Logicomix is a rather unusual book – an exploration of the early development of mathematical logic, interwoven with the profound story of the life of one of the greatest thinkers in the field – Bertrand Russell – all told in graphic novel format. A tall order for any work, but Logicomix manages it admirably.
While it does give a fascinating outline of the basics of the field of logic, the main strength of the book is its human focus. Russell’s story is, when it comes down to it, a very simple one of a man searching for meaning in the world and, as such, it is eminently relatable. The effective presentation of Russell’s life rests in no small part in the fantastic framing device. I’ve always found older versions of the protagonists telling somebody about their lives an effective storytelling device, but Logicomix goes a step beyond this by having fictionalised versions of its creators discussing a lecture Russell gave on the eve of World War II, in which used the story of his life to explain why, despite his pacifism, he did not object to war with Nazi Germany.
This allows Russell’s early life to be analysed in a very natural way from both the point of view of his older self and of external observers. While the writer’s narration provides a much needed objective view on his life, Russell’s narration helps us get into his head – helping us to understand him and sympathise with him. We get a real picture of a principled, driven man who sacrifices so much of his personal happiness in a quest for mathematical truth.
Equally well developed are Russell’s colleagues, friends and family – who add much depth to the story. Of course, given that the book has less than 400 pages and covers several decades of Russell’s life, some changes to real life characters and events are inevitable –most noticeable being the complete absence of the protagonist’s brother Frank. Most of these, however, are explained by the writers in the external framing device – meaning readers are not misinformed, while allowing the story to fit into the limited space and maintain narrative coherence.
Equally worth mentioning is the artwork. Superbly drawn by Alecos Papadatos it is striking in its realistic clarity. At times amusing, at times moving, it always serves to support and add to the story and is one the book’s greatest strengths.
Logicomix is a brilliant work. It strikes me as sad that there are still people who refuse to treat graphic novels seriously. While certain genres might not be to everyone’s taste, I find it remarkably immature and snobbish for some people to reject an entire medium outright. If these people gave Logicomix a chance, they would quickly see that good graphic novels don’t have to be about superheros or newspaper comic strip characters.