Written by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
So. A confession for those of you who don’t know – I studied Philosophy at university. Which I guess is why I’m now writing about comics on the internet instead of doing something useful with my life lol (scratches chin: define – “useful“).
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a graphic novel about the foundational quest in mathematics – basically: a quest to find somesort of rigorous mathematical bedrock free of pesky human assumptions and fiddly contradictions on which the edifices of maths could be built (and lead to craziness like a 362 page book that takes ten years to write that does nothing more than prove that 1 + 1 = 2). Or as they put it in the book: “Or profound conviction that all these great problems are solvable… rests on the principal that the world is totally understandable by reason… that if a question can be rigorously stated it can be logically answered.”
I found Logicomix to be a very interesting book to read (and I hope you guys do too) altho I’ll admit that I might be coming to it from a different angle than other people. I mean: altho I studied Philosophy pretty much everything in the book was new to me so reading it was a much a process of discovery as I guess it would be for anyone else. But the thing that made it really interesting for me was how it described the process of Logic. Namely this quest that Bertrand Russell and his band of merry men go on in order to try to fixture the logical underpinnings of mathematics and after years and years of difficult frustrations and complicated workings manage to succeed in nothing less than proving the impossibility of their task. And yeah – speaking as someone who spent a lot of time having to learn Logic and it’s codes and formulas and etc (and frankly being pretty shit at it) I’ve got to admit that I was a little vexed to read Logicomix and realise oh wait – the actual end goal of this was refuted several decades before I was even born – what the fuck?
(Nice little example there of how the education system can work sometimes tho LOL)
But yeah – Logicomix actually goes further than just showing how the foundational quest in mathematics ended up empty handed – it also works to show how the quest seekers ended up being shaped into going on the quest in the first place. Namely – the life experiences that shaped Bertrand Russell’s head so that he got so twisted up that the idea that the whole universe is mathematically provable became something that he drove him on for so much of his life.
And yeah – there’s a kinda elegant beauty in the book in the way it unfolds in that – it shows how even tho a rigorous mathematically system free of contradiction can never exist – human beings are explicable and the things that drive us and the desires that we hold dear we can ascertain and understand. And well – you know: for me at least – there is a sense of… I dunno… hope in that? (Does make me feel like maybe I should have studied Psychology instead of Philosophy tho).
I read Catch 22 when I was a kid and reread it again recently and I’m pretty convinced that it burned its way into parts of my brain – namely just the idea of contradictions and paradoxes and well you know – Catch 22s (it’s funny how the stuff that you read as a kid affects how you see the world – right?). The thing that’s funny is how in Logicomix and for Bertrand Russell and his crew paradoxes are things to be avoided / evidence that something is gone wrong. But well yeah at the risk of being too obvious perhaps: but maybe paradoxes are just what happens when your system gets complex?
Will leave it at that for now.
What does everyone else think of Logicomix? How does it work as a comic? And ooh – look! It’s non-fiction too!
Over to you.
This! This comic is why I love comics!
I love that comics can cover such a variety of topics, how one week I’m reading “the superman exists, and he’s russian” and the next it’s about the beginnings of logic as a field. It’s so cool! I’m a huge fan of comics as a teaching method, because of their more accessible nature (they’re great for learning languages, I’m using them to help me learn french!)
It always strikes me as weird that comics have this rep as ‘a thing for kids or nerds’ when TV and films don’t, and it makes me so happy when comics expand into less-usual topics.
That said, this comic was not a good comic. The story was interesting enough (though I’d have preferred more focus on character), but holy crap SHOW DON’T TELL!
Hey, the main character leaving his wife and feeling isolated sounds interesting, why didn’t they show it happening?! So much of this comic is telling you via text that stuff happened, the images feel really pointless.
I think it’s a symptom of artists being given a completed script to work from (I’ve noticed it in a few other comics), the writer naturally writes a complete text, so the visuals don’t really have much to do beyond ‘people walking around talking’. I’m pretty certain you could remove every image from the comic and it’d still make perfect sense. There’s no interplay between the text and pictures, no letting images speak for themselves.
