Monday, 21 February 2011

Logicomix and the Frame-story: part 1

As an undergraduate, one of my first assignments was to write an essay on the word 'the' for a logic class. Unfortunately, that first exciting term I had been more concerned with my new found freedom than my lectures, and I, and many of my fellow students, ended up turning in essays culled largely from a widely circulated copy of an essay from an enterprising third year. Not my proudest moment, and not the greatest introduction to logic either. But, despite a lack of understanding, I do remember a certain sense of intrigue as I hurriedly plagiarised long into the night. There was something interesting here, not as interesting as alcohol and women obviously, but maybe, just maybe I really had been wasting that term.

It is with some interest then that I approached “Logicomix”, an account, by Doxiadis and Papadimitriou of the life of Bertrand Russell, and his search for a logical foundation for mathematics. A comic book giving narrative and exposition to intellectual theories whose exciting potential I had glimpsed on that rather tortuous night. And if “Logicomix” has a great virtue, it is that it does indeed capture that essence of the intriguing power of logic, and conveys it with as much excitement and fascination as it really does deserve. The authors succeed in drawing a compelling fictional narrative from philosophical arguments, and in doing so breathe vitality into what is often taught as rather lifeless subject matter. The art work, by Papadatos and Di Donna works hard to accompany this, to place energy and movement into even the sections where Bertrand Russell is simply lecturing from a stage. Sharp cuts, frequent shifts of perspective, and odd angles give dynamism and help to maintain interest in the visuals, especially in the early years of Russell's tormented and fearful childhood. Particularly brilliant is the portrayal of Wittgenstein, who is clearly too impossibly eccentric to be the protagonist, but who steals the page as soon as he appears, with the portrayal of his energetic mannerisms instantly reinvigorating a potentially flagging story.

The artists also play with referential visuals, one of the most striking being a full page panel of Russell as Casper David Friedrich's “Wanderer above a Sea of Fog”. Despite this however, it could be suggested that the book fails to use its comic nature to its full extent. The visual aspects of comics, the ability hold multiple concepts simultaneously in our view, could lend itself to some excitingly innovative portrayals of the mathematics and logic which it explores. The portrayal of Russell's paradox is useful, but its captions themselves are sufficient to explain the problem, with the images simply illustrations, rather than an integral part of the paradox itself. Perhaps it's wishful thinking, but there does seem a missed opportunity to produce a truly self-referential narrative of philosophy and logic, rather than the rather unimaginative view given here.

Unfortunately, my biggest problem with Logicomix is not what it doesn't do, but what it does. The book uses two frame stories, one being an older Russell narrating his life from a lecture hall, the second being of the artists and writers themselves discussing and arguing about the characters and concepts within the book. It sounds like a fine idea, and it would be, except that the writers use and abuse this device terribly. I want to write a longer piece about the use of the frame story in literature, and how comics contain unique and exciting possibilities for the device, and some of those ideas are definitely present in how Logicomix guides your reading of the story and provides context to Russell's story. But repeated cuts between the layers of the story reduce the immersion into Russell's world and jar the sense of narrative, constantly reminding us that this is a comic being read, not a story being watched. While that may be a useful device in many works, here it seems the writers doubt the force of their own story, and lack the confidence to let it flow. They also seem to lack confidence in their own abilities as writers. One of the worst uses of the frame must be to explain that which should be implicit within the story itself, and yet that is exactly what occurs here. The central theme, of the link between logic and madness, is thought provoking and clever, yet rather than allow it to emerge naturally through the characters, the writers insist on explicitly explaining this, repeatedly, to the reader, removing the potential for thoughtful musing on the part of the reader.

It is an essential part of any medium that reader participation is necessary, even desired, to create a great piece. Comics possess great potential for this, as McCloud points out with his discussion on the 'gutter space' and the necessary time gap our minds impose between panels. Yet the creators of Logicomix, perhaps caught up, like their characters, in a search for explanations of even the fundamentals, insist on describing every level of their creation. The result, while visually dynamic, is a story which cannot breathe, hemmed in on all sides by exposition and contextualisation (not unlike, in fact, a typical academic philosophy essay!). One cannot fault the technical skills of the group of artists and writers, but their lone attempt to break the formal traditions of the comic book ultimately results in them enforcing their own, rigid interpretations on a necessarily intelligent audience. An unfortunate fate for a potentially interesting idea.

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