Fantastical Fake Machines, Rendered With a Historian's Eye for Detail

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The new book Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention tells of steampunk adventures using meticulously crafted, faux-documentary imagery.

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Kate Reade's airship Aegis, en route to the North Pole to rescue survivors of the ill-fated Italia expedition, 1928.

Boilerplate, the Gilded Age's steam-powered mechanical man, a veritable steampunk god, debuted in Anina Bennet and Paul Guinan's 2010 illustrated fict-umentary tome titled, Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel (Abrams Image). So incredible is this retro-robotic invention that he is arguably giving the beloved Robbie the Robot, from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, a run for its money as the most exotic metal-made character since L. Frank Baum's Tin Man. Now, Bennett and Guinan have unveiled a sequel that is just as mind-tweaking and ironic, the faux historical biography, Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention (Abrams Image), a profusely illustrated chronicle of a dime-novel protagonist whose steam-powered, cast-iron machines take him on fantastical exploits over land, sea and air throughout some of the most untamed corners of the world.

The book's allure owes everything to its deadpan prose and hundreds of perfectly faked photos and graphics that replicate mass-media and commercial ephemera of the Victorian era—the result of immersive research. "When we're working on books with historical content, we spend a lot of time looking at images and text from the periods we're inhabiting," Bennett explains. "Many of the images in Boilerplate and Frank Reade are vintage graphics that Paul restored and, in most cases, altered. I occasionally quoted text from real sources, adding a line or two about our fictional subjects. The history is largely accurate, outside of our main characters. All of that helps create an authentic vibe."

The duo also worked closely with their graphic designers to make sure the images and text flowed in the right rhythm. On Frank Reade they partnered with Martin Venezky, who says this was "the most complicated design project I've ever taken on. Of course the trick is not to make it look complicated, but intricate and inviting: fluid and naturally unfolding."

Guinan explains he has a sharp eye for this material because, like a feral boy of sorts, he was raised by visual artists, "which gives me a built-in advantage. I drew comics, made models and dioramas, and watched sci fi TV as a kid." He pursued filmmaking in art school, which combines two of his favorite disciplines: photography and production design. Bennett went to film school around the same time. "But this was before the digital revolution," Guinan adds, "and film is expensive, so we both wound up doing movies on paper in the form of graphic novels," which contain original scale models, photography, digital effects, drawing, sculpture, and painting.

"It's as if we stumbled across an obscure character called Sherlock Holmes and had the opportunity to resurrect him."

For Boilerplate, the adventures of a mechanical soldier in the Victorian era, Guinan built a 12-inch-tall, articulated model of the robot. For Frank Reade, whose protagonist adventures on land, sea, and air, he built models of an electric battle-wagon, gunboat, and airship. Each model took him a week or two to build. Then he inserted them into old photos, matching the film grain, color, lighting, and so forth.

Boilerplate also features props, such as souvenir ribbons, honorary plaques, and an assortment of toys and figurines to show that the robot had been marketed. It adds to the verisimilitude. "In illustrated biographies, I always get a kick out of seeing photos of the subject's pocket watch or spittoon," Guinan says.

When Guinan conceived Boilerplate back in 1999, and started posting images online the following year, he didn't think of it as a steampunk story: "When Anina and I worked on the book together, we treated it as historical fiction. The robot is the only steampunk-ish element." Frank Reade, on the other hand, fully embraces the aesthetic, and is based on a forgotten legacy of American science fiction. While researching 19th-century robots for Boilerplate, Guinan stumbled across the Steam Man and its inventor, Frank Reade, in dime novels from the 1880s. Frank Reade Library was the first science fiction periodical in the world. "We're reprinting restored illustrations from these dime novels, unseen for more than a century, which today look like quintessential steampunk," he says. "They were going for a look that at the time could have been called 'futuristic,' but now the imagery has come full circle!"

