Imagine Skottie Young and Monkey Punch teaming up to tell the story of the man who stole Einstein’s brain. Oh, and Einstein is helping him to get away with it.
This book is bonkers in the best possible way, but it’s also a textbook example of how to use a comic book’s format to tell a story. Make no mistake about it — this is a comic book, not an illustrated screen play. It’s glorious.
E = MCredits Squared
Artist: Pierre-Henry Gomont
Letterer: Cromatik Ltd.
Translator: Edward Gauvin
Published by: Europe Comics/Dargaud
Number of Pages: 78
Original Publication: 2020
What’s Going On?
Albert Einstein is dead.
Now, one underperforming pathologist, Thomas Stoltz Harvey, is taking advantage of this opportunity to make a name for himself. He’s going to steal Einstein’s brain, impress the girl, get Einstein’s lawyer’s help, evade the FBI, and discover, uhm, something about how genius works.
Look, it’s not like he thought this thing through too far….
I knew going in that this would be (A) historical fiction and (B) a comedy. I didn’t realize just how far Pierre-Henry Gomont was going to push things. When Albert Einstein shows up to help Harvey, that’s when things really got wild for me. Oh, and he’s not some ghost or mental projection. He’s really there, and he’s still really missing half his head.
The protagonist of the story, Dr. Harvey, isn’t exactly the most sympathetic character. Gomont is sure to establish his character very early in the book and why he does the things he does: His home life is not warm and fuzzy. His professional career is at a bit of a dead end, and he isn’t getting the respect he thinks he deserves from his boss. He’s the perfect character type to act out on his frustrations.
Gomont does a great job in establishing this all up front so you at least understand where Harvey’s coming from. Whether you feel any sympathy towards him is up to you. I just think he’s a flawed individual who’s been pushed to his breaking point and takes this opportunity to do something about it.
It’s just a shame he didn’t realize what he was getting into, or exactly why. Thanks to that, the story can progress in crazy and unexpected directions.
Things ramp up pretty quickly. He’s getting into more trouble at every turn. He’s losing the things he thought he could count on. He’s being pulled in different directions he doesn’t want to go. And then the FBI steps in.
For a man whose mission is slightly unclear, he’s completely consumed by it and won’t let it go. Oh, he tries once, but that doesn’t go well, either…
Perhaps the Craziest Thing: The True Story
Discerning readers will notice that I’ve taken some liberties with names and with well-established historical and scientific facts.Pierre-Henry Gomont
This is all based on a true story. There really was a pathologist at Princeton’s hospital named Thomas Stolz Harvey. He was in over his head. He did get away with the brain, and did really store it in his basement at home.
When you think the true story couldn’t get weirder, you find out that Einstein’s son let Harvey keep the brain so long as he would use it for scientific research. The Army, on the other hand, wanted it to see if they could learn something to get a leg up on the Russians.
And nothing ever came of it. Harvey would slice off pieces of the brain and give it to friends.
Harvey died in 2004. What is left of Einstein’s brain is still preserved in a Pennsylvania medical museum.
The whole story, complete with pictures and videos(!), can be found at Messy Nessy.
I hope I didn’t just spoil the second book in this series by reading up on the true story…
The Art of Gomont
With a story this off-kilter, it helps to have an art style that doesn’t play it straight. Thankfully, Gomont’s own art is a perfect match to the story. It’s a very animated look that can be as goofy as the story dictates, but that can also be creative in its storytelling without losing the reader.
Gomont doesn’t hold back. His characters lean back when they run. Their stick legs fly all over the place as they zip back and forth. Cars drive about six inches off the road because they’re always bounding to their next location. Nothing in this book is boring, which makes turning every page a pleasure.
I love this sequence. There’s so much life and energy to it. The angles are perfectly chosen and the panels are perfectly composed. It’s top notch storytelling combined with a style that drew me right in.
I mentioned Monkey Punch at the top of this review because the style reminds me slightly of “Lupin III.” (That’s no relation to the super-popular French series on Netflix right now that I need to watch next…) Dr. Harvey even looks a little like Lupin, but there’s that unrestrained energy that you can see in the crazier manga that gets injected here just a little bit. The lawyer in the book even has a face that looks like he’s a bad guy out of some manga title.
