Brain Drain (Parts 1 & 2)
Story and art: Pierre-Henry Gomont
Lettering: Cromatik, Ltd.
Translation: Edward Gauvin
Digital Editor: Dan Lockwood
Original Publisher: Dargaud-Lombard
Digital, English-Language Publisher: Europe Comics
7,49 €/book (~$9.03/book)
One of the symptoms of my prolonged case of 2020-itis has been my singular interest in reading non-fiction comics. From graphic memoirs about living and traveling abroad (thanks, 2020) to non-fiction accounts on the creation of the atom bomb (thanks, 2020), I have been using these comics as both an escape from and validation of my doom-scrolling. Brain Drain wasn’t meant to break this streak. This story, divided into two volumes for its English translation by Europe Comics, is based on the real-life theft of Albert Einstein’s brain by the man who performed his autopsy, Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey. Nevertheless, my expectations were flushed down the drain by taking me on a zany, energetic ride.
It is April 18th, 1955. Princeton Hospital’s resident pathologist, Thomas Stolz, is underachieving, unappreciated and all-around unimpressive. That is, until Stolz meets his destiny. “Destiny” here taking the form of Albert Einstein’s corpse: with the world’s (former) preeminent genius having just passed, Stolz is assigned to perform the autopsy. Standing before the remains of greatness, Stolz experiences his own eureka moment. He opens Einstein’s cranium and steals his brain in order to dissect it. By finding the scientific origins of genius, Stolz will earn respect, fame, and beautiful women. What Stolz actually gets is the reanimated Dr. Einstein, an agreement between the living thief and the dead genius, and the FBI and paparazzi at their heels. After recruiting neurologist Marianne Ruby, the trio will travel across Cold War America in search of genius.
Brain Drain’s own genius lies in its art. Pierre-Henry Gomont’s ink strokes are fluid and expressive. Stolz’s face and body are so elastic and energized that you would think he was a Looney Tunes character. The expressiveness pairs well with the action. From climbing trees to getting lost in a sanitarium, the action scenes are well-paced, well-drawn and just plain fun. My favorite action scene is in Part 1 where a car chase between Stolz & Einstein and the FBI is perfectly paced and hilarious. The backgrounds are equally well-done: I admired the detailed scenery as much as I did reading the background conversations of “Blah Blah Blah”. More than once did Brain Drain remind me of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat with its ink work and silliness. Gomont is a talented comedic storyteller, and as a skilled comics artist, he uses his art to reinforce the story’s message. The irreverent, cartoonish art underscores the story’s indifference towards the celebrity of genius. Rather than being a serious treatise on what genius means, Brain Drain focuses on the characters trying, failing, and questioning. Gomont’s characters are given human ambitions rather than divine answers. It is a smart call.
Returning to said “Blah Blah Blah”s, Brain Drain is a very noisy comics. Alongside the background conversations, the comics contains narration boxes and word balloons containing onomatopeias or cartoons. There can be a lot of textual and visual information on the page, though Gomont does sometimes pull back on the visual noise. Still, I wished certain pages focused more on the artwork and less on the preamble. The abundance of words does not mean Brain Drain is a plot-first story. For a road trip story, there is very little time on the road. While Part 1 introduces our characters and conflict, Part 2 spends most of its page count in one setting. Brain Drain’s lack of travel doesn’t particularly bother me, but it does mean that plot points and character arcs can be resolved off-panel.
The FBI agents, an antagonistic threat in Part 1, disappear from the story after our heroes pick up Ruby. The third-person narrator tells us it is because of the Cold War, yet to lose such a driving force of Part 1 so suddenly was odd. Equally sudden was the conclusion to Ruby’s character arc. After leaving partway through Part 2, she is given a few panels and an explanation of what becomes of her. This disappointed me; she offered a unique dynamic as the promising newcomer constantly belittled for her attractiveness and gender. She is articulate and passionate when discussing her research and the struggle she faces as a woman scientist in 1950s America. A main character’s closure being told, rather than shown, was a bit of a letdown. That said, Gomont does a wonderful job in portraying Stolz and Einstein’s relationship.
Stolz and Einstein never discover the nature of genius, but they do form a sincere friendship. Witnessing the fame-hungry, cheating thief care for Einstein as a person rather than a meal ticket is sweet. Einstein is (unsurprisingly) the standout character of Brain Drain. Even with half a head, he is indeed “an easy-going, misty-eyed old fellow”, as Gomont describes him in his postscript. Einstein as a person is who we see in this story. He is a sweet old man wanting to return to his research and understand his own greatness. It is a humanizing portrayal that makes the final scene of Brain Drain touching. I wasn’t expecting to be moved by this outlandish story and its outlandish characters, but I was.
Of the well over a dozen Europe Comics titles I’ve read, I’ve never read a bad one. Brain Drain offers an art style and humor underrepresented in the American comics market. This story may not be for every reader: its abundance of and lack of conclusiveness in plot and character arcs is not for everyone. Personally, the art, comedy and touching ending won me over. Therefore, I do recommend Brain Drain so long as you purchase both volumes (the story is neither complete nor satisfying without both books). I was taken on an unexpected, fun ride out of my ennui. Brain Drain is a good trip worth sharing with friends.
Both Brain Drain: Part 1 and Brain Drain: Part 2 are available for purchase now.