Word of the Nerd interviewed French creators Eric Liberge and Arnaud Delalande about their graphic novel The Case of Alan Turing: The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of the Legendary Codebreaker.
Alan Turing was a brilliant mathematician recruited by the British Government to help defeat the Nazis during World War II. Turing and his fellow recruits at Hut 8 managed to crack the enemy’s coded messages sent by the German Navy’s Enigma machines. Through the code breakers tireless efforts, millions of lives and British goods were saved. Turing became a national hero, but he had to keep not only the details of his work secret from the public, but also his secret life as a homosexual.
In 1952 Turing was charged with gross indecency by the British courts. He agreed to undergo chemical castration to avoid imprisonment. Two years later, Turing committed suicide. The details of Turing’s achievements only came to light in 2012 through the declassification of certain government documents. The graphic novel by Eric Liberge and Arnaud Delalande examine the life of this brilliant, complex and troubled man.
Did you ever have plans to write about Alan Turing’s life before the 2012 release of classified documents about his specific achievements?
We didn’t know about Alan Turing until our publisher in France, Laurent Muller, told us about him! Laurent knew the case of Alan Turing and had followed in the press the Queen’s rehabilitation of Turing’s memory in 2013, and the release of classified information. He gave us two biographies of Turing, arguing that it could be a subject for us. We had done – separately – many graphic novels in France, especially historical graphic novels. Laurent knew our work and thought that our team could work. It was a pleasure indeed, and we immediately found the subject really great. There was everything in this story: a world war, the personal fight of a man trying to break an unbreakable code, an intimate struggle because of his homosexuality in a puritan society, the tragic destiny of a secret, lonely but national hero, the birth of computers and artificial intelligence… But it was also a challenge, precisely because of these multiple dimensions. We had to find a real specific treatment that would enlighten the inner fights of Turing as much as the global and incredible issues of this historical period.
How much time did spend researching and digesting the new information released before starting work on your graphic novel?
We had a few weeks of documentary work, including biographies; many press articles on the Internet (scientific, historical, or related to the archives and the recent rehabilitation, articles about mathematics and cryptography, etc.), TV documentaries or telefilms like Breaking the Code with Derek Jacobi, an adaptation of Hugh Whitemore’s play about Turing. The script was written in four months, and the drawings soon began for eight or nine months. When the movie The Imitation Game was released, we were approximately halfway through our work. So we can say that research and digestion did really contribute all along to this “work in progress”! And the whole process took one year.
The novel may reach a wider audience as a result of 2014 Oscar-winning film The Imitation Game. The story of Turing will still be fairly fresh in the general public’s mind. Without revealing too many of the new details contained the book about Alan Turing, what would you say to convince those who saw the film Imitation Game to read your novel, especially those who have never before picked up a graphic novel of any kind?
As we said, we were halfway in the writing of the script when the Imitation Game was released, so we were a bit anxious, of course – and then the movie won an Oscar! But despite this, we were somewhat relieved, because the film was really different from our treatment. We both liked it, but we found it very “made in Hollywood”, you know, and not always accurate. We were even surprised that many details that we found however extraordinary (like the apple, the details of the presumed suicide, Snow White, etc.) even a bit controversial, would not be treated at all in the movie. That was interesting, because we could try to bring something new and different from the movie, another point of view on the character, with a more introspective approach.
So we tried to stay really close to the real historical facts and the character of Alan Turing, but using a non-sequential type of narration, with many flash-backs and flash-forwards, and developing a specific approach or interpretation of this great fight against the Enigma machine and the birth of artificial intelligence – emphasizing on Alan’s inner pictures, metaphors or projections, which are sometimes a bit surrealist, sometimes expressionist or on the contrary impressionist. We looked for a graphic and poetic way to express his doubts, his scientific research, his dreams, and his fears. In the end, it was the opportunity to tell a powerful and epic story that completely changed our world, through the eyes of a genius, an intense, complex and wonderful character! So we tried to make this story as an inner and intimate quest as much as a great scientific and historical thriller.
Your graphic novel will examine intolerance toward homosexuals in the 1940s. It is a horrible tragedy that a man with such a brilliant mind who did so much for his country would be later persecuted for his sexual preference.
Was it also your intent to write a story that will make people stop and think about how far we still have to go as a society toward being more tolerant and accepting others?
