They_Change_the_World_CoverThey were arguably the greatest minds of their generation. Their work revolutionized light, sound, and energy by providing the foundations for the twentieth century’s rapid technology evolution; much of the world as we now know it would not exist without their genius. Yet for many today, they are merely names in a history book: Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla, and Alexander Graham Bell. If asked about them, most might recall Edison as the inventor of the light bulb or Bell as the father of the telephone. Tesla, certainly their peer in genius, is even lesser known to today’s young readers. This graphic novel seeks to change that, to introduce these men and their remarkable work in science and technology to the children of the twenty-first century.

Even potential readers uninterested in the sciences might be inspired to pick up They Changed the World, drawn in by its strikingly beautiful cover. Blues, blacks, and greys shot through with the brilliant white of an electric bolt, highlight nearly photorealistic portraits of the three inventors, with Tesla given center billing, flanked by Edison and Bell. Helfand has clearly done his research; They Changed the World is very informative, offering a wealth of detail on not only the work but the early lives and families of the great inventors. His facts are accurate and age-appropriate, and he includes not only the character strengths but the flaws of each man, their successes and their failures. Footnotes are used to define unfamiliar words or to add more information, and all three men are given equal coverage as their lives are explored and given historical, economic, and social context. Indeed, the equality with which Tesla is included is unusual in many scientific histories. Helfand entwines these life stories in a rough chronology, showing how their lives and careers progressed in parallel and perpendicular ways, but the abrupt transition from life to life can be jarring and may confuse younger readers more accustomed to a simpler storyline.

Kumar’s art provides a visual backdrop for the story, though it does not match the magnetic appeal of the book’s cover. That sense of drama is replaced with a more subdued look that seems intended to provide a pictorial historical context and to reflect the primarily industrial conditions in which these men labored. Moments of drama do appear, though. The fire that destroys Tesla’s lab is visually powerful, its vivid orange popping off the page and brilliantly capturing the apocalyptic scale of the inventor’s loss. It is also important to note there are some images that may be unexpected and disturbing to some readers, in particular a man in an electric chair, a dog being brought to a public stage for electrocution, and Bell firing bullets into a slab of meat.

They Changed the World is a solid work of graphic scientific history, and one that is likely to appeal to the minds of budding scientists and engineers, particularly if they notice the Build Your Own Telephone instructions included in the appendix. The work might also find classroom use for teachers looking to engage student interest in this important era of scientific history.

They Changed the World: Edison, Tesla, and Bell
by Lewis Helfand
Art by Naresh Kumar
ISBN: 9789380741871
Campfire, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

  • Beth Rogers

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Beth Rogers is Coordinator of Reference, Instruction, and Outreach at the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library at West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she has worked to introduce and develop the library’s graphic novel collection. Also a part-time lecturer in English, Beth has taught courses on graphic novels for college students, lead book discussions on graphic novels including Watchmen and American-Born Chinese, and guest lectured on superheroes in American culture. She also maintains a book review blog, Do I Wanna Read THAT?!?!? When she’s not working, Beth enjoys action movies, knitting wee Avengers, and spoiling her dog.

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