Logicomix and framing

Mon 27 Dec 2010 03:24 AM

I was gifted a copy of Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, started reading it last night, and - after waking up in the middle of the night - finished it. It is engaging, and I enjoyed it.

Perhaps, as someone who teaches logic, I should have something to say about the book as an exploration of the limits of logic. I don't. I'll just make a comment about rhetoric.

The book begins with the authors meeting, wandering around Athens, and talking about the story that forms the core of the book. Within that, there is a narrative about Bertrand Russell giving a speech at the onset of World War II. During his speech, Russell talks about his own life. These flashbacks about Russell's life and about developments in mathematical logic are the actual core narrative. The authors touch up history a bit, having Russell actually meet all of the major logicians.

At various times during the book, the authors break out of the nested narrative about Russell and return to themselves in Athens. Their wrestling with what the story means is a framing device, and after the Russell narrative ends the creative team all attends the dress rehearsal for a play.

Several reviews call this "clever framing", and the creators come across as charming. One of them has a dog who is taken for walks at various times and who provides visual interest in the background of other scenes.

This kind of self-referential inclusion of the artists has become a standard thing for non-fiction comics. The canonical case, I guess, is Art Spiegelman's Maus. There, it is indispensible to the story. The historical part is about Spiegelman's own father, and the parts about the author are about his struggle to come to grips with his father's story. His inclusion in the narrative is not just a device, but instead is an important aspect of the story.

A more recent example is Bryan Talbot's entertaining Alice in Sunderland. This book lacks a central narrative. Instead, it follows Talbot's ruminations about the English city of Sunderland, the history of England, and Lewis Carroll. Various vignettes are presented in different artistic styles, and in some ways the book becomes about graphic style; Talbot as illustrator is an aspect of that part of the story. On a less abstract level, it also discusses how he came to Sunderland and came to be writing the book.

Further examples are provided by the various -ing Comics books by Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics. In them, McCloud himself appears dressed in a Zot t-shirt. Although some of what McCloud says is first-person reflection, mostly he is talking about the medium of comics. The McCloud avatar on the page provides visual interest. We don't have to watch him walk the dog or engage in activities that reach beyond the central discussion and into daily life. (Scott McCloud wrote documentation in the same style for the release of Google Chrome. I found the McCloud avatar was a distraction there. It doesn't fit for him to be the narrator about a new web browser in the way it makes sense for him to narrate about comics.)

In all of these examples, the authors are actually part of the story; they play a role in it, and so it makes sense for them to appear. And their appearance is largely limited to that role.

The authors' intrusions into Logicomix don't seem as well motivated. At one point, one of the contributors has his cell phone stolen while he is wandering around the neighborhood where he grew up. He later sends an e-mail to the author in which he suggests that logicians were like mapmakers. They went too far when they confused the map (formal logic) with the world (reality). This analogy, or something like it, recurs in the core narrative when Wittgenstein writes the Tractatus. Nonetheless, I don't think the episode of the stolen cell phone really adds anything.

Throughout, that contributor is pretty passionate about how the story ought to be told - but we never learn why. He is a computer science professor, the others are artists, and perhaps that is supposed to be enough. The people kvetch about how the story should be told or what it means, but we never learn why any of these people care about telling it. In Logicomix, the compsci prof is brought in as a consultant when part of the story has already been written. The authors are just stipulated to be the people telling this story. They have no connection to it. The framing narrative, although visually interesting and pleasant enough, doesn't really add to the story.

Note that I'm not asking for much. In Alice in Sunderland, Talbot is simply enthusiastic about his adopted home town. We don't even get that much in Logicomix.

So I don't think that the self-referential device is "clever framing". A self-referential framing device is now simply a standard thing for non-fiction comics, like epistolary structure was for 19th-century novels. The epistolary outer-wrapper for Fraknenstein really doesn't make it a better novel - there's a reason that retellings of the Frankenstein story drop it - but it doesn't make it an appreciably worse novel, either. I feel the same way about the self-referential framing of Logicomix.


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