I am utterly smitten with these funny, thoughtful, and gorgeously published graphic bios from NoBrow Press about Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, and Albert Einstein. Written by Belgian psychoanalyst Corinne Maier, illustrated by Parisian cartoonist Anne Simon, the books are thoughtful and surprisingly funny, packing a ton of life into 60 short pages apiece.
All three are hardbacks the size of children’s picture books, printed on deliciously heavy paper. Originally published in French, each discusses the influence of its main character’s Jewishness on his life and work, and each focuses as much on the protagonist’s personal life as it does his intellectual one. They’re written for adults, but comic-book-loving kids over 12 can appreciate them too (as long as you don’t mind exposing them to heroes with feet of clay, or pictures of giant phalluses).
Each also has a different color palette. Freud was published first, in 2013; its primary hue is green, with orange playing a secondary role. We see little Sigmund’s childhood dreams of being an explorer, and his adult exploration of the brain. (Little yellow brains appear hither and yon throughout the book.) Humanity’s battle with its inchoate yearnings and emotions is depicted by Freud himself attempting to slay monsters with a sword. “Reason is a conquest!” he cries. We see women protesting Freud’s ideas of penis envy, marching in front of his home with a “Freud Hates Women!” banner. (Freud, meanwhile, imagines naked women gazing yearningly at, and caressing, a giant phallus.) His most famous cases—Dora, Anna O, The Rat Man—get their own mini-comics. And we see his celebrity encounters: In England in 1938, after he escapes the Nazis, Freud meets Salvador Dali, who tells him his skull looks like a snail. Freud rolls his eyes, but Simon draws him with a snail on his head for several panels.
The next book in the series is Marx, which came out in 2014. The primary color in his comics is, of course, red. There’s also lots of yellow and purple. We read about Marx’s own history of being both rich and poor at different times, noting “power is organised [sic] by one class in order to oppress the other” while also wanting to pamper his daughters (“nothing is good enough for my little princesses!”). He impregnates the maid, too. The end of the book is a fantasy, with Marx flying around in recent history (the fall of the Berlin wall, the 2008 financial crisis) in a red Superman cape pinned with a little letter “K,” pondering what both communism and capitalism have wrought. There are no easy answers to reassure the reader.
Maier’s and Simon’s third volume, Einstein, came out a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps it’s the least successful, because its attempts to explain Einstein’s theories are no more successful (for me) than any other time anyone has tried to explain Einstein’s theories, but Einstein’s personal story is still fascinating. And his book is mostly purple, my favorite color.
Like Freud, Einstein wanders through the landscape of his own brain. Simon illustrates the theory of special relativity with melting Dali-esque clocks slipping into the warped fabric of space-time; she shows multiple Einsteins skateboarding around a Moebius strip to depict the theory of general relativity. Maier doesn’t stint on telling us what a selfish schmuck Einstein was toward his family: We see him ignoring baby Hans Albert as the infant screams and screams. We learn about his cheating ways. While he’s still married to his brilliant first wife Mileva, we see him whispering sweet nothings to his dim cousin Lily, who soon becomes his second wife. “I know how to take care of you,” she murmurs to him. “You’re my adorable exquisite man-child!” But we also see him struggle with the morality of his work. Realizing that his discoveries led to the building of the atomic bomb, he says, “this is my greatest regret.” Simon shows him in Mickey Mouse’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice robe, forlornly stirring a cauldron.
All three books are sharp, funny, nuanced, and visually rich. They’re comics, but they’re not cartoonish at all.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.