“The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of the Legendary Codebreaker”
To say that Alan Turing possessed a brilliant mind is an understatement. Arnaud Delalande and Eric Liberge’s graphic novel understandably focuses on Turing during the period in which he worked at Bletchley Park to decode the Nazi Enigma Machine. After all it was his single greatest accomplishment and one which helped to save lives and stem the tide of war against Germany. However, their success in avoiding what might otherwise well be a dull biography lies in drawing upon facets of Turing’s life as a whole to create a much fuller portrait of the man and also not incidentally the society in which he lived.
I found myself rather quickly drawn into the story. Delalande’s script is empathetic to Turing, presenting the man with his genuis and his foibles; a man who laid the groundwork for computers in an effort to save his fellow citizens while being a man who stuttered and was socially awkward and eschewed social conventions. Nor do they ignore that Turing had romantic and sexual desires as I understand as Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game did. I refused to see the movie during its theatrical run for that reason and have only seen a brief scene involving Joan Clarke at Bletchley Park when it aired on a premium cable channel. A youthful Turing and Christopher Morcom playing chess in the Morcom family home and contemplating the nature of the universe is as beautiful as a first love story could be, one that turned tragic by Morcom’s death in 1930. Delalande succeeded in making me care for Turing beyond his well known accomplishments. I felt the frustration each time Turing was stymied and the joy when he realized the key that led to deciphering the Enigma code as well as anger and sadness at his treatment by and punishment from the government.
I enjoy stories that entertain. I like stories that are thought provoking more and Delalande has me wondering. Turing is widely believed to have taken his own life after being found guilty of grave indecency and given the option of chemical castration if he wanted to remain free. A half eaten apple laced with cyanide is considered to have been his method though some sources pointed out Turing had a habit of eating, and not always completely, an apple in bed before falling asleep. An autopsy was never performed. Turing’s story is tragic whether his death was by suicide or natural causes and the answer may be irrelevant as a question remains. How does a person go from being a hero who helped save a nation during wartime, albeit clandestinely, to being condemned by the same nation for being gay? An easy conclusion to arrive at may be that times and people were once terribly judgmental (literally in Turing’s case) and attitudes have greatly improved. But should we be concerned about history possibly repeating itself in a world of a post Brexit UK and the ascension of white supremacy in the US in 2016 and Mike Pence soon to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency?
Eric Liberge’s art throughout is an absolute marvel for the eyes. Here it is reproduced in its original French bande dessinee format There is no better idea for a cover illustration in my estimation than Liberge’s portrait of Turing which itself is based on a well known B & W photograph. Seen with a quick glance or from a distance it appears to be simply rendered in black and white, a metaphor for a society that saw and often still does see reality in binary terms. Look again and lines of Enigma code symbolizing Turing’s intellect and his greatest achievement appear in horizontal and vertical bands creating shades of gray. He has an extraordinary talent for drawing likenesses and is matched equally with the skill to depict a range of facial expressions that bring figures to life. This is a key talent necessary to keep readers who might typically read action oriented content. Liberge’s illustrations of Turing have me convinced he was a somewhat unconventionally attractive nerd ahead of his time. Liberge chose two color palettes for his art. The primary one conveys a sense of sadness with its use of blues, browns, and grays lit by a diffuse light source. In contrast, there are bright and lively sequences to meant to evoke a sense of desire or hope or bittersweet memories.
Author, historian, and professor Bruno Fuligni contributed a fascinating article titled The Cryptography War in which he discusses the various types of encoding language before turning to the Enigma Machine and detailing its historical background which adds a general sense to the events leading up to Turing’s recruitment. I might not have learned about Marian Rejewski, a Pole whose work was the essential first step in understanding the Enigma encryption process. The photographs of early computers and Enigma Machines as well as the photo on which the cover illustration is based are all welcome additions.
Oliver McPartlin deserves credit for being in charge of design and production. A sure sign of a well produced book is the method by which it is assembled. The most cost effective way, called “perfect bound”, is to glue pages to the book spine. It’s hardly perfect though. Such books refuse to lie flat and require holding open and there is always a possibility the page signatures will separate from the spine if too much pressure is applied over time. Thankfully Arsenal elected to have the pages stitched together before attaching them to the book covers. Sewn binding is expensive but worth it as a book that lies open when flat makes for a more pleasant reading experience as well as a physically stronger object that will resist falling apart. Liberge’s art is reproduced on paper with a nice weight and feel to it and minimal gloss. The practice of using page numbers in comics, trades, and graphic novels seems to be largely abandoned, but not in this book. It seems like such an easily forgotten thing, doesn’t it? A detail that isn’t missed until you want to remember a scene or a bit of dialog on a page and can’t refer to a page number.
All in all, the work here is top notch. I recommend this book if you enjoy history and learning about the lives of pioneering LGBT people.
Amazon has a short preview of the book. You can check it out here and purchase it from Amazon or your local book or comic shop.