First Second’s upcoming graphic novel Genius tackles a world of tropes with finesse. Eisner Award-winning duo Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen have worked together before, and this particular project presents the ease with which they marry form and function. Combining Kristiansen’s nebulous, emotive artwork with Seagle’s fresh dialogue and nuanced narration, Genius hits home in 125 pages what Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp did in 300. It is a testimony to short form stories.
Genius first introduces us to its protagonist Ted as a child. Even during his K-12 years, Ted’s genius-level knack for maths and sciences is foreshadowed as both blessing and curse. While he skips grades, leaving behind his peers for the bullies and social pressures of high school, he first begins to understand what he describes as brain knowledge and heart knowledge. “I was grossly over-developed in one,” he narrates, “Painfully under-developed in the other. I worry that I still am in a lot of ways.”
What he comes to learn throughout the course of the novel, though—and this is where Seagle turns popular savant tropes on their heads—is that head and heart knowledge are irrevocably tied together. In his adult life, Ted works at a think tank for theoretical physicists, constantly struggling to recapture his brilliance of yesteryear. Surrounded by other geniuses, he is given to constant temptation—to give up, to plagiarize, to brownnose; the word “tenure” is never used, but it’s fairly obvious in reference. Ted would do anything to keep his position, even if it means sacrificing his love for the subject that brought him there in the first place.
His home life (his heart-knowledge) exacerbates this. His son, a funny but fairly accurate caricature of a teenage boy, advances into sexual proficiency more quickly than his father can comprehend, and his young daughter seems well on the way to following her father’s “genius” footsteps. Ted’s live-in father-in-law dips in and out of Alzheimer’s episodes, and, even when he is centered in reality, makes his loathing of his son-in-law clear. Finally, Ted’s wife—already placed at an emotional distance as a result of his frenzied worry over his job—develops cancer. One of Kristiansen’s most stark, revealing images occurs when the two lie in bed after discussing Ted’s work, and the viewer sees his wife’s eyes (usually minimal in Kristiansen’s particular style) wide and unblinking in the darkness. It is absolutely chilling.
Ted thinks he has found a solution for all of his problems when his father-in-law begins to talk about his relationship with Albert Einstein. The old man had been assigned to protect Einstein during the war, and was apparently let in on the physicist’s greatest secret. Determined to keep his job (and, subsequently, his wife’s health insurance), and to make his stamp on the world of physics, Ted harangues his father-in-law, begging to be let in on the secret of his hero and imaginary-mentor.
Einstein makes a number of appearances throughout the story—as narrator, imaginary friend, and general specter. His most significant play, however, is to appear as Ted’s wife at the end of the novel. It is at this moment that readers realize how very little the logistical truth matters in the story; whether or not Ted’s father-in-law was a friend to Einstein, whether Einstein was more or less emotionally proficient than today’s physicists, and whether Ted’s wife is a literal “heart-knowledge” genius—all of these pale in comparison to the small, insignificant steps Ted must take to understanding his life and the people in it. Without spoilers, and suffice to say, Ted must force-stop his head-heart dichotomy in order to make sense of either one.
The entire book feels oddly familiar. The head and the heart, of course, instantly draw up connections in history (Enlightenment & Romanticism), pop culture (Humans & Vulcans), and as catch-all thematic device (LOST, X-Files, et al.). Seagle and Kristiansen harness these connections, and give them new life. As workers in artistic fields, they speak from some level of experience; physics is not, and never has been, the only field in which creativity is all but snuffed out by the drive for production and conclusion. The capitalist push for the competition of ideas did not invent the head-heart dichotomy, but it has certainly exacerbated it, and given less room for the conclusion of their equivalence.
Just as Seagle and Kristiansen marry the head and heart, so too do they marry words to art. Hazy, sketchy drawings fit to the inconclusive theme in a manner no heavily drawn line could ever accomplish. Despite the weighty subject matter, words and actions never overwhelm the panels; each line, each image, speaks for itself. The book is a quick read, but one I expect I’ll return to often. It acts as a reminder, after all, to take life panel-by-panel.
Emily Nordling is a writer and activist from Louisville, Kentucky. She thrives primarily on tea, books, and justice.