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Theoretical Physicist Seeks Concrete Answers In 'Genius'

Ted is a theoretical physicist facing a slew of resolutely concrete problems. His son is racing headlong into puberty. His daughter's prodigious intellect causes her to stand out at school — the very last thing the girl wants. His elderly father-in-law isn't remembering much, these days, save for the fact that he hates Ted's guts. His wife is sick and getting sicker, just as his employer, a prominent think tank, threatens to fire him for lack of productivity. To keep his job, and its health care coverage, Ted needs an idea.

But ideas don't come easy anymore. Ted, like his daughter, was a prodigy whose intellectual growth dramatically outpaced his physical and emotional development. But with time, the promise he showed as a young man congealed; his once rising star is collapsing. In desperation, he looks to his idol, Albert Einstein, who functions in the book as a kind of ghostly muse and counselor.

In his 2004 autobiographical graphic novel It's A Bird ... writer Steven T. Seagle paralleled a thoughtful meditation on the Superman myth with ruminations on his family history with Huntington's disease, and did so with a restraint and sensitivity that kept page after page of interior monologue from devolving into navel-gazing.

Here, Seagle leans so hard on his story's fantasy elements — Einstein, and attendant imagery of atoms, equations and passing time — that they threaten to outshine the comparatively quieter work he's doing elsewhere, in the moments we watch Ted struggling to connect with those around him. Yet it's those same metaphor-laden passages that allow artist Teddy Kristiansen's ink-and-watercolor palette of muted grays and browns to surge into astonishing flights of raw color and kineticism.

Steven T. Seagle has written <em>It's a Bird... </em>and co-created <em>Ben 10 </em>on Cartoon Network.
Liesel Reinhart / Courtesy of First Second
Courtesy of First Second
Steven T. Seagle has written It's a Bird... and co-created Ben 10 on Cartoon Network.

Seagle's plot rests on a coincidence — a chance relationship between someone close to him and the historical Einstein — that some readers will find difficult to swallow. But the randomness of the universe is, after all, a theme of the book, and the author loads the page with wry humor and sharp, characterizing detail to flesh out a tale that might otherwise seem overdetermined.

It's this humor that turns a familiar "sex talk" scene between father and son, for example, into something fresh and strikingly funny, as Ted attempts to apply the rigorous logic he uses to plumb the secrets of the universe to the task of parenting a hormonal kid.

"Okay, listen," Ted says, "Here's the deal: I want you to masturbate."

"Done," says the boy.

"I mean exclusively. No sex with anyone until you're at least sixteen, because there's disease and pregnancy and ... And if you make this deal — do not tell your mother or sister I said this — but if you make it and honor it, when you turn sixteen, I will get you the used car of your choice."

"... Can we make it a new car?"

Early on, Seagle's expository prose scrambles to tie the book's disparate threads together. You keep waiting for the writer to relax, to back off and trust the richly humanizing power of his characterizations (and Kristiansen's moody line and brushwork). As dialogue and imagery begin to shoulder the book's narrative weight, they allow Genius' thematic connections to emerge more simply and convincingly than any narration, however poignantly written, could hope to assert. Gradually, Genius builds into an achingly felt portrait of man coming to terms with the role chance plays in human lives — and learning to accept the terrible speed at which the world turns ever, heedlessly, on.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
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