Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen, the creative team behind the moodily engrossing House of Secrets and the “meditation on creativity using Superman” book It’s a Bird…, have reunited for a look at Genius.
First Second puts out so many great books for kids and teens that I think of them as an all-ages publisher, but Genius is clearly for adults. Not for any naughty content, but because the themes and fears expressed here aren’t going to resonate with younger readers. Genius is the story of Ted Marx, a former child prodigy who’s now just a cog, fearing that the discoveries of younger co-workers mean he’s at risk of losing his job as a think-tank physicist.
Although being a smart child, especially one who’s promoted into classes with older kids, is hard, it’s harder dealing with what happens once the brilliance fades. When you’re a kid, learning can be fun … and a refuge. Once you have kids of your own and a wife who may be facing a medical crisis and a father-in-law you have to care for although he hates you, well, smart doesn’t matter so much. There are too many other distractions.
Seagle gets this so right that getting to know Ted as the pages unfold can be painful. Knowing that you’re no longer the hot young thing is a speed bump that happens to many people, whether it’s about smarts or creativity or any other field. This is an involving portrait of the concerns of age, complicated by learning to worry more about the others closest to you than yourself.
Seagle’s ability to get inside minds and express their deepest concerns and motivations in just a few well-chosen words is used to its fullest here, accompanied by Kristiansen’s beautifully sketchy images. He’s not so much illustrating the events as capturing the emotions. At times, the light lines almost fade into the solid color washes, indicating how tenuous Ted’s memories or sense of being is.
The murky tones of beige and grey underscore the lack of clear answers in Ted’s life. The images are lovely yet foreboding, done in monochrome with a few highlights picked out. The use of light and shadow to suggest more than what we see is impressive, and the occasional impressionist page to indicate realization of an idea is astounding.
The conflict, where an intelligent person has to learn the value of other kinds of knowing, is a classic one. As Ted tells us, early on:
It turned out there were two kinds of knowledge: brain knowledge and heart knowledge. I was grossly over-developed in one. Painfully under-developed in the other. I worry that I still am in a lot of ways…
Albert Einstein serves as kind of a ghost mentor here, the closest thing Ted has to a deity. He reminds Ted that as Einstein got older, “It became more difficult to think in grand ways. Too many expectations… distractions…” Such as Ted’s 14-year-old son, Aron, who is more socially developed than he ever was, so Ted has to have The Talk with him about his girlfriend. Hope, Ted’s wife, isn’t feeling well, and Cece, his daughter, has his brains but would rather fit in.
Hope’s father Francis lives with them although he thinks Ted is a huge disappointment. Then Ted finds out that Francis, during his military service, was a bodyguard for Einstein. More, Albert entrusted Francis with a secret that might assure Ted’s career. Ultimately, many of us are looking for the one big break, the idea that will change everything. That quest might be futile, as this book shows us that it’s the small things that make up a rewarding life.
The publisher has made preview pages available. Genius can be ordered now from comic shops with the Diamond code MAY13 1161. It’s due out in early July. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)
Update: The LA Times has an interview with Seagle where he talks about the book’s inspiration in real-life events.