A unique graphic biography that follows the life, if not the work, of the great British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell

Logicomix got a lot of attention in the British mainstream press when it launched, at least partly because its subject matter is so deeply intellectual.

Most people could be forgiven for not knowing that much about British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, but as you’ll gather if you read this book, he was partly responsible for modernising the mathematical study of logic, in an effort to explain the world around us. While this endeavour wasn’t completely successful, it was the mathmeticians who followed in Russell’s footsteps who went on to create the groundwork of digital computing, that brought about the information technology revolution.

The trouble is that this is probably too complex a story to be contained within a 350-page book. The authors have to tear down the fourth wall to explain themselves as they go along, revealing the creative decisions taken by the five-person team that put the book together. They also point to the arguments they had to overcome to work out what to put in and what to leave out.

There’s an issue here and the writers bring it up as part of these documented discussions. The mathematical work itself is barely referenced, presumably because it’s far too complicated for the scope and accessibility of the book. But by skipping over this, the point of Russell’s work seems diluted by vaguery. Where the writers argue that the book’s worth as a graphic novel comes from the nature of this quest-like search for knowledge, we know too little about it to fully engage with its heroes.

While this leaves us with a fascinating insight into the life of a monunmental thinker, its presumptions are simultaneously too high and too low. Either it’s a leap of faith – that we’re to take the authors’ word that important work was done, but that the exact nature of that work is unnecessary to the story that they’re trying to tell. Or it’s some kind of springboard into further interest in Russell’s life, work and times, that we should use to further our understanding of the modern world.

Unfortunately it fails on both, and doesn’t have the rigidity to span the gap. The creators are almost apologitec in their asides. It’s as if they’re showing their working in an exam, trying to get bonus points for indicating how they got to the end result, despite the fact that it might prove unsatisfactory. On the other hand, if the mathematics is too complicated to do more than barely touch upon, how can that make the basis of a hero’s journey – a format that traditionally needs a clear and universal goal?

It’s a fascinating and well-executed book, particularly on the art front. But it loses sight of its goal and leans too heavily on itself for support. It manages to get across the weight of what Russell was doing, but without enough of an explanation to make it an accessible achievement.

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