March 2, 2010


by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou , Alecos Papadatos, Annie Di Donna

Review by SF Winser

I love interesting failures. They may be among my favorite things to read and not from some cynical feeling that I'm glad it wasn't me who did that. It's good to see people genuinely attempting to stretch boundaries.

Logicomix is an interesting failure. It doesn't quite work. Yet, I read it cover to cover and enjoyed it sincerely.

The problem here is the competing needs of the artists and writers. There were four people involved in this project. All of them talented and creative and smart. All seeking something slightly different from this book.

And the needs of the story also competed with all these needs. It's a big, complicated story.

All of these make the actual execution uncohesive. The book rambles in places and glosses over important points in others, often in entertaining ways, but not always in helpful ways.

This is the life of the philosopher/mathematician/logician Bertrand Russell, told in graphic novel format. Which, because Russell was a philosopher in some very deep, very complex matters, means it's also a quick run-down of the nature of Formal Logic. If it wasn't, you wouldn't understand why Russell's work was so ambitious and consuming. It's also a dramatic tale of the Story of Logic – not just Russell's work in the area. And it's also a thematic exploration of the link between madness and genius.

Madness and genius, you say? Again? What a long disproven, overused idea!

But, it is in this that Logicomix actually has something interesting to say. Eventually.

Logicomix thinks that smart people from dangerously unstable backgrounds are attracted to the philosophy of Logic in order to escape their shaky upbringings. Madness and genius don't cause each other, they just occur together in some people. Correlation, not causation.

But it's still a failure. The creators are written in to the comic itself as a Greek Chorus in a vain attempt to provide some sort of outlet for the exposition and thematic discussion that couldn't be shoehorned into the actual narrative. Sometimes this works, sometimes it's a transparent and heavy-handed story device. There is even a nice little ending revolving around a Greek Tragedy and the triumph of wisdom over anger. But... the rather interesting life of Russell suffers at the hand of the story of Russell's wrestling with Formal Logic, which suffers in it's turn by the need to illustrate a thematic idea, which is never quite as present in the story as it needs to be because of the depth of the other background ideas that need to be explored in order to understand Logic itself and, therefore, the entire friggin' novel.

We end up with vignettes of Russell's life – and this is an interesting life. We, the reader, deserve more than vignettes, barely explored. We also get a not-quite-deep-enough look at Russell's ideas and not-quite-enough of the actual story of Logic itself.

It would have been better if it had set out, more deliberately, to teach Logic, but using Russell as a base. Or just tell Russell's life story without the odd evasions. At one point Russell is suddenly onto a second wife... with no explanation of how or where this woman came from. First wife: just gone. We know the reasons – Russell was a philandering prick - just not the circumstances. One minute Russell is married to one woman, a few pages later he's married to another: deal with it. And this is only one of the more glaring examples of a story of Bertrand Russell's life not actually telling the story of Bertrand Russell's life. Or even if the book had focused more – and more faithfully – on the instances of madness and illogic in the lives of Logicians, that may have helped, too. As it is, no one story-direction gets the attention it deserves. And so, the book fails.

Luckily, the artists and writers ARE talented. The art is fun. The writing interesting. The ideas well explained (if not deeply enough). So this is a very readable and interesting work. It just fails to be all that it could be. It's the kind of thing I'd recommend to people to read. But I'd add a thousand caveats. And I'd still hope they'd read it anyway. It's long, ambitious, well-done and deep. It's just not what it needs to be. I suppose the best way to show how I feel about it is that if these guys collaborated on another book, I'd quite happily read it and expect good things. In fact, I kind of wish they'd chosen to do a life of Alan Turing, instead. There's a life dramatic and tragic that would have been a great base for the Story of Logic. In fact, I hope that they do that next. That's a book with potential.

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