Home News Greek “maths” comic is surprise international bestseller

Greek “maths” comic is surprise international bestseller

Published on 13/10/2009

Athens -- Mathematics theory hardly sounds like comic book material but a pioneering Greek graphic novel on maths in early 20th century Europe has become an unlikely hit, grabbing bestseller spots on online bookshop Amazon.

Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth tracks the battle of mathematical minds — often against madness — before the invention of the computer.

The narrator and hero of the book, in the Top 10 of both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk this month, is none other than British philosopher, logician and pacifist Bertrand Russell (1872-1970).

Running at more than 300 pages, it chronicles Russell’s 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.

The story takes in his relations with thinkers and mathematical giants of the era, two of his four marriages, and his hidden feelings for the young wife of fellow mathematician Alfred North Whitehead.

The microcosm of great minds is played against the backdrop of broader events in Europe, as the rise of Nazism directly threatens some of the protagonists.

"We wanted a narrator and Russell was ideal," said writer Apostolos Doxiadis, who co-authored the story with computer science professor Christos Papadimitriou at the University of California, Berkeley.

"By the very nature of his career and the timeline of his life, he saw more and participated in more of the story than anyone else.

"And secondly, he was the only one of these characters who was not a mega-nerd," Doxiadis told AFP.

"He was a political activist, a womaniser, traveller, adventurer, great talker, a wit and a dandy."

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 also 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.

Crafting the unlikely novel about him took seven years, from discussions between the creators to five years of feverish scripting, drawing, inking and colouring.

"It was a super-marathon," Doxiadis said.

Like many other cartoon books, the album was pieced together like a movie with wall-to-wall storyboards and Doxiadis, who has a filmmaking background, acting out the characters.

Artists Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna spent three weeks travelling to locations cited in the novel, from Cambridge where Russell studied, to London, Paris, Vienna and the sanatorium in Halle, Germany, where one of his heroes, mathematician Georg Cantor, spent the last months of his life.

Madness plays a prominent part in the novel, and not by accident.

"In this particular branch of mathematics — mathematical logic — there was a very, very high incidence of serious mental illness. That was something we found particularly interesting," the author said.

Originally published in Greek in the fall of 2008, Logicomix enjoyed a successful run 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.

Later that month, The New York Times greeted the comic’s US debut with a bemused "well, this is unexpected." It said the story was "presented with real graphic verve" and "for the most part the ideas are conveyed accurately, with delightful simplicity."

"I think the publishers (Bloomsbury) were shocked. I was shocked, too," Doxiadis says.

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.

"No Greek book has sold abroad like this in 30 years," said Dinos Vrettos, a manager at a major Athens bookstore.

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

"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,” he said. "The fact that this idea looked like, to put it mildly, not a very likely idea for a comic book, never deterred me."

John Hadoulis/AFP/Expatica