When Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen unite, readers have come to expect something... well... genius.
This week's release of Genius, the pair's new graphic novel, has Seagle and Kristiansen once again utilizing the medium to explore themes that are both intellectual and personal. By focusing on a main character named Ted who is — as the title suggests — a genius, the book shows how one man's search for the "big idea" overshadows all the little, seemingly unimportant things that really have meaning in his life.
Because of his own obsession with Albert Einstein — who ends up playing the role of Ted's own conscience — the main character finds himself looking for answers in an unlikely corner of his life, and finding an answer he didn't quite expect.
It may sound a little mind-blowing, but it's all tempered with a bit of humor and down-to-earth realism, which is the norm for Seagle and Kristiansen. The pair were nominated for an Eisner for It's a Bird, and they most recently worked together on Image's The Red Diary/The Re[a]d Diary, an experimental book that told two stories with the same art.
And Seagle is no stranger to the fun side of comics, since he's also part of Man of Action Studios, an entertainment group that works on animated shows like Ultimate Spider-Man and created the hit superhero series Ben 10.
Newsarama talked to Seagle about this week's release of Genius, and how a "big idea" that he was once pursuing helped inform the story he wrote.
Newsarama: Steven, the story behind Genius follows someone who has an understanding of the universe that most of us can't fathom, but it's also about how he's missing the simple things. Is that how you'd describe Ted?
Steven T. Seagle: Yeah, our lead character, Ted, is a physicist, and he's about to get booted from his think tank, because he hasn't really produced anything of note in the past several years.
In his mind, which is obsessed with the workings of the universe and these big, quantum ideas, he feels like the revelation he has to have has to be massive, or he will lose everything he's worked for in his career.
But Teddy, who is my artistic collaborator on the book, loves biographies. And I wanted to write a story for him that had the feel of a day-to-day biography of someone's life, set against these bigger ideas.
So what emerged thematically was this thought that the really big stuff in most of our lives is the really small stuff.
In [the lead character] Ted's case, in looking at this huge tapestry, he's really missing important stuff about his family. It's like [the things going on with his family] are loose neutrons falling around Ted when he should be catching those and making the small little atoms of things important instead of trying to figure out the big origins of the universe.
Nrama: It's a lesson we could all learn, even those of us who aren't geniuses. I've noticed in your writing over the years that you mix these very touching, serious life experiences with humor, which feels very realistic. In Genius, Ted has an antagonistic relationship with his father-in-law, Francis, who also has dementia. When Ted finds out that his father-in-law knows a secret that could really help him out, he wants to know it. You really turned that relationship on its head.
Seagle: I wanted to play with that tension between the expectations of the father and the son-in-law — and how they have nothing in common — and yet, when the story unfolds in Genius, they have the most important thing in common. Ted just didn't know. He's not a good communicator.
He finds out that Francis, in fact, knew Albert Einstein, who was his idol. And that becomes the fulcrum of the story.
Nrama: Without spoiling the story, I think it's safe to reveal that Francis heard a secret from Albert Einstein that no one else in the world knows. I find that fascinating, that someone knows a world-changing secret. And in this case, his son-in-law Ted is almost obsessed with knowing it. How did you come up with the idea behind that part of the story?
Seagle: The idea came from spending time with my wife's grandpa Max, who had been a lifelong government man, and he was, in his final days, he had emphysema and was clearly going to pass away. And my wife said, well, let's go spend some time with Max and his wife Grace.
And on the way there, she drops a bomb that Max knew one of the great, great secrets of the past several decades. And I was like, "he knew what??"
I can't tell you exactly what [the secret] was. But it's the kind of secret, like, if you knew for sure that the moon landing was a hoax.
It was big. Very big.
And I just became obsessed with the idea that one guy knew this. He definitely knew what he knew. And I thought, well, he's not going to be with us much longer. So I'm going to spend this vacation trying to talk Max into telling me what he knew.
