The term “prodigy” is an open blue sky when it arrives but in the instances when excellence has an expiration date the word is more like a clinging black cloud. That’s one of the themes in Genius, the new graphic novel from First Second Books and the tandem of writer Steven T. Seagle and artist Teddy Kristiansen, the same duo that delivered the Eisner-winning It’s a Bird back in 2004.
Genius introduces physicist Ted Marx a one-time wunderkind whose career is now more mass than energy, which is confounded by his inability to solve the emotional equations of being a husband and father. Marx finds a possible reprieve when he sees a chance to steal a secret discovery made by Albert Einstein. That opens the story up to the arrival of Einstein as a voice and with that Genius becomes a clear contender for the title of year’s most inventive graphic novel.
Entertainment Weekly: It could hardly be more different but the Einstein you’ve put in Genius made me think of Play It Again Sam and the way Bogart is placed as a visual form and emotional presence in the movie. What did you find most challenging about the use of Einstein?
Steven T. Seagle: I wrote the original script for Genius without doing any real research on Einstein. I just used what I thought I knew about him so that he wouldn’t be too mired down or Biography Channel-ish. That worked very well thematically, but when it came time to fact-check the book, most of what I “knew” about Albert was wrong. It really had to be fixed for the story to be believable. Unfortunately, I was married to some of the incorrect things I had built into the plot, so it was a challenge to replace the wrong with the right. But you can’t just misrepresent the smartest human who ever lived. And that’s exactly what our lead character in the book, Ted, struggles with in terms of Einstein’s emotional presence in his head.
It’s a Bird also had a “presence by absence” in a different way…
Seagle: Absolutely. There have been plenty of fictions that addressed Superman. Every Superman comic story to date had been exactly that. So when Teddy and I set out to do It’s a Bird… I wanted to turn the next corner. Writers love to trot out the “this is super-heroes in the real world” tag, but I wanted to do a book with Superman literally in the real world – a world where people write all of his stories and he’s not real as anything but an fictional icon. In Genius, Einstein is real, but only as a memory, an abstraction, a totem. That’s the way most influential figures function in people’s minds.
Is Einstein someone who has fascinated you long-term or did you find him as you worked on this
Seagle: My attachment to Einstein came from left field: the Philip Glass, Robert Wilson, Lucinda Childs minimalist mega-opera Einstein on the Beach. That piece – which is four hours, 20 minutes, no intermission – is like sitting inside the mind of Einstein and watching his neurons spark. It’s not literal. At all. So I used Einstein figuratively – more as an idea than a person – because that was how I first came to know him myself.
“Prodigy” is a word that often comes with a nasty retirement plan. The view that the life of Orson Welles was a retreat and the path of Georgia O’Keefe a victory, for instance, is reflexive to a lot of people…
Seagle: Yes, and as Ted starts to frame a soundbite history for his spiritual inspiration, Einstein, the famed physicist pushes right back. He reminds Ted that not all of his life was revelation. He had crises just like other people. He had failures. He had doubt. Even if you are a physicist, what could winning possibly look like if your point of comparison is Einstein? Or Hawking? Or Witten? Ted’s “genius” label may have expired, but does that have to mean that Ted’s worth expired with it?
Not too many people become adjectives. Why is it that Einstein’s persona echoes in pop culture when his actual work is familiar to few people?
Seagle: Einstein answered very complex questions in relatively simple terms. He spoke to intellectuals and masses alike. He had mass appeal. But then – as he reminds Ted in the book – he also forgot to wear pants sometimes. He apparently didn’t own a brush. He stuck out his tongue. And, come on, being half-dressed? Crazy hairstyle? Suggestive physical behavior? Cher. Madonna. Gaga. Einstein fit the single- name pop culture mold all along.