The comic strip hasn't, historically speaking, been considered a quite suitable medium for the transmission of profound literature or thought. Tintin and Spider-Man, yes; Les Miserables and Hamlet, no. When Albert Kanter created Classic Comics (later Classics Illustrated) in 1941, his strip versions of Ivanhoe and Don Quixote were held at arm's-length by parents and teachers, who were appalled to think their young charges might learn anything from colour-panel trash.
After 1976, though, the format went up in the world. The comic-strip narrative was rebranded as a Graphic Novel – one of its finest exponents, Neil Gaiman, remarked at the time: "I felt like someone who'd been informed that she wasn't a hooker; she was in fact a lady of the evening." Greater respectability came with the term bande dessinée, as if comic strips were part of French fine-art tradition (they're not.) After Hollywood took to filming graphic novels with actors (Road to Perdition, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Sin City) the animated strip took on a new seriousness: the Iranian author Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, with its stark black-and-white drawings, sold half a million copies and was filmed. Ari Folman's graphic documentary Waltz With Bashir was nominated for the Palme d'Or at Cannes and won a shelf of international prizes.
The subject of the newest comic-strip sensation, though, might still raise eyebrows: it's the story of the quest for the foundation of mathematics, starring and narrated by Bertrand Russell, the British logician, philosopher, mathematician, reformer, pacifist, activist, jailbird and chronic womaniser. It's set 50 years ago on 4 September, 1939, when Russell arrived at an American university to lecture on "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs" before a sceptical audience, just after Britain had declared war on Germany. The book delves into Russell's past, his childhood and the first inklings of his search for the certainties upon which maths, and therefore all science, ultimately rest.
It's an extraordinary piece of work: the arid title, Logicomix, seems to suggest a genre of brisk, strip-cartoon guides to hard philosophy, like the popular Icon series (eg Introducing Aristotle) instead of an absorbing 350-page narrative about how the search for logic and first principles drove most of its practitioners round the twist and threatened to do the same to the 3rd Earl Russell in the early 20th century.
Early reactions have been positive: "Logicomix is highly original," enthused Posy Simmonds, doyenne of the intelligent literary strip cartoon (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe), "a rich and enthralling encounter with myth, maths, theatre and the giants of 20th-century philosophy."
The book is the brainchild of two Greek men. Apostolos Doxiadis, 55, is hell-bent on bridging the gap between science and the arts: he's a mathematician but also a translator, actor, writer and movie director. His third novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, was an international bestseller, published here by Faber & Faber. He once devised a shadow-puppet musical about Jackson Pollock, and wrote a play called Seventeenth Night about the theorems of Kurt Godel. His collaborator on the Russell project is Christos Papadimitriou, a professor of computer science at Berkeley, California; Bill Gates is among his former pupils.
It's an unusually personal project, this five-year labour of love. You can tell because the co-authors portray themselves in the book, drinking coffee, arguing and joshing in their shared offices. Once the script was complete, the artists, Alecos Papadatos and Annie di Donna, prepared for their mammoth feat of drawing and colouring by going location-hunting across Europe for three weeks, taking thousands of photographs and meeting Russell fans who could describe what it was like to meet him at his time of intellectual turmoil. And it really was turmoil. Russell's mother and sister died when he was two, his father when he was four. He was brought up by his austere Scots Presbyterian grandmother in an atmosphere of repression and religiosity. His bitterly lonely childhood (he contemplated suicide) was enlivened, he said later, by thoughts of sex and glimpses of a totally logical world available through Euclidian mathematics. But even Euclid's maths rested on shaky assumptions and unproven "axioms", so how could it lead to certain knowledge of the world?
Through GE Moore at Cambridge, he discovered Leibniz and Boole, and became a logician. Through Alfred Whitehead's influence, he travelled to Europe and met Gottlob Frege, who believed in a wholly logical language (and was borderline insane) and Georg Cantor, the inventor of "set theory" (who was locked up in an asylum) and a mass of French and German mathematicians in varying stages of mental disarray. Back home he and Whitehead wrestled with their co-authored Principles of Mathematics for years, endlessly disputing the foundations of their every intellectual certainty, constantly harassed by Russell's brilliant pupil Wittgenstein.