“Brain Dead” is far from being French Manga, but I believe the superficial comparison isn’t off base. If you want to see what manga-influenced Franco-Belgian cartooning really looks like, take a look at the awesome “Frnk” someda.
The character designs are unique. This is where things remind me a bit of Skottie Young’s style. There’s a similar sense of proportion and skinniness and fringed edges to the art. It’s not quite as commercial and cute. It’s taking that unique angle with those rough edges and making them work in the context of the story.
Also worth noting: Take a look at this panel, where we see Harvey’s basement for the first time. What do you notice about the art?
I don’t think there’s a single straight line in this book. Even the door frame and the handrail have wobbly lines. The stairs are roughly straight, but they’re not ruler straight. It’s a big difference from some of the art today that’s built in a 3D program of some sort and then traced or copy-and-pasted onto the virtual artboards of modern comics.
Everything feels very organic. It’s the product of someone who very specifically and very strongly understands what he’s doing, but at first glance you might think he was rushed or is sloppy. READ the story, and you’ll see how smart every decision made by Gomont is.
The Color of Backgrounds
Gomont also does something that I generally don’t like, but that works here. He color holds his backgrounds. It helps to blur them out a bit. It’s a little fake bokeh, as they say in the photography world. But it’s not just graying out the black lines here; he’s actually color blocking entire backgrounds.
And while it’s usually the entire background that gets the treatment, there are also times when he uses it more selectively. None is better than this splash page at the beginning of the story when Harvey enters the chamber with Einstein’s body.
That is the perfect use for this technique. That beam of light shining from high up on the wall into the large room is perfectly captured by the muted line work in its light.
And, again, this goes into why I don’t like color blocking, in general. I think it’s overused. I think too many people use it because they want to look like Disney cartoons and because Photoshop makes it easy. They haven’t thought about when it makes the most sense.
This page is a perfect example of where it might make sense. It’s used where the shaft of light is, and also on the reflections on the floor, which now I’m assuming are marble. It has to be something shiny, right? So it’s adding information to the art about both texture and lighting. It’s not just keeping that cute character’s nose from sticking out too far by coloring in its point.
I also notice it mostly happens when the backgrounds are meant to be non-descript. They’re drawn in silhouette or in a rougher form. They’re drawn to be slightly blurry and pushed to the back more already. So it makes sense for the coloring to do the same thing. In scenes where the background is closer and is carefully inked and detailed, you don’t see the color holds so much.
In the panel above, all the trees in the background that are basically in silhouette get the color hold treatment. The car and the house remain in the black, as does the bush in the foreground that needs to stand out due to its position in the panel.
This book is a series of good examples of how to use this coloring technique.
Comics Taking Metaphor Literally
Another very intentional use of the comics form happens on a few occasions when Gomont takes a tangent into a metaphor. He draws out what the metaphor would literally mean.
When he discusses how the idea to steal Einstein’s brain came into Harvey’s head and what track it was on, he spend a couple of pages drawing a train barreling through a desolate old western landscape. It fits beautifully.
It’s a relatively easy technique to pull off convincingly in a comic. I’m not sure that it would work as well in any other format, movies included.
Then there’s this sequence where the lawyer calls Harvey a gnat, so Gormont draws him as a gnat for the rest of the page. In the same sequence, Harvey feels as if he’s about to be burned at the stake, so Gormont draws that, too.
It’s a nice little storytelling technique that doesn’t get used all that often, but works in a book like this.
The Lettering’s Cool Font
Honestly, the dialogue font — which you can see in various images in this review — is not the most legible thing in comics, but it didn’t bother me.
Once I got used to it in the first page or two, it was easy enough to read. It has a very loose, mixed-case hand-written style that fits in with the art that looks, itself, very loose and sketchy.
But what I really like, without reservation, is how the more exclamatory dialogue lettering and sound effects font is done. The font changes completely, and it looks hand drawn:
It has that fancier, serif style with the double vertical lines all filled in. It’s great. It fits the comic and it complements the regular dialogue font.
It’s also not something you generally see in comics.
Yes. This is a book that will no doubt be in my Top Ten list for the year. It’s only January as I type this, but I’m that confident in just how good this book is.
Pierre-Henry Gomont uses the comic book form in all its glory to tell an entertaining and hilarious tale that is, shockingly, based (however loosely) on real events.
A second volume that concludes the story is available now, as well.