Thursday, August 8, 2013

GENIUS by Steven T. Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen

I’ve raved about this book on Twitter, tumblr, and facebook, since reading it a few days ago.  But I still felt too constrained within those venues to properly get across what I feel should be one of the front-runners for next year’s Eisner awards for best graphic novel – and let’s not forget Steven T. Seagle for best writer and Teddy Kristiansen for best artist, okay?  GENIUS, published by First Second books and created by the duo that also brought us It’s a Bird…, which I finally read last year and was equally impressed with, is a great, great book.


This book doesn’t necessarily break new ground within the medium or the broader storytelling milieu.  Seagle & Kristiansen are not playing with the structural aspects of comics (or graphic storytelling, if you must) in the manner that Moore & Gibbons did with Watchmen; they aren’t crafting stories within an emerging genre of the comic field as Will Eisner successfully managed with his original graphic novels (success predicated on his skill and those failed attempts of giants before him who tried to break from the confines of the superhero genre); they aren’t breaking away from “accepted” stylistic choices in the way Michael DeForge or Chuck Forsman currently are doing; and there isn’t necessarily the experimentation that can be found in their Vertigo graphic novel, It’s a Bird…, where Kristiansen incorporated a different artistic approach with every chapter.  What they do pull off, though, is a masterfully told story that engages, surprises, offers important truths, and sticks the ending in as successful a manner as I have experienced in a long, long time.

The main protagonist of this narrative, Ted Halker, is a brilliant physicist, a genius who works for an elite research and development lab.  Ted has always been smart, jumping multiple grades in elementary school because he was so far ahead of the rest of his classmates.  His life has always revolved around science, around learning, around pushing toward a better understanding of the universe and how our lives impact, and are impacted, by the universe and its secrets – secrets that are Ted’s livelihood. 

But, ultimately, Ted’s life has revolved around Einstein, though it might be more appropriate to say his life has lived within the shadow of Einstein, as have the lives of every other physicist to follow this giant of the field.

Ted is older, as the story begins, with two children, a loving wife who offsets his typically aloof approach to relationships with a cynically enjoyable worldview, and a good job.  But it has been far too long since Ted has had any “great ideas,” which is a problem for him.  Younger associates are making the important discoveries that earn them a dinner with the boss, while Ted continues to hit dead-end after dead-end, following paths that never pan out.  He can feel his age weighing him down.  Ted needs something, some insight or workable theory, to keep his place within the lab, and this tension only adds to his emotional distance at home, despite his best efforts.

And things at home are complicated as well.  There’s the awakening sexuality of his teenaged son, Aron, his wife’s emotional needs, and the father-in-law, Francis Christmas, who hates him and wishes his daughter had never married him.  But Ted also discovers that his father-in-law was once a bodyguard for Einstein, for a few weeks back in 1933.  And Francis claims to have been given a secret by the famed physicist, a secret that was never shared with anyone else.  This is something that, if true (and Ted is suspect of the claim’s veracity), could change things for him at work. 

And then a tumor is discovered behind his wife’s eye. 

All these stresses intertwine, wrapping tightly about Ted as he struggles to see the way forward.  He becomes irrational in his desire to learn the secret from his father-in-law, anxious to keep the paycheck and the insurance that his family, and his wife, need so badly.  It’s ugly, and a bit scary, how urgently he pursues this secret, emotion burning in him like he’s never experienced. 

It all races toward a climax that cannot succeed.  Everything hinges on this secret of Einstein’s – a fragile thread that could easily snap under the weight of life and the obstacles being thrown at Ted and his family.  It’s breath taking.   What will happen?  How will their lives be altered?  Will this family succumb to the struggles of life, or will they be able to persevere – a possibility that appears far too distant and unlikely, as the pages flash forward toward the end.

How can Seagle and Kristiansen possibly manage to pull this ending off?   It seems insurmountable, as one fast approaches the climax.  And then…

…these two artists pull it off perfectly, with an ending that makes sense, does not feel like a cheat, and is satisfying on every level.

I should also note that, from an artistic point of view, Kristiansen has once more created a beautiful book that should be seriously considered for an Eisner next year.  His palette is subdued, befitting the themes of the book, and his storytelling is clear and expressive and inventive when needed, with overlapping images and splashes of color that add so much to the overall feel of the book.  He’s a master artist, and I love how singular and distinctive his art feels on the comic page.  And when he gets to work with material that’s as good as this (and, if you haven’t yet, check out other books from him, especially those done in collaboration with Seagle), it’s something truly special.

I’ve been unable to stop thinking about this book since I turned the final page a few days back.  I write, and when something is as good as this I want to know how it works.  I want to pull it apart and see what the creator(s) did to craft something that is so damn good.  And I think, in my final analysis, the brilliance of this book comes from the fact that the creators convince their audience, through the first 100+ pages, that GENIUS is about one thing – with ancillary scenes seemingly included to add verisimilitude and emotional weight – but once one reaches the end, it becomes evident that, all along, this book was about something else entirely.  And all of those small, “insignificant” scenes peppered throughout the book – all the “little things,” which is a recurring piece of dialogue – retroactively become the foundation upon which Seagle and Kristiansen built this narrative.  It’s amazing.

Seek this book out.  Buy it.  Read it.  Savor it.  And then read it again.  It’s that damn good.



Unknown said...

Just read this now and am honoured by the kind words of our book. Thank you kindly, and hope you will enjoy our next, planned for next year. Kindly
Teddy K

Chris Beckett said...

Thank you, sir. I am happy you found my sliver of the internet and am anxious to see what you two do next.
Take care,