Because there’s no faith in the images to convey things, you need more words. A lot more words. There’s nothing in that shot above that couldn’t easily be shown via, I dunno, he’s waiting at a half-ruined train station, pacing back and forth looking worried. If they’d sketched out a rough draft then reworked the script, they could have axed a good chunk of redundant text, reworked it to be in harmony with the images.
Personally, I’d have stripped out the entire modern-day plotline, and used the space to show the important events in Russell’s life, make him more of a person.
Oh, also, does anyone else read the ellipses-formatting as speech full of Shatner-esque pauses?
It was an interesting read, and I’m glad it exists, but it could so easily have been so much better!
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
There’s a big fat book I love called Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid.
It’s possible that I’m misremembering this – but I think I first saw it in my local Borders (anyone remember them?) and I remember being slightly entranced by it’s weight and it’s heft. And it’s one of those fun books to flick through – because it’s got lots of pictures and diagrams and interesting spacing and stuff. Bits of maths. Bits of plays. Bits of art etc.
It’s a big long, strange, beautiful book and trying to sum it up is fraught with difficulties – but here’s a bit from near the start:
… the Gödelian strange loop that arises in formal systems in mathematics … is a loop that allows such a system to “perceive itself”, to talk about itself, to become “self-aware”, and in a sense it would not be going too far to say that by virtue of having such a loop, a formal system acquires a self
So yeah I read it many years ago (I think the first few 100 pages in Borders before I finally decided that maybe I should just buy the fecking thing) and like Catch 22 I guess – it’s one of those things that infected my mind from the inside out and spread out and changed the way that I pretty much view the world. And yeah – it’s interesting reading Logicomix having read Godel, Escher, Bach beforehand because while in Logicomix Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are destructive forces that topple the foundations of mathematical certainty – in Godel, Escher, Bach they’re a doorway to further understand the world and ourselves… When a complex system can start to refer to itself then all sorts of interesting things start to happen – and even through self-reference leads to paradoxes – maybe it also leads to consciousness too?
Question in my head from this is like: what’s the best name for this kinda approach? Like is it rationality? Pointing out the limits of logic? Is it logical even? I mean – nowadays it’s the kind of approach that has a bad reputation. We need to be more in touch with our feelings – understand emotions better and respect where people come from – but feels like it’s all part of the same system no? Understanding all of the complexities of a situation. And being smart is being kind – no?
(Whoops. Sorry. Realise that this kind of stuff is maybe only of interest to me…).
The stuff Rat wrote was really cool! Like – I’d like to think that I usually have a pretty sharp eye for that type of redundancy but I’ve got to admit that it completely passed me by… (the best/worst example of this kinda thing is in a comic called Couch Fiction: A Graphic Tale of Psychotherapy by Philippa Perry which feels like a comic made by someone that’s never read a comic before. Pictures filling the page and a small block of text at the bottom: most of the time just describing whatever is in the pictures to the point where on one page there’s a picture of a fire alarm ringing and underneath it says something like: “It’s like there’s a fire alarm going off” I mean – WTF? LEARN HOW TO TELL A STORY WITH PICTURES).
I guess Logicomix manages to sneak by because well – it’s pretty comicy at the start. With the walking through Athens stuff (and I love a good fourth wall break).
I have a question tho: like – I’m not sure I get loving Logicomix for being a comic that’s showing all the stuff that comics can do whilst at the time going: oh well – it’s not actually doing the comic stuff very well at all…. I mean: I guess you can say: ha ha – strange loops and paradoxes: but I’m not sure how much you can make me agree (lol). Like: aren’t the best ambassadors for comics – good comics? Or is that too simplistic? And but also: why the hell do we even need comic ambassadors in the first place? I mean – there’s a big thing about Sabrina being on the Booker Prize longlist and I’m sorry but I’m just a bit like – who really cares? LOL.
The Amazing Frankie
I 100% agree with Rat’s assessment: “why didn’t they show it happening?! So much of this comic is telling you via text that stuff happened, the images feel really pointless.”
