Graphic novels

This ain’t The Beano. Time Out meets the writer and illustrator who teamed up to bring deep thinking to the world of graphic novels

The Knowledge
The Knowledge
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Maus by Art Spiegelman
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Logicomix, the graphic novel about British philosopher Bertrand Russell and the quest for the foundation of mathematics, was published at the end of last year. Initially it was merely very successful, but only a few months later the book, which recast relatively obscure early 20th century philosophers in the same heroic form as Green Lantern and Superman, has become an international phenomenon. Writer Apostolos Doxiadis and illustrator Alecos Papadatos explain how the graphic novel came together.

Why write a graphic novel about mathematics and a long-dead British philosopher?

AD ‘As a writer I only have one rule: to write about things that I’m passionate about, and I’m passionate about mathematics. At the heart of the book is a tragedy – although others may call it a comedy, so
let’s settle for a ‘tragicomedy’ – involving human beings who are passionate about ideas, who have love-relationships with ideas. Or, as is the case with Russell, have love-hate relationships.’

Alecos, you were a film animator; Apostolos, you were an author lauded for your 1992 novel Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture. Yet you both came to Logicomix as graphic novel beginners…
AD ‘Neither of us had done a graphic novel. It’s amazing and frustrating. Sometimes I would say, “This isn’t good enough! Let’s go and sleep on it.” It took me a year to be really comfortable with the idea of myself as a graphic novelist.’

AP ‘Apostolos’s creative [technique] is based on screen writing. He sends me a document in which every panel is described in great detail.’

AD ‘Sometimes we will be working in different countries and I’ll want to make sure that we get it right, so I will say [on the phone]: “Put this half a centimetre to the right.” ’

And yet some of the artwork is very simple.
AD ‘If you have too many rich dishes, you get sick! A more elaborate style would distract, would make you stay [on the image] longer. In a sense the drawing in comics is shorthand for feeling and emotion. It is somewhere between symbolic and representational; it is closer to writing. A comment that I hear from many first-time readers of comics is: “I enjoyed it very much, but I had a problem. I didn’t pay attention to the pictures.” But no – they only think they didn’t pay attention.’

The images feel as though they’re somewhere between movement and stasis…

AD ‘I think one of the beautiful things about it – because Alecos’s images are like people arrested in motion – is that the flow, that effect, is even stronger in this work than in other comics. Very often when a talented young artist shows me their work, they ask for comments, and I say: “Although it looks great, it looks to me like you picked the landscape because it has the poses that you can paint most easily.” With Alecos I never had to say, “Let me not do this because Alecos will not be able to draw it.”’

You are clearly indebted to Stan Lee and the American comic tradition.
AD ‘There are parts that are more classic ’50s American comics, which is where it all really came together as a language, but because we have worked in cinema there are parts that are more cinematic. And there are parts that are more literary.’

One panel is a lift from Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’. Is that a deliberate pop art joke?
AD ‘But Lichtenstein is imitating comics! So it’s art imitating art, imitating art.’
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is published by Bloomsbury.

Further reading

More comics that aren’t for kids

Maus by Art Spiegelman
The Holocaust told through mice.

Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine
Four short stories explore social awkwardness among damaged teens and twenty-somethings.

Watchmen by Alan Moore
Set in an alternate ’80s, Watchmen grapples with the Cold War and critiques the concept of superheroes.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco
An account of life in the mid-’90s in Gorazde, an island in the middle of the Bosnian war.

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
Anecdotes drawn from the time Delisle spent in North Korea.

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