At the time of this writing I do not know how this comic book by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis relates to the film of the same title, and the same subject matter — a (somewhat fictionalized) biography of Alan Turing. The comic has a copyright date of 2016, which seems to preclude the possibility that latter adapts the former. I see that the words “comic” and “graphic” do not appear on the film’s Wikipedia page, and the book made no acknowledgment in the other direction. I avoid contaminating my thoughts about media I blog about here until the blogging’s done, so I’ll leave it as a curious coincidence for now.

I enjoyed this book! For some reason (perhaps based on what little I’ve heard about the movie) I expected something much less compelling than what I found. Specifically, I anticipated a story that would focus more on Turing’s personal life, building up to the circumstances of its premature ending, using his world-changing work only as backdrop. The book ends up paying far more attention to Turing the war-hero mathematician than Turing the tragedy, though, and I liked that. Granted, it does lay on the foreshadowing thick at its start — teenaged Turing seeing Snow White in the theater, presaging the inevitable final panels of the red apple by his bedside — but for the most part it keeps to its sources. It uses a frame that imagines interviews with the people who knew Turing best, mostly family and colleagues, their words based (from what I can gather) on the works listed in comic’s extensive bibliography.

This set of external lenses results in relatively little attention given to Turing’s loves or relationships, though still I learned enough to surprise me. Given the well-known circumstances of his death, I assumed heretofore he kept his homosexuality a shameful secret until its accidental public revelation after the war. The Turing of The Imitation Game, however, takes a stance that a modern person would call openly gay. The privations of World War II Britain, and Turing’s value as a national asset, seem to lead to tolerance for this: most of his colleagues at Bletchley treat his preference as a charming eccentricity, and at worst he receives a scolding from a particularly stuffy lab-mate for oversharing.

The only one of Turing’s lovers we “meet”, in the authors’ imagined interview-room, is the pretty but coarse low-life (or so he is here depicted) who leans on Turing’s post-war loneliness and naivety in a way that reveals their illegal relationship to the law, leading in turn to the final, sad chapter of Turing’s life. Other than him, a few implied boarding-school dalliances, and a brief and unsuccessful engagement with a female friend at Bletchley, this Turing seems to have little interest in romance or partnership. While he valued the companionship of many friends, those same friends paint a portrait of a man whose work and studies remained his true passions for this whole life, and I find myself respecting that man all the more for it.

On that topic, I found new appreciation for the difficulty, complexity, and cross-discipline teamwork involved in Turing’s famous feat of “cracking the Enigma code”. Another bit of received wisdom that this book massaged into a more realistic shape, for me: Turing did not create a single, elegant solution that neatly and permanently turned all intercepted German messages from gibberish to cleartext overnight. Rather, building on the work of those already hard at work at Bletchley when he arrived, he devised a machine — his “bombe” — that could, when used by cryptanalysts who still had to know what they were doing, brute-force through many possible decryptions at high speed. And more than once, the Germans would succeed in stifling the bombe’s efficacy by ratcheting up the Enigma’s own complexity, a situation solved in both cases by British sailors in the field risking everything to capture hardware and documentation from sinking submarines. While Turing’s invention absolutely played a critical role in this whole process, it certainly did not rest on his shoulders alone.

This is a good book. And now I will see what I think about the movie, perhaps.


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