Bennett adds, "We consider the 19th-century Frank Reade dime-novel tales to be the lost ancestor of steampunk. They're full of fantastic inventions, including the first known helicopter airships in science fiction—predating Jules Verne's Captain Robur. I'm stunned that Frank Reade has been largely forgotten. Our 'real-life' version of the Frank Reade family is equally inventive, and the book is packed with steampunky engravings of robots, airships, and the like. We're excited about our take on this icon from another era. It's as if we stumbled across an obscure character called Sherlock Holmes and had the opportunity to resurrect him."

Although there is a Wild Wild West echo in Frank Reade, for Guinan this steampunk precursory TV series "was flat, and the movie was flat-out terrible." But another sci-fi western, the 1973 Michael Crichton film Westworld, was a big influence. "The realization that you could combine those two genres blew my little kid mind," he says. "That's what initially drew me to Frank Reade. A lot of the early stories are westerns with sci fi gizmos. I prefer to watch, read, and tell stories outside the contemporary world I live in, set in either the future or the past. I like science fiction, and I like history. So a story that takes place in the past, with fantastic but limited technologies, is very compelling to me."

Specific influences are the Philip José Farmer books Tarzan Alive and Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which are presented as "biographies" of fictional characters, as if they had actually lived. Also the works of Gore Vidal and George MacDonald Fraser, whose fictional protagonists move through meticulously researched historical periods.

Initially Guinan wanted to do the Reade family biography before Boilerplate. Bennett, however, insisted that Frank Reade first appear as a rival inventor in Boilerplate. "I created the main characters and Anina fleshed them out," Guinan says. "The stories are entirely plot-driven, with very little characterization, so Anina had a lot of creative latitude in writing the characters as real people. She wrote most of the main text and edited all the dime-novel excerpts. I wrote most of the sidebars and captions, with her editing help, and I restored or altered hundreds of images."

Developing the Frank Reade character required that Bennett ensure Frank Reade Jr. was different from Archie Campion, Boilerplate's inventor, who is socially progressive. "We wanted to loosely base him on the dime-novel version of Frank Reade, who is an unabashedly imperialist adventurer. Our version of Frank Reade uses his talents primarily for personal gain and/or government service, and he has a deep childhood secret that shapes the course of his life. His story is told from the point of view of his daughter, Kate, who discovers his secret journal after his death and sets out to learn about her father's life. She became my favorite character in the book."

Consistent with the mores and verities of turn of the century pulp publishing, racist depictions are common. Bennett says she tried not to satirize them, "so much as to depict racism straightforwardly through the characters' attitudes." Frank Reade's best friend is a black man named Pompei, for instance, who's a capable mechanic and pilot, and who repeatedly saves Frank's life, yet Frank will never see him as an equal. "It's the natural order of things, as far as Frank is concerned. He's even oblivious as to why Pompei—whose parents were lynched after the Civil War—gets upset when Frank helps the U.S. Marines invade and occupy Haiti, a former slave colony that had fought its way to freedom."

Guinan's interest in military history is pronounced and is the underlying agenda of this book. "If I've learned anything from my research, it's that in order to salvage our democracy, the United States needs to stop behaving like an empire. Interfering with the affairs of other nations inevitably creates long-lasting animosity against our country, and then we wonder why we're disliked in the world. I think Gene Roddenberry was onto something with Star Trek's 'Prime Directive' of noninterference." Still, the overarching mission in Boilerplate and Frank Reade is to make history entertaining, "bringing to light obscure aspects of history, important subjects that we all should know more about."

What does the future hold for both duos, Bennett and Guinan and Boilerplate and Frank Read? "We're hoping to tell more stories set in the Boilerplate/Frank Reade universe, starting with Kate Reade's high-tech spy adventures in the Pacific during the 1930s," Bennett shares. "I'd like to do that one as a combination of illustrated prose and comic book sections." And Guinan is even more ambitious. "Another project is a coffee table art book reprinting 19th-century newspaper engravings, which depict assorted crimes and other lurid topics. I came across a trove of these true-crime illustrations that haven't been published for more than a hundred years! They represent the dawn of 'pictorial journalism,' which is practically the only kind we've got now."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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