The Phantom Scientist | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

The Phantom Scientist

The Phantom Scientist
Robin Cousin; translated by Edward Gauvin

The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2023
128 pp., illus. col, Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 9780262047869.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
March 2023

In the scientific discourse (not the discourse on science but the discourse by scientists), images are no longer just illustrations. Nor are they just part of the evidence produced by a text or discourse. They are, rhetorically speaking, powerful tools for making an argument more attractive, more seductive – which means for some readers also more treacherous – and difficult to refute, as demonstrated by Bruno Latour in his analysis of scientific reasoning as the building of a network of multiple linked cross-references. Images have become a way of writing, exposing, exploring, demonstrating, communicating, in short doing science, with or without the help of a supporting text. Roland Barthes was right in suggesting in his seminal text on the photographic message (1961) that the conventional relationship between illustrated and illustrating medium, that is between text and image, should be reversed, for in modern communication media it is no longer the image that illustrates the text but the text that illustrates the image. Today this suggestion not only applies to advertisements, the topic of Barthes’s analysis, but also to the language of science in general. Thus, there has been such a visual turn in many disciplines – history for instance, with Michael Lesy’s photobook Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), originally presented as a doctoral thesis at Rutgers University, as an important turning point, and now for quite some years graphic medicine, where writing in images has become mainstream. It is in this context that one has to understand the publication with a well-respected university press, The MIT, of a graphic novel, more specifically of a graphic novel quite unlike the many books on science and scientist that are flooding the comics and graphic novel market.

The major distinctive feature of The Phantom Scientist is the fact that it is a work of fiction. Biopics of scientists of all disciplines and periods are now well present in the catalogues of all comics publishers and some of them have proven highly successful, such as for instance Logicomix featuring Bertrand Russell and the foundational quest in mathematics (first release in Greek translation 2008, English edition in 2009). But in The Phantom Scientist there are no heroes; the characters are ordinary people, nearly anonymous researchers gathered for strange experiments on systems theory and the development of new forms of algorithmic procedures. They are invited one after another in an environment that at first sight looks like the ideal research institute (money is not an issue!) but that for the newcomer with whom the story unfolds rapidly proves to be total dystopia. The fiction, moreover, is never a didactic one, a characteristic that too often harms the nonfiction science biopics. We are not visiting some secret research center like the one where Tintin’s Professor Cumulus explains during several pages to a lay audience the technology of the spaceship that is about to be launched to the moon (see Destination Moon, first serialized in 1950). Here, the reader follows various scientists, each of them specialist in his or her own field and not necessarily understanding what the others are doing. But the story, which certainly triggers the reader’s imagination and desire to understand, never tries to make totally clear the details of the research going on at the institute. In addition, the scientific layer of the fictional story is masterfully interwoven into a larger plot where scientific research and daily life intersect in many ways, for instance through the struggle of a researcher elaborating an algorithm capable of predicting the future, including the death of some of those present at the institute. The Phantom Scientist does not project scientists in a thriller or whodunit setting, it is the scientist themselves who trap themselves in a labyrinth of chaos as well as order leading to death and madness, but also to beauty and deep human feelings.

No less important than the intelligent mix of science and fiction is the use of the comic’s medium. A translation from the French (first edition: 2019), this book maintains the typical French hardcover album format, distinguishing itself from the now commonplace trade novel format of the nonfiction comics work. The style of the art is radically anti-mimetic, another feature that sets it apart from most nonfiction works on science and scientists in the comics field. The Phantom Scientist does not attempt to faithfully document or illustrate the idea of science in action as Bruno Latour called it. The characters and the settings are drawn in highly stylized and decidedly cartoonish ways, closer to Garfield than to Watchmen, for example. The background is equally schematic, sometimes reduced to one single color field, while the structure of the building and the park hosting the research institute look more symbolic than real. Yet this schematic way of drawing perfectly matches both the layout and the narrative techniques of the book, which establish a strong dialogue between the page’s grid and the hard-edge visual representation of people and objects. The use of colors, finally, is that of an extreme clear line style, with sharp contour lines and no chromatic variations within each contoured section. These seamless echoes between lines, forms, and colours continue in the elementary yet extremely efficient montage and linear storytelling techniques, which shy away from any form of temporal disruption in order to slowly build a tight network of correspondences.

The Phantom Scientist is not a puzzle but a journey, one with an open end where each new step helps thicken the plot, allowing for countless rereading. Even if the story unfolds in a linear way, many gaps remain. As one of the scientists confesses near the end of the book: I can speak about the “how”, not about the “why”. The book wins in both ways, however. It is a wonderful introduction to the stakes and challenges of modern science. It also discloses the no less mysterious questions that link machines and algorithmic thinking to what we can continue to call the human factor.