Of course, it was an important and unavoidable part of the story, closely intricate with the global issues of the subject. Turing was a national and worldwide hero always forced to secrecy, and facing the judgment of an ungrateful society. This was the tragic dimension of the character, especially with this terrible suicide using the presumed poisoned apple, after an unbearable chemical treatment. Of course, Turing’s late rehabilitation is a message of tolerance and acceptance of others. It’s quite simple in the principle: you can’t judge and persecute people because they are homosexuals, or black, white, purple or whatever, or because they don’t agree with your opinion – that’s a condition of modern democracies. Turing’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with the objective Enigma problem and the need to win the war! Or maybe, in a way, his inner life and his need for “mathematical poetry”, abstraction and sublimation, helped him to solve this impossible problem – and the most important key of our treatment was that, by “breaking the Enigma Code”, Turing also tried to break his own code, his own enigma, his own interrogations about himself. For him, the entire world was an ocean of signs and cyphers, a hidden poem, a Great Code. So on the contrary, his whole personality was an asset for the world. But we must also be careful that we don’t reduce anybody’s identity to his or her sexual determinism. Everyone is made of multiple dimensions: sex, feelings, mind, knowledge, memory, and spiritual life. In the case of Alan Turing, we tried to show these multiple facets of a very complex and rich character placed in an incredible situation.
Arnaud, your sequential art to convey the efforts of the people trying to crack the Enigma machine’s code coupled with collages of images of the war posed a striking juxtaposition.
Did you need to make adjustments your style of illustration to accommodate the subject of this biographical story?
Well, my script was fairly detailed, but Eric often had visual suggestions to underline or express emotions in specific ways, dreamlike for example. A script is here to provide, create images. Eric often proposed graphic ideas to underline this, express that. He tried to match his color palette of drawing and painting to the old photographs from the World War II period, used expressionist references such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or saturated warm color for Alan’s fantasies.
Since the beginning I was a bit afraid that this biopic would be too academic (the chronological birth/childhood/adulthood/death trip), so I wanted to break the traditional straightforward narrative. The script should be a sort of “code” itself, like an encrypted Enigma. This choice was also an open door for Eric to find visual transpositions of this introspective and non-sequential storytelling. Turing is surrounded by codes, and the secret is everywhere: Secret service, Secret life, Secrets of mathematics, of Nature. As soon as one of us had a visual suggestion, especially when it was not literally written in the script, we would talk about it by phone or email. Alan is here to “break the codes”, in every possible way, so we had to “break the narration”. The mix of this approach with Eric’s graphic, artistic resources of expression, led us to these chosen (and always concerted) striking juxtapositions.
When did you each begin your writing/illustration work professionally, and how do you think your previous experience prepared you tell the story of Alan Turing?
Eric: I started as a professional in 1996 with my project “Mr. Mardi-Gras DESCENDRES”, which is my main comic strips series. Before that, I spent some time publishing around in various fan magazines, learning and improving my style. Now, speaking about Alan Turing’s period, which was Word War II and the 50’s, I was already prepared to work on the subject. I had just finished ”WOTAN”, a big project about violence and fanaticism during the World War II period. Thus I had a huge amount of documentation about the Second World War. Moreover, what I like most in contemporary stories is drawing the 30’s and 40’s clothing style. So that was the right time for me to work on this project, as I was correctly equipped to deal with it.
Eric, of the 30+ graphic novels you have written, what made you decide to tackle a biographical work? It seems like a complete 180-degree shift from the fantasy based stories you have written.
Eric: Yes indeed! But as a matter of fact, most of the literature I read for my comic art inspiration is mainly biographies of historical figures, authors and artists. So, this time, I got directly connected to the true life of a man of flesh and bones, and for me, it was a real pleasure to dive in all this material and draw the scenes, as I knew that the story we would tell with Arnaud was real. Of course, we made some adjustments, in order to integrate our own universes to the biopic, but I like to be connected to a story that relates to the every day life as well, and identify so much better than fiction maybe, to the characters we are exposing.
Who are some of the writers and artists that have influenced your work? Among them, which do think your think our readers should place on their “must read” lists?
Looking on the 70’s comic artists french scene, I would say huge authors like Jean Giraud / Moëbuis, for example. Then, I currently say that Philippe Druillet is my spiritual father and main influence. But I also like lots of others, like Yves Chaland, Robert Crumb, and above all I think, HERGÉ with Tintin of course. It is difficult to recall a proper list now that I have assimilated all these influences and thrown all the books away to clear the place and let my own style thrive. For example, I hardly read comics now, in 2016. My inspirations come always from outside the world of comic books.
What project does each of you have planned next? What would you like to do? Perhaps another biographical novel, a historical based graphic novel, or something completely different?
We are currently working with Arnaud on another big historical character : the youth of Stalin. I think we put in these two new books the same historical and graphical passion we founds on Alan Turing. Everybody knows Stalin, but not the young boy and young man he was. The main difficulty is not to be compassionate with the guy, not forget that he was one of the worst criminals of our 20th century. This is a challenging biopic, for sure !
What is the one take away you want people to have after reading The Case of Alan Turing?
I would say, every time we take our smartphones, switch our computers or tablets on – have a thought for this man and the genius he was, gone too soon. God knows what he would have invented if he had been living longer.
The Case of Alan Turing goes on sale November 1st, 2016 and is available through Arsenal Pulp Press.
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