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Math + comic = ?

October 12, 2009

The global success of Logicomix, a new graphic novel from Greece, wouldn't seem so unusual if it weren't for the comic book's unlikely subject matter: logic and mathematics.

Math symbols
Math and logic aren't typical comic book themes

Mathematics theory hardly sounds like a fitting theme for a comic book, but a new graphic novel from Greece about math in early 20th century Europe has become an unlikely hit, topping bestseller lists in the United States and Britain.

"Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth" follows British philosopher, logician and pacifist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) in his tortuous quest for the foundations of mathematics, and his search for logic as a shield from the insanity that consumed other members of his family.

Cover of "Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth," by Apostolos Doxiadis
"Logicomix" tracks the foundation of mathematicsImage: Bloomsbury

The story uses his relationships with the great thinkers and mathematicians of the era, two of his four marriages and historical events in Europe such as the rise of Nazism as a backdrop for the novel's more abstract and philosophical subject matter.

Unexpected success

Originally published in Greek in the fall of 2008, "Logicomix" was a hit at home. But its authors were unprepared for the reception in the United States and Britain, where it sold out on the first day of its release in September.

The novel received positive reviews from such publications as The Guardian and The New York Times, which described the story as presented "with real graphic verve" and "delightful simplicity."

It sped up bestseller lists to occupy top 10 spots in comics, fiction and general book rankings on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. It also recently hit No. 1 on The New York Times paperback graphic book list.

"I think the publishers (Bloomsbury) were shocked," Apostolos Doxiadis, who co-authored the story with computer science professor Christos Papadimitriou at the University of California, Berkeley, told AFP news agency. "I was shocked too."

Bertrand "not a mega-nerd"

In searching for a narrator who would fit the novel's context, Doxiadis said Bertrand Russell was "ideal."

Bertrand Russell
Russell wasn't a mega-nerd, said DoxiadisImage: dpa

Born into a liberal aristocratic English family and the grandson of a former British prime minister, Russell is considered one of the 20th century's most important philosophers.

He was an early advocate of sexual freedom, he was jailed for pacifism during World War I and later campaigned against nuclear proliferation and the Vietnam War.

"He was a political activist, a womanizer, traveler, adventurer, great talker, a wit and a dandy," Doxiadis told AFP. "He was the only one of these characters who was not a mega-nerd."

The long journey to print

From initial discussions between the creators to scripting, drawing, inking and coloring, the novel's completion took seven years - which the author called "a super-marathon."

Like many other cartoon books, the album was pieced together like a movie with wall-to-wall story boards and Doxiadis, who has a film-making background, acted out the characters.

Apostolos Doxiadis, author of Logicomix
Doxiadis wasn't deterred by the unusual themeImage: Logicomix Print Ltd.

The aim of "Logicomix" is "to tell a fascinating story about the history of ideas," said Doxiadis, who published a novel in 2001 entitled "Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture" about a boy's quest for knowledge about his reclusive mathematician uncle.

"The fact that this idea looked like, to put it mildly, not a very likely idea for a comic book, never deterred me," he said. "In 'Logicomix,' the story I think is in some ways emblematic of much of what happened in the 20th century, with its search for certainty, for knowledge, and what often went with it, for power over life."

Author: Andrew Bowen

Editor: Kate Bowen