Bloomsbury, 2009, 347 pages, C$28.50 tp, ISBN 978-1-59691-452-0
What a delightfully odd and wonderful book.
There’s nothing stating that Logicomix shouldn’t exist, and yet… the thought of a comic book explaining the foundations of mathematically-driven logic via the life of Bertrand Russell certainly ranks high on the list of “book one wouldn’t expect”. The event bigger surprise is that Logicomix is such an absorbing and successful work.
Scott McCloud would be proud, I suppose, given how clearly Logicomix espouses the principles he sets out in his trilogy of works about comic books. It takes an intellectually challenging subject, gives it life through dramatic events and meta-fiction interludes, hooks readers with beautiful and evocative art and delivers a reading experience unlike anything a prose writer would have been able to achieve. It’s a minor achievement –and not merely as a comic book.
The easiest dramatic arc to follow in Logicomix is the early life of British intellectual Bertrand Russell, as he grows up to become a logician and blossom alongside the birth of Logic as an academic discipline. Russell sought to explain logic not just as a subset of philosophy, but as being proven by mathematical theorems. (Hence his Principia Mathematica, 379 pages leading up to “From this proposition it will follow, when arithmetical addition has been defined, that 1+1=2.”) Russell may have indulged in intellectual sphere unattainable by ordinary humans, but his life was as dramatic as they came: He came from a well-bred but highly dysfunctional family, married often, rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest names in European intelligentsia (which included mentoring Wittgenstein)… and that’s just the first half of the book. (Such is the richness of Russell’ s life that among other things that Logicomix doesn’t have time to address in depth is the controversy about his pacifism leading to his academic dismissal, much more of his eventful domestic life and his survival of a plane crash that killed nearly half the other passengers.) Through Logicomix, Russell emerges as a sympathetic figure, maybe even a hero of sorts.
But the real protagonist of Logicomix is human thought itself, the way in which it stems from life and the way it builds upon itself. Logicomix becomes a spellbinding portrait of how great thinkers collaborate, argue, set their theories on paper and often see them superseded by better ideas inspired by their own work. The collaboration between Russell and Alfred North Whitehead is portrayed vividly, as are his (sometimes-fictionalized) contacts with other philosophers and logicians across the Continent. Best of all, Logicomix actually manages to teach a few interesting things to readers, including Russell’s own paradox of set containers. Wittgenstein’s path through life (easily as fascinating as Russell’s) is also sketched with good explanations of his early and latter schools of thought. Those whose education may not include solid primers in logic have nothing to fear and everything to gain from Logicomix’s vulgarization.
Another layer helps all elements of the book together and make it relevant to today’s audiences: an ongoing meta-fictional conversation between the book’s co-authors and the artists responsible for illustrating Logicomix: We’re meant to follow their progress as they argue about the book’s theses, the metaphors used to present its concepts and what needs to be left on the wayside. It eventually leads to an allegory-rich theatre show and a few highly promising concept for a sequel on computer science, the natural offspring of the concepts discussed throughout the book.
There’s no need to state how quickly I would buy such a sequel, or any follow-up comparable to Logicomix. For a chance discovery in the “Graphic Novel” section of the bookstore, I’m stunned at how successful Logicomix is at its stated goals. I’m not even bothered by the esoteric nature of the final pages given how I expect to re-read the book eventually and find new things in it. Scott McCloud preached in the wilderness for years about the particular strengths of the graphic novel as a form of expression, and now we have as clear an example of what he was espousing. The result is as accessible as it’s stunning: a primer about logic in graphic novel form. Never mind how some people are going to be blown away by this book: it’s due for a long life as a college textbook, an example of how mature graphic novels can be, and a good old read for anyone who wants a little substance in their entertainment reading.
Logicomix may be odd and wonderful, but the time is ripe for it to become a bit less sui generis.