Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Logicomix Review

So in my usual "late to the game" fashion, I just finished up reading Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. (Hm. As I wrote that, though, I went back and double-checked the dates. I guess it wasn't published in the U.S. until late September 2009, so I guess I'm not as far behind the curve as it sometimes feels like.)

"Epic" is indeed an appropriate word choice for this volume. For, while it's superficially a biography of Bertrand Russell, it extends much wider and deeper than his life, encompassing the rebirth of mathematics, the origins of logical thought process and, to some degree, the foundations of the computer age. It includes treatises on love, war, education and very nearly all aspects of life. The authors even acknowledge that it reaches beyond their scope as artists and refer back to the Greek tragedies Oresteia to drive their points home at the end.

One of my interests within comics that's developed in the past several years has been paying greater attention to non-fiction works. I think stumbling on and reading Joe Sacco's Safe Area GoraĹžde made me acutely aware of what was possible with comics. I can confidently say that I learned more about the Bosnian War through Sacco than I did from all the combined news outlets that were available to me at the time. I could still enjoy that interplay of text and imagry and learn something to boot! That's incredibly powerful.

And Logicomix is precisely why that type of thing speaks to me. Yeah, I still learned something from reading Spain's biography of Che Guevara, but it just kind of sat there for me. Logicomix provided me with a greater understanding of who Russell was, certainly, but it was so masterfully executed that I would repeatedly become engrossed in the content. I would have read it one sitting except... well, it's over 350 pages long and, frankly, my chair wasn't THAT comfortable!

Interestingly, the story actually follows three tracts simultaneously. Russell's story is actually told by Russell himself, giving a lecture late in his life. Repeated cuts back to his standing at a podium are seamless and flow very smoothly. But there's also a story of the creators actually working on the book itself. They repeatedly cut in and discuss how the story should flow or where to place thematic emphasis. That, too, flows well with the overall narrative and all three aspects of the story are juggled superbly well that it really seems like a single narrative.

I think part of the failure of U.S. public education with regard to social studies is a misplaced focus on historical accuracy. Don't get me wrong, I think that they should be presenting an accurate model of history. However, in the first place, they're wildly inaccurate already. (How many people think Christopher Columbus landed in what would become the mainland United States? How many Americans were/are taught that the U.S. Civil War was about slavery? Who was actually taught about the massive government failures that led to the 1930's Dust Bowl?) In the second place, they generally force the regurgitation of facts and figures instead of any real understanding or comprehension. The exact dates surrounding the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon's registration and America's withdrawl from Vietnam are largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of people's education; the larger issue is knowing that basic sequence occurred in the early- to mid-1970s in that order and the how/why of their importance.

Which is where books like Logicomix work. The authors freely acknowledge they took some liberties with the facts. About who actually spoke to whom, and when. Where people were on particular dates, and whether they attended particular conferences. Those were essentially edited to streamline the overall story. To make the important ideas easier to understand and digest. This is what can be done so well with comics. This is where the power of comics as an art form shines. And when it's done as masterfully as it has been in Logicomix, it leaves readers with a deeper understanding and appreciation of what the story was about. Even when they don't recall the specific dates and locations.

Logicomix was everything I look for in a great comic and more! Despite the daunting-looking page count and subject matter, I found it immensely absorbing and really enjoyed reading it. The overall storytelling was exceptional, and there were some really nice sequences that you can only do in comics. I think it achieved exactly what the authors hoped it would, and in the best way possible. Really, a great read!