And it became this weird chess match where I could get him to move a little bit, but then he would just stop talking and smile and change the subject.
I thought it was fascinating that somebody could know something that important and just keep it to themselves. And I thought it was unfortunate that he would take it to the grave with him. But as time went by, I thought, maybe there's something to not knowing. Maybe it was a burden for him to know what he knew. And he was doing everybody a favor by not letting it get any further out.
And that was the crux of the Genius story.
Nrama: Let's talk about what Albert Einstein represents in the story. As you mentioned, he serves as a link between Ted and his father-in-law. But he's also kind of a sounding board or conscious for Ted as he considers his life, isn't he? Or at least, Albert Einstein as Ted imagines him to be.
Seagle: Yeah, I liked very much the way Superman functioned in It's a Bird as more of a metaphor than a character. And so I didn't want to do the exact same thing. But I needed a way for Ted's inner feelings to sort of reflect for him. And so to have Einstein there, speaking both about his accomplishments and the times he didn't quite make it, it's not actually Albert Einstein. It's more what Ted thinks about Albert Einstein, talking back to him.
But it's fun. It's fun to have the Einstein visual. It's one of the classic visuals of our time. And Einstein as a character just had a lot of interesting things about him. I mean, he was a genius, but he just had this personal life that was all over the place.
And I think that speaks a lot about the character of Ted, and his own inability to reconcile workplace and home place for a lot of the book.
So... while I wanted to see Teddy to draw Einstein, to be sure, but I also needed, just, this bigger-than-life force. Because, as the book goes on, we do eventually get to this long, lost Einstein secret that Ted is trying to pull out of his dementia-riddled father-in-law.
And there had to be a character who could have thought of something huge. And I thought Einstein was it.
Nrama: Teddy did draw Einstein so well. And he used a different style on this book. How would you describe what he brought to Genius?
Seagle: I said to Teddy, long ago, when we first started working together, that I enjoyed it so much that I intended to continue to make him work with me until we both dropped dead. And so far, we're doing a good job of it, I think.
The mandate we had back then, that we're trying stick to now, is that we keep pushing each other as hard as we possibly can to do new things.
So in this book, I gave Teddy an impossible challenge of literally drawing an impossible sequence, which I think he did a lovely job with. I won't spoil what it is, in case people read the book. But I literally, I dropped the gauntlet and said, "Do this! Ha ha ha." And, surprise, he managed to do it!
But as far as the style, when the pages started to drop, it seemed very monochromatic to me. And I was concerned. I looked at the first 20 pages and just thought, wow, this just seems to muted and toned down. I'm not sure how this is going to go over. And by the time the book was done, I saw that Teddy had really used color in a brilliant way, which is to say that when color shows up, it's extremely important, in terms of what the book is about.
And so it's in color. It's in grays and greens and blues. But it feels like a black and white story until you hit these moments of intense color. And they're very important moments.
So I threw down the gauntlet, and then Teddy threw the gauntlet right back at me by doing some things with his bag of tricks that I didn't even expect, that were, to use a word, genius.
Nrama: Let's finish up by talking briefly about your very first comic, Kafka, the Eisner-nominated limited series. I know you've got a television show in the works, but you've also got a re-release of the comic coming out. What can you tell us about both of those projects? Are they related at all?
Seagle: The comic is coming out in color, but it's mostly in black and white, which doesn't make a lot of sense, but the book has been redone in such a way that the present is in this kind of full, noir-ish, black and white color pallet, and the past is in this muted color pallet.
And it kind of mirrors the way that we see the television project working in the future.
So the release is the week after Genius. It's going to be a hardcover. It comes out through Image. It's the entire series and some extras we found.
Nrama: You said earlier that you would be working with Teddy until you both dropped dead. Now that we've got Genius coming out, I assume you and Teddy are planning something together in the future?
Seagle: Yes, although I can't say anything about it now. Teddy and I are already on to our next project, which will be so experimental that it will make our last project, the Red Diary, look like a cakewalk.