Sunday, October 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #287: The Imitation Game by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis

I'm going to start out with a potted rant; regular visitors may want to skip it.

A graphic novel is not "by" the writer. It is not "illustrated" by the artist. It is an inherently collaborative work equally created by both of them. (Assuming there are only two: it could easily be more.) Crediting a book that way is a mistake: even if the writer does detailed thumbnails of every single page and the artist follows them scrupulously, what the artist brings to the table is crucial to the telling of that story. It is not secondary; it is not "illustration."

The Imitation Game is a biography in comics form of British mathematician Alan Turing. The copy I have is credited as "by" Jim Ottaviani and "illustrated by" Leland Purvis. Now, I have an uncorrected proof, so the final book may have changed that.

But, if not, this is me looking sternly over my glasses at Abrams ComicArts and saying "tsk-tsk" while I do that little one-finger wave. This is Not Proper. This is Not Done. And we are Not Amused.

But on to the book itself. (If skimming to find the end of the potted rant, this is it.)

Alan Turing, I think, was born at either the exact right time or the exact wrong time. Professionally, he couldn't have turned up at a better moment to turn his particular genius into reality. But socially and personally, he might have had a quiet happy life in some earlier time and he definitely would have been better off born a decade or three later, when his condition would be better understood and accepted. (I mean his mental condition, since he seems to have been somewhere on the autism spectrum, but his homosexuality would obviously have been less of an issue.)

Ottaviani tells Turing's story at a slant, or at least starts that way: he opens with (and occasionally returns to) a conceit that he, or someone, is interviewing Turning's friends and family after his death. But most of the book is just his life dramatized, with lots of explanatory captions (sometimes voiceovers from those interviewees) and a tight focus on his work during WW II.

Imitation Game doesn't get into the math; it just shows what Turing did, and is particularly interested in the title experiment, better known to us as the Turing Test. It's also very much a serious biography in comics form, and isn't afraid to get a little artsy in presentation here and there. Turing's suicide -- I might note that there is now some scholarly doubt as to whether it was suicide -- is presented in a particularly elliptical way, and readers who don't know what he actually did will probably not be able to tell what he actually did.

(On the other hand, I read this in a black-and-white proof, and sometimes color can make things clearer in comics.)

I think biography, particularly of a thinker, is an odd subject for comics: it's harder to show interior life in comics than in prose, so it's a slightly less useful tool for the job than the usual one. That said, Imitation Game is a good, thoughtful biography of an important, quirky man, told well and using the form's strengths well.

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