Logicomix: The Story of Reality / by David Anderson

logicomixbanner.jpg

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth is a pretty basic and plain sounding name for a comic book that is about 350 pages long, but it fits in a way; its subject concerns the very basis of truth and reality, and its protagonists sought to create the most basic rules possible to explain it. Logicomix opens up with a greeting from the makers of the comic, and their metacognitive discussion/debate of the nature of the comic and how it should be made permeates the story, creating a top layer to a story about the life of Bertrand Russell, a British logician/mathematician/philosopher who is widely regarded as one of the giants of 20th century thinking. There are actually three stories here--the debate between authors Apostolos, Christos and the other collaborators on the comic; Bertrand giving a lecture on the eve of World War II and debating the merits of pacifism and isolationism as totalitarian states vie for power; and Russell's description of his own life and his journey through the worlds of philosophy, mathematics and logic to build a rock-solid foundation to mathematics, and thus, reality. I only took a semester of Logic in my senior year, but I found it fascinating.

This book, then, was easier to get into as a result. I would probably recommend knowing a bit about some basic logic ideas before heading into this, but it is also a great primer. It stands as an excellent monument to the versatility of comics- namely, the ability to convey a complex subject in an easy to read format.  Had I more discipline or hubris I might go out and buy a biography on Russell or a book on Logic (I forgot mine back in college, to my disappointment), but if I were a Logic teacher I would probably recommend this as 101-102 reading material.

There are so many themes and motifs wrapped up in here and it's wound together very elegantly. The comic creators who feature as actual characters are a mostly-Greek cast (with one French woman--the nationality of other characters are not specified) working on the comic in Athens--the birthplace of the European discourse on logic, and therefore an extremely appropriate place to discuss the leaps and bounds made by the Continent 2500 years after the discussion began. After all, this isn't just about Russell--it is about how he and others attempted to explain the world we live in, and the extent of their success in this regard. Russell is a very good vessel to view this debate through, because he was of a small breed- British philosophers and logicians were hard to come by, and in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the Germans were flooding the sciences and arts with their ideas on how to interpret the disciplines, and with them came many breakthroughs.

They say you can tell when a civilization has reached its golden years when their words and memes make it into the dictionary, and while Russell studied Boole and C.S. Lewis to build his foundations, words like "Zeitgeist" and "Schadenfreud" permeated circles of knowledge. Russell, then, is a good witness to all this because an American audience can't resist British people, and it gives us a great look at the core of the debate that consumed this era. You'll see a lot of Germans, in that respect, while the French are only casually mentioned. The sparring is mainly between the British heavyweight and his Deutscher Gegner. Some of the encounters are fictitious, but the debates were not. His life appears to have been tragic, and that becomes a point of contention amongst the producers--while he called himself a failure, in work and family, was he really all that much considering his contributions, chief among them Russell's Paradox and the Principia Mathematica? Well, I guess that's another philosophical question. The one theme that is most often discussed concerns "Logic and Madness"--Russell surmises early on that many people who try to harness the power of Logic turn mad, as if the very search for truth were some Lovecraftian quest for dark power. One of his goals in life, then, is to prevent himself from suffering the same fate. He does an okay job, but it costs him a lot--he grows up in a repressive family, can never satisfy his own wants with the wants of his wives, and his relationships are few and brittle. His quest to live by reason and to banish emotion and irrationality from his life destroys his ability to have a satisfying relationship. It's an enjoyable read but not without its tragic side. The authors did a very good job with this comic, because they simplified a very vast and complex subject and made it easy to comprehend for the layperson--the big advantage of comics, thanks to the interplay of words and images. Still, a lot of this book is expository in nature, and the pictures serve to give character to the actors and feeling to the world of the early 1900s.

The art style is very smooth and light, allowing all ranges of color and vibrancy while sticking to a level of detail that is very inviting and...non-threatening, if that makes sense. Still, while characters show a great capacity for lots of great facial expressions, these moments are somewhat sparse as a typical face is common even among multiple characters.

However, there are many great moments in the comic where the action is interrupted by a sequence of black comic pages, colored in very bright or dark colors, in high detail and featuring moments of great emotion or suspense.

I think this combination of simple explanations and an enjoyable art style makes the book very inviting and easy to read. Hopefully you will think so too. But then we are talking about subjective reality. The many plotlines that weave their way through this book eventually conclude and are appropriately summed up in a Greek tragedy, the vast debate of logic and reason versus irrationality and emotion captured in a trial mediated by Athena and the Furies. In spite of the sadness of Russell's life, the book ends on a happy note, as the creators argue about whether or not they ought to produce another book to speak about how Russell's contributions led to the industrialization of logic through Von Neumann, Turing and the computer. I guess, like a true philosophical debate, one can say Russell was a failure since he argues so himself, but I think the creators made a good case for the opposite opinion. That is to say, R v ~R, Where R stands for "Bertrand Russell is a great man."

(Well except for the whole "cheating on your wife" thing.)

TL;DR:  Logicomix is a great introduction to logic that is also engrossing, unlike most textbooks on the subject.

Logicomix: An Epic Search For Truth is a comic book written by Apostolos Doxidas and Christos Papadimitriou, and illustrated by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, and published by Bloomsbury Publishing. You can purchase it at your local comic store, or get it off Amazon.com.