Logicomix, A Tour de Force

Posted by on January 21st, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Christos Papdimitriou, Apostolos Doxiadis, Alecos Papadatos, Annie di Donna; Bloomsbury; ; 348 pp., $22.95; Color, Softcover; ISBN:9781596914520

Being on a list of the 10 best-selling comics doesn’t invariably proclaim the quality of the product — usually, alas, it doesn’t. So when I saw Logicomix ranking fifth on the Publishers Weekly list in early December, I was not just surprised: I was astounded. And my astonishment doubled when, a week or so later, I saw the book in Time’s list of the Best Books of 2009, nonfiction division.

Subtitled “An Epic Search for Truth,” this graphic novel takes up a highly unlikely subject for treatment in a form best suited to depicting action rather than thought — logic and philosophy. Logicomix rehearses the early life of philosopher Bertrand Russell as he tries to ascertain the logical foundations of mathematics. We see Russell in confrontation and conversation with other great mathematicians of the first decades of the 20th century — Georg Cantor, Kurt Godel, David Hilbert, the mad Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others, including, mostly, Alfred Whitehead, with whom Russell co-authored the influential but controversial Principia Mathematica while contemplating (and perhaps consummating) an affair with Whitehead’s wife. Except for the last item, this seems a recipe for boredom in a visual narrative like comics, but the authors of this extraordinary volume not only make the subject interesting but do so by adroitly exploiting the capacities of the medium.

The biographical part of the book is framed by a 1939 lecture Russell gives in which he recounts his life and philosophical quest — a device that, like the subject itself, is fraught with potential tedium. But the academic drone of Russell’s pontifications is broken up by flashbacks depicting key aspects of his life, including silent sequences that enhance the drama of certain events, symbolic passages of explication or of psychological insight, and, most surprising, sight gags — plus Russell’s own occasional low-key sense of humor.

The book is written by Christos Papdimitriou, a professor of computer science and author of Turing: A Novel about Computation, and Apostolos Doxiadis, a pioneer in the study of the interaction of mathematics and narrative, whose international best-seller Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture “was the first novel to make fascinating fiction out of mathematics” (as the back flap blurb tells us). Rendering the story into pictures are the husband-and-wife team of Alecos Papadatos, an animator and newspaper cartoonist in Athens, and Annie di Donna, who, since 1991, has been running an animation studio with her husband.

The novel is shaped by three narrative strands that weave in and out of each other: (1) Russell’s lecturing (which is autobiographical as well as theoretical), (2) Russell’s life story as he relates it in his lecture (a story that can be broken into two elements: his pursuit of the logical foundations of mathematics and his personal life, marriage, love affairs, intellectual struggles with colleagues, etc.), and (3) discussions among the book’s authors about aspects of Russell’s life and quest. The authors interrupt Russell’s recitation of his life story (and Papadatos and di Donna’s illustration thereof) when Russell says he’s failed to achieve his objective with the Principia Mathematica: Papadimitriou objects to saying that Russell failed, but di Donna reminds them all that they are using Russell’s words. Doxiadis finds a way out of the dilemma by inserting into the narrative an episode that, in effect, redeems Russell from himself. This is complicated stuff, but the authors pull it off with panache.

In a four-page sequence, we go from Russell’s lecture (which, at the moment, is autobiographical, focusing on his relationship with his pupil, Wittgenstein, always rendered in sepia tones) to the studio (in full color) where the authors are working and discussing this aspect of Russell’s life, back to the Russell lecture/autobiography, then again to the authors’ full-color studio. Then, again in sepia, Russell resumes his lecture, which includes allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to explicate Russell’s ponderings.

©2009 Logicomix Print. Ltd. (Click to view larger images)

The drawing style is crisp and simple in the clear-line manner of Hergé and, like Hergé, unstinting in conveying a sense of the story’s varying locales with copious background details. And Papadatos and di Donna have captured the likenesses of their principals with simple mastery (see Russell at the lectern at the bottom of the third page here). Altogether, a virtuoso performance — by writers, artists and Russell, who, by the end of the book, has recognized that his logical theories have fallen apart but has learned something much more valuable.

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