When it's done properly, writing about mathematicians can be fantastic—consider the genuinely mind-altering beauty of a book like Gödel, Escher, Bach or David Foster Wallace's underrated Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. Logicomix, a new comic-book biography of mathematician and logician Bertrand Russell, isn't as fundamentally earth-shattering as either of those two books, but it's as close to it as comics have ever gotten.
The structure of Logicomix is appropriately complex: At the end of his life, Russell lectures an audience about his life and adventures, while in the present day, the creators of Logicomix discuss how best to frame Russell's life story, arguing about self-referentiality and how best to portray Russell in comic-book form all the way through the book. And Logicomix does a solid, fair job explaining Russell's complex ideas (how does someone make a comic book about the making of a 400-page book explaining in great detail why 1 + 1 = 2? With not nearly as many word balloons as you're probably imagining right now).
But when you're wrestling with a comic about the sorts of people who create formulas to prove that nobody will ever be able to prove everything with a formula, you should expect more than just a skilled biography. The art in Logicomix doesn't do much to engage Russell's ideas. It leaves the heavy lifting to the word balloons, which is exactly the opposite of what a comic book should do. The idea of a comic book about logic and mathematics should make an artist's brain fairly explode with possibility for innovative panel layouts and an opportunity to visually capture an algorithm in a way the world has never seen. Instead, the art in Logicomix is "just" beautiful and economical. Where are the great artistic leaps—the paradoxes illustrated in panels that are themselves paradoxes on the page? Logicomix is an admirably capable biography of a man who changed the world with his brain, but it could have been a book that itself changed a medium.
Christos H. Papadimitriou reads from Logicomix Fri Oct 9, Town Hall, 7:30 pm, $5.