Posted by: Douglas Wolk on October 3, 2009
Two I didn’t like so much, under the cut: “Logicomix” and “Dark Entries.”
LOGICOMIX: AN EPIC SEARCH FOR TRUTH: This is a comics biography of Bertrand Russell (preview here) that’s been getting a lot of exceptionally enthusiastic praise lately: Bryan Appleyard of the Sunday Times called it “probably the best and certainly the most extraordinary graphic novel I have ever come across,” which makes me suspect that he has not come across very many of any kind. It’s by a relatively large cast, which is fine: Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou are credited with “concept & story,” Doxiadis with the script, Alecos Papadatos with “character design & drawings,” Annie Di Donna with color. All four of them actually appear in the story (Di Donna with an outrageous French accent: “It’s life zat is building zat!”), as does Anne Bardy, credited with “visual research & lettering” in smaller type (alongside two inkers).
The biographical part, as it turns out, is framed by the lazy device of the book’s creators themselves chatting about how exactly they’re going to represent Russell and the mathematical and philosophical innovations in which he took part. When the ostensible subject of the book hits dry patches, they return (repeatedly) to quibble about what it all means, discuss how to illustrate the themes they conveniently spell out, wander around, and finally attend a performance of part of the “Oresteia,” which appears in lieu of any kind of real dramatic resolution.
It’s not as if they haven’t sacrificed plenty to drama already: an end-note indicates that “our book is definitely not–nor does it want to be–a work of history,” and that therefore most of its biographical details are telescoped, simplified or outright invented. There are ways to make that work in historical fiction, of course–ask any biopic–and it can be done well in comics (see, for instance, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel). But what’s actually present on the page here suggests that it is a relatively faithful work of history, if you don’t know better. There’s a sequence in which the young Russell goes to visit the elderly, deranged Georg Cantor (“Try and imagine a young painter being received by Michelangelo. A composer meeting Beethoven,” declares Russell-the-narrator). He has a horrible experience, and goes on to have nightmares inspired by the meeting; the afterword notes that “it is safe to assume that Russell never met… Cantor in the flesh.” In other words, that scene is only there to make a dry subject more exciting to look at.
Which raises the question that often comes to mind when I’m reading a “source-based” comic (as the panel at last weekend’s SPX put it) that isn’t creator-driven like Louis Riel or From Hell or Crumb’s Genesis, for instance: Why is this comics? What is there to gain by explaining this with drawings? What can a handmade visual interpretation add to this? The art team is just fine–they’ve got a low-friction sort of post-Hergé kids’-comics style that only really gets in the way when they try to get fancy. But the only way to turn abstract mathematical concepts like the ones this book deals with into comics is to have a character explain them, and the only way to illustrate how revolutionary and surprising they are is to have characters recoil in shock at the explanation. In the framing sequences, the creators pat themselves on the back a bit for being clever enough to make a comic book about this stuff, and some reviews I’ve seen have echoed that congratulatory tone: Rob Sharp at the Independent claims that it “challenges the traditional character of the superhero or detective… It has been critically acclaimed as a welcome subversion of the graphic novel genre.” If graphic novels were a genre, then it might be. But they’re not. AWFUL.
DARK ENTRIES: Speaking of books discussed in the British newspaper pieces linked above: this is one of the first two books from the new Vertigo Crime imprint, a John Constantine story written by crime novelist Ian Rankin and drawn by Werther Dell’Edera. (Notable quote from the Independent piece: “Bizarrely, he never met the book’s Italian artist, Werther Dell’Edera; in fact, as he was only liaising with him via DC, he was unaware that the book was eventually going to be published in black and white.”) You would think that a book selected for to launch a new crime imprint would be, you know, a crime story, rather than a numbingly by-the-book supernatural/horror story in which a popular reality-TV show turns out to be run by demons DO YOU SEE and the inhabitants of the Big Brother-oid house are actually in “Gameshow Hell” DO YOU GET IT YET, HUH? You’d also think that it would be wiser to launch a new imprint with a book that Dell’Edera had time to make look as imposing and menacing as his work on Loveless, but whether it was or not (I have no idea), a lot of the book’s second half appears to have been drawn in one hell of a hurry. AWFUL.