Steven and Ben Nadler on Heretics!: An enlightening graphic novel

NadlerThis entertaining and enlightening graphic narrative tells the exciting story of the seventeenth-century thinkers who challenged authority to lay the foundations of modern philosophy and science and help usher in a new world. With masterful storytelling and color illustrations by father-son duo Steven Nadler and Ben Nadler, Heretics! offers a unique introduction to the birth of modern thought in comics form. These contentious and controversial philosophers—from Galileo and Descartes to Spinoza, Locke, Leibniz, and Newton—fundamentally changed the way we look at the world, society, and ourselves. Heretics! tells the story of their ideas, lives, and times in a vivid new way. Read on for a conversation between Steven and Ben about the process of working together on a graphic novel, their favorite illustrations, and what they each learned along the way.

Ben:  So Dad, tell me, what gave you the idea for us to do a graphic book together on modern philosophy?

Steven: Well, my editor at Princeton University Press had asked me to write a big new history of philosophy, perhaps with some illustrations done by you. But I wasn’t sure that was something I wanted to do. However, I was intrigued by the notion of doing something really creative with a history of philosophy in the seventeenth century, my specialty. And then, with you recently graduated from art school, I thought it would be really fun to do something together. And it was! Let me ask you: why did you want to do it?

Nadler

Ben: It was an offer I could not refuse. I was an intern in Seattle just out of RISD, but not really employed as an illustrator. So I was hoping this book would be a good way to get that career started. I was also part-way through a graphic novel that didn’t seem to have an end in sight, so the idea of doing a more collaborative project that had some structure and a deadline was appealing. Plus, it was a chance to bond with my father! What were your expectations going into it?

Steven: I was hoping that we could find an engaging and entertaining way to introduce a broad audience to a really interesting period of philosophy and a fascinating group of philosophers. I want this book to be read not just by professional philosophers and philosophy students, but general readers of all kinds, including high school and college students. It had to be really accessible and tell a good story. The hard part for me, in writing the text, was to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, being too dry and academic, and, on the other hand, being condescending and patronizing. I had to find the right balance between academic writing and simplistic popularizing. What was the hard part for you?

Nadler

Ben:  The hardest part was finding the right visualizations for some of the really abstract, conceptual and heady ideas that you wrote about. It’s one thing to draw biographical comics about philosophers, and another to try to illustrate Leibniz’s concept of “monads.”

Steven: Yes, I do remember your panicked phone call asking me what the hell a monad is.  We had to give a lot of thought to how to depict a monad visually, and I checked in with various colleagues to see if they had any ideas.  Everyone was kind of stumped.  I think you came up with the best solution.  The other tough challenge was how to illustrate a person’s soul (as distinct from their body). Again, I think you did a great job with that visually.  What’s your favorite page or chapter of the book?

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Ben: The page where the two guys are getting pushed out the window was really tough, I had to spend a whole day trying to get the perspective right. That might be my favorite illustration, because of how much work went into it and seeing the final pay-off. I also tend to like the later pages, after I settled into my drawing habits and improved over the year and a half we worked on the book. I completely re-drew the first twenty pages or so after everything else was finished, just to try to maintain a consistent look. What about you? I’m going to guess it’s God waving goodbye as the earth gets on the school bus.

Steven: Yes, I love that image of God waving goodbye to the world.  And the illustration of the defenestration is wonderful, really bold.  I also like the corpuscle in motion, roller-blading with headphones, in the section on Gassendi, and the image from the Newton chapter showing the earth and the moon being tugged toward each other by gravity as they hold on to the edges of the panel.  In the end, did you enjoy the experience of illustrating philosophy? It’s hard to do, and I think you did a brilliant job—but then again, I’m your father, and a little biased.

Nadler

Ben: Thanks, Dad! I did enjoy it, it was challenging and fun. I learned a lot about what makes a book come together. I especially liked researching and implementing all of the costume design and set pieces for 17th century Europe, it was a really immersive way to learn about western philosophy.

Steven Nadler is the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy and Evjue-Bascom Professor in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His books include Spinoza: A Life, which won the Koret Jewish Book Award, and Rembrandt’s Jews, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Ben Nadler, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, is an illustrator. They are the author and the illustrator of Heretics! The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy.

 

Nadler portraits