If the subject matter seems a little arid, with its theories of types, paradoxes and abstruse language (calculus ratiocinator?), and if its recurring theme of how logic and madness are psychologically intertwined seems a touch gloomy, don't let that put you off. Logicomix tells its saga of human argumentation with such drama and vivid colour that it leaves the graphic novel 300 (Frank Miller's take on the Battle of Thermopylae) looking like something from Eagle Annual.
Its great subject is the historical desire to make the world totally understandable by reason, and it itches us inside the debate. Doxiadis and his team make us feel how cataclysmic was the moment when Kurt Godel, the mathematician, in a lecture, announced: "There will always be unanswerable questions," and proved that arithmetic is "of necessity incomplete" – pulling the rug from under the study of logic. ("It's all over," remarked Russell's friend Von Neumann at the conference, meaning the whole of philosophical reasoning.) By the end, Russell tells listeners: "Take my story as a cautionary tale, a narrative argument against ready-made solutions." It's heartening that such sophisticated dialectics can survive a transition to the idiom of Batman and The Simpsons.
'Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth' is published by Bloomsbury on 7 September (£16.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.15 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
Graphic novels: Six of the best
"A Contract With God" – Will Eisner
Will Eisner's 1978 book – full title "A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories" – is a collection of four tales of working-class life in The Bronx during the 1930s. Inspired by Eisner's childhood, the book is considered a pioneering example of the graphic novel, demonstrating the form's literary potential with its examination of the immigrant experience. Deciding that the original audience for superhero comics were now adults and would expect more mature fare, Eisner later explained: "I began working on a book that dealt with a subject that I felt had never been tried by comics before, and that was man's relationship with God."
"Maus" – Art Spiegelman
In 1980, Art Spiegelman turned his talents to a particularly unlikely comic-book subject: the Holocaust. His anthropomorphic retelling of his own father's Second World War experiences (which was finally completed 11 years later) casts the Jews of Europe as mice, the Germans as cats, the Americans as dogs, and so on. Eventually published in two collected volumes, the deeply moving "Maus" is a deserved classic, and in 1992 earned its author a Pulitzer Prize.
"Palestine" – Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco is the foremost exponent of the graphic novel as journalism. In 1991 and 1992 he travelled to the West Bank and Gaza, producing this nine-part comic series later published as a single volume. Comparing the Israeli occupation to colonialism, he makes literary references to the likes of Joseph Conrad and Edward Said. Sacco himself, drawn as a naïve Westerner out of his depth, is the narrator and central character – a trope he also employed for his later works about the conflicts in Iraq and the former Yugoslavia.
"The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" – Martin Rowson
Newspaper cartoonist Martin Rowson took on the unenviable task of visually adapting Laurence Sterne's madly picaresque classic, "Tristram Shandy", in 1997. In fact, the hyperactive structure and comic tone of Sterne's novel lends itself to the graphic form, and Rowson – who has also adapted TS Eliot's "The Waste Land", turning it into a hard-boiled detective story – successfully adds his own jokes to Tristram's tale.
"Persepolis" – Marjane Satrapi
Published in French in 2000, "Persepolis" is Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir of her childhood in Iran, recalling the years leading up to and after the 1979 revolution, then the country's war with its neighbour Iraq. Satrapi finally fled the country for Europe, settling first in Vienna and then Paris. In 2007, she turned "Persepolis" into an animated film; it won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
"Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth" – Chris Ware
Recalling the lonely and misanthropic characters of his comic book predecessors Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar, in 2000 Chris Ware created Jimmy Corrigan, whose desire to escape his unremarkable life with an overbearing mother takes him into a fantasy realm where he is "the smartest kid on Earth". Ware's artwork tests the limits of the graphic novel, employing complex diagrams and an intricate narrative full of flashbacks. Tim Walker