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Genius
Book Reviews

Genius

A fascinating pairing of narration and art that, despite its name, asks and offers little in the realm of discovery.

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Genius, the latest collaboration between the familiar pairing of Eisner Award winners Steven T. Seagle (story) and Teddy Kristiansen (art), is among my favorite kind of graphic novel: one that uses art to help tell a story rather than simply illustrate one. Given the subject matter this might sound surprising, though as with most works of pop-psyche the consciousness of general readers is best served with plenty of pictures.

Ted Marx is a genius. Or so he’s been led to believe. As a boy he skipped several grades, his talents becoming more evident by the day, and was eventually recruited at 22 to the Pasadena Technical Institute, a place where big things are expected from big brains.

Now, in his thirties, he makes his living as a theoretical physicist – emphasis on the theoretical part. Poor Ted may be intellectually exhausted, having produced very little since his hiring and now fears he’ll lose in job. Fully aware that many of the most prominent minds in his field have their own ‘big ideas’ early in their careers, he feels that he’s failed to live up to this great potential.

A self-described atheist (“all thinking men are”, he reminds us), Ted has little patience for false idols in a life filled with research and accomplishment; his domain is of science and reason. His hero, Einstein, “is the pinnacle of a thinking man”, rendering the physicist a mortal god (small “g”) among men, one whose specter continually haunts him.

Seagle, a prolific comic book writer with a range extending from Superman to Ben 10, knows when to let his characters speak for themselves and when to let Kristiansen’s carefully penciled lines, saturated almost entirely in hazy, monochromatic hues, take over.

Alternating between legible font and sometimes near-illegal handwritten dialogue (though still a font) the story is best when showcasing refreshingly honest dialogue, especially between Ted and his family. Take, for example, one frank discussion between father and son, the latter whose burgeoning sexuality leads to what can only be the Holy Grail of compromises for any hormonal teenage boy (I won’t spoil it but best prepare yourself).

Another shows him trying to reassure his daughter, teased for scoring high on the math quiz, that her offenders “are just jealous,” adding the uncomforting refrain that “It’s good to be smart,” perhaps forgetting that in his own childhood even the name of his illustrious hero, Einstein, was used less than complementary.

Her response is achingly familiar: “I’d rather fit in.”

Things get further tense when a cancer scare pushes Ted into an uncomfortable place, one at odds with his own sense of purpose and intellectual honesty, leading him to some very tricky self-analysis. There’s a burst of hope when he discovers a familial revelation right under his nose; his father-in-law, Frances, in the early stages of dementia, served as Einstein’s bodyguard in the 30s. Not only did the curmudgeonly old man share a close bond with the scientist, but he may also have been privy to one of his secret, undocumented theories.

Whether Ted discovers just what Einstein may have whispered to his father-in-law is best left for readers to discover, just as Seagle leaves an open-ended interpretation of what ‘genius’ actually is. The most striking attempt to ‘explain’ what it might be – or look like – happens just near the end where Kristiansen portrays unfathomable concepts in kaleidoscopes of color and noise, some of them lasting several pages.

Those seeking high-octane action or profound revelations are bound to be disappointed as Genius asks no such questions and doesn’t presume to answer any. We’re given no insight into what truly makes Ted a superlative ‘genius’, other than that we’re told he is. Here is a story that depends almost entirely on its cryptic illustrative symbolism, laid out in colors matching those of Ted’s beloved hero’s most iconic photographs. For many, this will be enough.

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Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen (art)

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First Second Press

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07/09/2013

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About the Author: Nathan Evans