Steven T. Seagle reveals the secrets behind ‘Genius’

July 08, 2013 | 6:02 p.m.

Comics writer Steven T. Seagle has had great success in his collaborations with Danish artist Teddy Kristiansen. Together they created the DC Comics series “House of Secrets” and the semi-autobiographical book, “It’s a Bird,” which earned Kristiansen an Eisner Award for best painter/multimedia artist in 2005. So it’s not surprising that they’ve teamed-up again for the graphic novel “Genius” from First Second Books.

Ted Marx, the protagonist of Seagle and Kristiansen’s story, is a one-time prodigy physicist struggling to recapture his youthful glory when he learns about a profound discovery by Albert Einstein that the scientist kept secret into death. As Marx struggles with the knowledge he has acquired, he must also learn how to connect with his own wife and children.

The Times’ David Ulin said the book “becomes a paean to the examined life, the life of the mind and the power of convictions: in other words, to not accepting anybody’s version of reality but your own.”

Seagle recently revealed some of the origins of the story, including a tantalizing mysterious secret in his own life. An exclusive excerpt of the book is visible above and at the links below.

Cover | Page 83 | Page 84 | Page 85 | Page 86 | Page 87 | Page 88 | Page 89

HC: The origins of this story came from your wife’s grandfather. What was it about that story that led you to Albert Einstein and the problems and frustrations of genius?

SS: My wife, Liesel, and I had gone to Colorado to spend a few weeks with her grandfather Max. He was in his final days due to complications from emphysema. On the way, Liesel casually revealed to me — as if it would be no big deal even if I wasn’t a writer — that because of Max’s position in the U.S. military, he had first-hand knowledge of one of the great secrets of the century. And while I can’t tell you what the subject of the secret was, let’s just say it was on the level of knowing the moon landing was definitely a hoax. It was a huge secret of global importance and I decided I would pry it out of Max. And I failed. And Max died. And the secret Max knew died with him.

Writer Steven T. Seagle (Liesel Reinhart)

Writer Steven T. Seagle (Liesel Reinhart)

In retrospect, I wondered if Max might have realized it was for the better. Perhaps the knowledge was too big for anyone to know and the best thing he could do was bury the secret with him. So I wanted to write about that push and pull between knowing and not. And since I needed to obscure the actual details, I decided that a lost Einstein theory in the hands of a flailing physicist — something that would change everything we know about everything we know — was a compelling dilemma for a protagonist.

HC: You attempted a tricky thing — to visualize Ted’s thoughts on the page through abstract colors and patterns. What did you and Teddy discuss about those pages?

SS: My favorite thing about working with Teddy is his fearlessness. Each time we do a project we intentionally try to do something new with the semiotics of sequential storytelling — to push the comics form in some uncomfortable direction. On our last book together, “The Read Diary/The RE[a]D Diary,” I did a completely visually-cued translation of Teddy’s Danish script before even knowing what the book was about. That was a huge challenge. I decided on “Genius” that turnabout is fair play, so I dropped a gauntlet for Teddy. I told him that I needed him to depict something completely unknown and unknowable. I gave him some parameters, but the execution was all Teddy and when that scene hits, it’s a stunning, fresh moment for comics, I think. As this was the first book I’d done for publisher First Second, I was worried that when editor Mark Siegel or my editor, Calista Brill, read the sequence they would freak out, but they were very amenable and I love them for that.

HC: Similarly, what was the discussion like regarding the handwritten dialogue? It’s a little trickier to read, but seems to complement the art well.

SS: The fonts were Teddy’s call, and, to be honest, one of them is still a little trickier to read than I would like in places. But I do respect that Teddy knew what font he wanted set against his incredibly adept art. For all his fretting about big ideas, one of the things our lead character, Ted, struggles to perceive in this book is the enormity of the small things happening with his family. I think the handwritten “diary” quality of the prose helps ground the book in its most important locale, not the mind, but the mundane day-to-day. Font choice is just another cool thing comics let the storytellers employ for greater visual underscore to the meaning.

HC: There seem to be a lot of parallels between the scientific work done at Pasadena Tech in the story and Hollywood and the comic book industry in real life: the desperate need for a hit, the constant search for new talent. Do you feel that both worlds are a young man’s game? That creativity is easier to tap into when you’re younger and not distracted by life?

SS: I suppose you could read it that way, sure. But the truth I see is that in almost every pursuit; the last four decades has seen an intentional shift from valuing the accrual of knowledge in older workers to the belief that young mavericks working intuitively are the way to go. A lot of this has to do with profiteering, of course. Business leaders have decided that the loss of expertise in getting rid of actual knowledgeable people in the workplace is more than made up for by the cost savings of firing lifers. The good thing about being a Man of Action — my entertainment company that created some big hits like “Ben 10″ — is that my three partners and I are our own creative bosses now. I’m firing on as many, if not more creative cylinders now than I was when I was 20, and since I can thankfully set my own projects, I’m not worried about the young guns … I envy them … but I’m not worried about them!

HC: Have you encountered any actual geniuses in your life? Did they seem to be able to function in society well?

SS: My brother David is a genius. He’s a software architect. He knew that’s what he was going to be from the time he was 12, and that’s exactly what he became. He’s not an international luminary in his field, but he should be because when you hear him talk about writing code for software, there’s a synesthetic kind of vocabulary he’s using. He “sees” programming rather than devises it. He imagines these elegant solutions that are very different than the hack-and-paste of a lot of developers. It’s intimidating how smart he is. But I don’t know that his employers have understood how advanced his knowledge is. Genius is not always recognized by the outside world. And when someone who doesn’t “get it” at the level Dave does comes up against him, it tends to create friction rather than awe. Conversely, I also have several friends who are unaware geniuses. The thing they are best at is not the thing they are interested in pursuing. That’s Ted’s issue in “Genius.” Can he recognize what his true aptitude is before his presumed calling consumes him?

– Patrick Kevin Day

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