Near the end of Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s haunting graphic novel “Genius” (First Second: 126 pp., $17.99 paper), the main character, a physicist named Ted, has an epiphany of a kind.
Ted was once a prodigy, a kid so smart he almost couldn’t be taught, recruited at 22 to be part of the research team at the prestigious Pasadena Technical Institute. And then? Crickets, a decade or more of journeyman work, a realignment of his priorities.
Ted has two kids, and a wife who may be dying; his father-in-law, who lives with them, treats him with a mix of disdain and outright hate. Do we need to say that he feels trapped, that the pressures of a family in disarray and a job he no longer wants have become too much for him?
Still, Ted has one saving grace, which is his love for Einstein, who holds a place in his life akin to God. “I mean, I’m an atheist —” Ted explains, “most thinking people are — But Einstein is the pinnacle of a thinking man.”
As “Genius” progresses, this relationship becomes increasingly prominent, until Einstein himself is animated in these pages, discussing the nature of the universe, the nature of discovery, and the essential notion that our lives are always in constant evolution, just waiting for that one idea, that one revelation, for everything to “start anew.”
That’s a risky move, to invoke not just any genius but the genius of geniuses; there are so many ways for it to go wrong. I think of J.D. Salinger, whose late novella “Hapworth 16, 1924” collapses under the weight of Seymour Glass’ unlikely extraordinariness, which is much more believable when its written about second-hand.
Here, however, Seagle and Kristiansen (both Eisner Award winners who previously collaborated on Seagle’s autobiographical graphic novel “It’s a Bird” and supernatural comic series “House of Secrets”) keep the mystery of genius intact by making it just a little bit elliptical, by keeping the details slightly vague. Late in the book, when Ted’s boss asks what he is working on, they illustrate his process with eight pages of abstract images: starbursts, sunspots, squiggles that evoke the elusive texture of his thoughts.
And Einstein? He’s a ghost, a cipher, which is only fitting, since it is Ted who has redreamed him into being. “A brain is a brain after all,” he says. “It’s what you do with it that matters.” It’s a truism, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
Throughout “Genius,” Seagle and Kristiansen play with this, overlapping layers of narrative in the visuals. Past and present blend together, inner and outer life, while the present is illustrated in a flat gray wash, its edges muted, as if to highlight the fact that we don’t know where it will go.
Ted is adrift, at loose ends, in a state of constant worry. “I’m terrified …,” he tells his wife, “of losing my job … losing the house … you. I don’t know who I am without all that.” And yet, as his son points out, “You always spit the doom, but then you always save the day.”
This brings us back to that epiphany, which is as earned as it is unexpected — although I don’t want to give it away. The same might be said of the entire book, which becomes a paean to the examined life, the life of the mind and the power of convictions: in other words, to not accepting anybody’s version of reality but your own.