Books

'The Case of Alan Turing' Gives the Enigma Project the Graphic Treatment

This treatment focuses not just on the technical matters of encryption, but also on the human factors that may prove decisive in breaking a code.


The Case of Alan Turing: The Extraordinary and Tragic Story of the Legendary Codebreaker

Publisher: Arsenal Pulp
Length: 102 pages
Author: Eric Liberge, Arnaud Delalande
Price: $23.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-11
Amazon

Nearly everyone has heard the name Alan Turing by now, thanks in no small part to the 2014 film The Imitation Game, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Before the film, there was Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 stage play Breaking the Code, filmed for television in 1996, as well as numerous books about Turing, including Andrew Hodge’s Alan Turing: The Enigma.

But as so often happens when a historical figure becomes a pop icon, something gets left out in the process, and forcing Turing’s life into the familiar mold of the tortured genius is reductive and misleading. A new graphic novel, The Case of Alan Turing (published in French in 2015 as Le Cas Alan Turing) offers a fuller portrait of Turing as a human being while also honoring his many intellectual accomplishments.

Reading the subtitle of the English translation of this book, “The extraordinary and tragic story of the legendary codebreaker”, might lead you to expect another version of the “genius driven to suicide” tale. Fortunately, that’s not the case, and while Liberge and Delalande don’t neglect the tragic (and unjust) aspects of Turing’s life, they are far more interested in what he did with his life than how he ended it. Everyone knows that Turing was a genius, of course, and that his incredible talents and hard work played a crucial role in the Allied efforts to break the German Enigma code during World War II. Beyond that, Turing was also an accomplished athlete, a devoted son, a loyal friend, and a sexual being, with an active sex life both in reality and in his fantasies.

The narrative of The Case of Alan Turing begins and ends (except for a brief coda involving Steve Jobs) on the night of Turing’s suicide, in 1954, about two years after his conviction for indecency and subsequent chemical castration. The story then takes the first of many jumps in time, leaping back to 1938 and the German annexation of Austria, followed by the British efforts to establish a team to decrypt German communications. Turing was recruited for the team, despite his reputations as being “hard to manage”, and work on the Enigma project constitutes the main story of the text, with many jumps backward and forward in time, coupled with flashbacks within sections filling in bits of Turing’s childhood. This technique gives the impression that the past was always present in his mind and actions, with particular emphasis given to Turing’s intense friendship with Christopher Morcom, a fellow student at The Sherborne School. Morcom died young (a consequence of drinking milk infected with bovine tuberculosis), but remained in Turing’s thoughts throughout his life.

The text, by Arnaud Delalande (translated by David Homel) combines portrayal of historical events with excerpts from Turing’s journals and letters. The latter give the reader access to Turing’s thoughts, from his musings on the origins of human thought to his conflicts over his sexual desires. Eric Liberge’s art employs both realistic depiction of people and places and impressionistic collages that create a context for Turing’s story (reminding us of the urgency of the code-breaking project due to the world being at war, for instance) while also interpreting Turing’s thoughts and desires, thus making this book more than just a recital of historical facts.

Color is a key element in Liberge’s art -- he employs a largely muted palette, with pure black often a strong element within individual frames, suggesting the shadow under which Turing was forced to live his life. Careful attention to detail, particularly in the frames showing Turing and his crew working on the primitive computers of the day, grounds the story in historical fact and will delight electronics nerds everywhere.

A nine-page illustrated essay by historian Bruno Fuligni, “The Cryptography War”, provides an overview of steganography (“hidden writing”, such as messages written in invisible ink), cryptography (“enciphered writing”) and the Enigma project. It’s a fitting complement to The Case of Alan Turing, focusing not just on technical matters of encryption, but also on the human factors that may prove decisive in breaking a code. One key in breaking the Enigma code, for example, was the willingness of a disgruntled German encryption clerk, Hans-Thilo Schmidt, to accept a payment of 10,000 marks in return for allowing French agents to photograph two technical manuals for the Enigma machine. Obtained in 1931, this information was shared with Poland, whose cipher service in turn shared the results of their analysis of the Enigma process with the French and British in 1939.

Fuligni notes that the first modern computers were produced for military use as part of the fight against Nazi Germany. Subsequent developments in computing have transformed people’s lives in ways that no one could have anticipated back in the '30s. Some of these transformations are benign, e.g., I wrote this review on a computer weighing less than three pounds, and will submit it for publication over the Internet (no paper, no postage, no fuss). Other transformations may have mixed or negative effects, depending on where you are positioned in relation to them. For example, thanks in part to computers, current methods of mass surveillance allow governments (and other organizations) to track the words and activities of millions of individuals simultaneously, giving them powers that the agents assigned to spy on Turing could scarcely have imagined. There’s an irony in that, according to Fuligni, whose essay ends with this sentence: “The new generation of secret agents must reacquaint themselves with archaic techniques to escape the giant sweep of intelligence gathering -- that got its start in the struggle against totalitarianism…”.

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