In any comic book, words and pictures coexist in dynamic tension. They compete physically for space on the page: any area devoted to words sacrifices image, and vice versa. They also compete for the job of conveying meaning. Every author of graphic narrative has to decide repeatedly whether particular facts, actions, or concepts are best served by words, images, or a combination thereof — and what kind of combination. Does the text augment the image; does the image augment or simply illustrate the text? Should there be explanatory “voiceover” or only dramatic dialog balloons?
These considerations are not independent, because an author’s choice of narrative strategy has an effect on the book’s visual texture. Most non-fiction comics devoted to science have tended to err on the side of text-heaviness; they deploy full or fairly full explanation, and in consequence look dense and forbidding enough to discourage most casual readers.
The authors of Leonhard Euler, perhaps mindful of the graphic pitfalls of overusing text, have gone to the opposite extreme, with minimal voiceover (“meanwhile…”) and the sparing use of speech balloons. Great gobbets of text, in fact, have been banished from the cartoon section entirely to the twin Siberias of front and back matter. This has some good effects. Pages are often pleasant to look at, with good color and coherent design. Drawing is at least adequate.
Unfortunately, the sacrifice of explanation is fatal for the narrative. Scenes seem incomplete, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility. Did Euler really fire off a pistol in his father’s study — without being reprimanded? The book is always allusive without seeming to say anything definite. Euler’s math is entirely missing—couldn’t we at least have seen the seven bridges?—and his personality nearly so. Isn’t there something more to be said about the man in 44 pages besides his bad eyes, his fluency in Russian, his travels, and his prolific output of children and math papers? Since the book is seemingly aimed at adults (Catherine the Great and her lover, identified only as “Stan,” are displayed in flagrante delicto), one might expect a fuller account of what the great mathematician was thinking about all those years.
Someone, by the way, seems aware of some of Euler’s drawbacks. A brief afterword apologizes for (unspecified) historical inaccuracies and anachronisms. One can only wish the publisher had taken this warning to heart and adopted a different narrative strategy: back to the drawing board.
Larry Gonick has been creating comics that explain history, science, and other big subjects since 1972.