody when that is needed as well. There are several gorgeous set pieces sprinkled throughout, especially the scenes where the authors are strolling around Athens, talking about their project. The WWI scenes starting on page 245 are brutally dark and effective. My advanced reading copy only has 12 coloured pages so I can only comment on the colouring in a limited way but what I’ve seen is very good. On the other hand, reading the rest in black and white I didn’t feel the least bit deprived. Even in b&w, it’s gorgeous.
Buy this book. Buy one for yourself, buy one for your library. The holidays are coming, so buy a bunch of copies for all your comics-loving family & friends as well as all your science-loving family & friends. Most of all, if there’s a precocious kid out there that just might be enthralled and inspired by Bertrand Russell’s story, well, this book is perfect. Let’s just say that my own reading of the book was delayed a bit when I told my older son about it — he quickly kidnapped it and read it twice before I got my hands back on it.
I recommend this book without hesitation for academic libraries that collect biographies in science or philosophy; this would be a great first graphic novel for your history and philosophy of science collection. High school and middle school libraries are also a perfect and natural fit, as is pretty well any public library.
Doxiadis, Apostolos; Christos H. Papadimitriou; Alecos Papdatos and Annie Di Donna. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. New York: Bloomsbury, 2009. 347pp. ISBN-13: 978-0747597209
(Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.)