Logicomix has at its base several interesting ideas with a lot of potential, and man, I hate to be so negative about this book, which a lot of people seem to really like, but as both a story and a comic I feel it was executed poorly.
It’s not just the framing of the story, but the double-framing. First you have the frame of this creative collaboration set in Greece between a mathematician/writer and his friend, a computer scientist, which, taken alone, could have been an interesting story. (More on this later.) But they use it to frame this semi-biographical account of Bertrand Russell’s life and efforts to develop a system of logic. I think one of the things that annoyed me about this frame was that, much like they didn’t trust the artists to convey the story through pictures, they didn’t trust the reader to understand the ideas in the comic through the story of Russell’s life. Every section of the contemporary frame may as well begin with “As you know, Bob…”
It seems the artists, at least, realized what a snoozefest this exposition is…
Then you have the nested frame of Bertrand Russell giving a lecture and answering hecklers, another level of “tell” where we could have been immersed in the story of Russell’s life. But instead we get panels and panels of a guy standing at a podium and talking before we get to the story.
Changing focus. For a book written in the past 10 years, this has some really cringe inducing attitudes toward mental illness. Not the historical attitudes, which can be understood as in context of the limited knowledge and attitudes of their time, but the modern representation…
The authors keep returning to this theme as though they want to “prove” a relationship between mental illness and logic. Or “madness” as they call it. But it seems like that same tired Madness of Genius!/Genius of Madness! trope. Example: the repeated emphasis on Gödel’s paranoia late in life — mentioned both in the comic and then detailed in the appendix. There’s something that felt gratuitous and exploitative about how this book treats mental illness, and for a book that purports to be about systems of truth and logic, they do an embarrassingly terrible job of supporting their thesis that there’s a causal relationship between “madness” and logic.
And on that note, there was also something a little gross about how it seems to revel in prurient sexual details, like making a point that Bertrand Russell’s parents, who were both dead by the time he was six, and who he didn’t even remember, were involved in a ménage à trois. (I have no idea what purpose this revelation serves in the story.)
The same goes for the treatment of Russell’s own romantic relationships. It would be one thing if the book had the creative balls to commit to exploring Russell’s dysfunctional relationships with depth and empathy — but it doesn’t. It chucks in a few panels, here and there about Russell’s sexual peccadilloes and failed marriages. The effect for me is leering and winking, not a sympathetic exploration of a man being who, while brilliant in some areas, fails in all too human ways.
Overall, I guess I feel like this book had a lot of potential as a concept, but the execution was contrived, beginning with the conceit of the authors as characters in their own story breaking the fourth wall. (Unless you’re Deadpool, just don’t.) And at the same time, overly vague. Instead of telling one story well, they argue over creative choices and use the contemporary frame to inflict this confusion of ideas on the reader. To me, it feels like they never worked out exactly what story they were trying to tell. This is my disappointed face, because I went into this book fully primed to love the hell out of it. Alas.
I think the best part of this story actually was the part set in contemporary Greece, and if they’d reined in their impulse toward unnecessary exposition and said whatever they had to say without trying to shoehorn it into the vehicle of Russell’s biography, I think the book might have been something I really enjoyed.
“I have a question tho: like – I’m not sure I get loving Logicomix for being a comic that’s showing all the stuff that comics can do whilst at the time going: oh well – it’s not actually doing the comic stuff very well at all”
Yeah, sorry, I didn’t phrase that well, did I? What I meant was that I love that there’s room in ‘comics’ for a story about such a niche topic, and that making a graphic novel and printing it is cheap enough that this can exist. I think it’s evidence of the medium’s maturation, and that makes me happy.
I’d totally forgotten about that shot of the owl and dog sleeping, I noticed it as well when I was reading and thought it was a bit unfortunate. Or maybe a snide comment by the artists?
You mentioned liking the modern sections of the story, Frankie, so if you were to cut the biography aspects what would it be? Would they still be discussing making the biography and it’s relevance to their ideas, or would it be completely gone?