The husband-and-wife comic-creating team of Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett scored a hit a few years ago with Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel, the fictional history of an extraordinary machine that interacted with many real-world events.
After scoring rave reviews and an option for a film version of Boilerplate by Hollywood heavy J.J. Abrams, Guinan and Bennett are back with another fictional history, Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention, a tale of a less-mechanical but no-less-extraordinary hero that just hit bookstores. We spoke with Guinan and Bennett about their new book, updates on the Boilerplate movie, and more.Newsarama: Guys, tell us about Frank Reade and his adventures.
Anina Bennett: Frank Reade Jr. is loosely based on a 19th-century dime novel hero, a brilliant inventor who builds fantastic vehicles—armed electric land rovers, airships, submarines, and robots—and travels the world with them. He's also cheerfully imperialistic, helping to quell rebellious natives, raiding ancient artifacts, and scooping up treasure at any opportunity.
Our version is pretty true to that, but I fleshed out him and his family into real people who take part in real historical events. Frank Jr.'s father and his kids are inventors too. Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention is the family's illustrated biography, stretching from the American Civil War to the 1930s. It's told through the eyes of the daughter, Kate Reade, who discovers her father's secret journal after his death.
Nrama: What was the initial inspiration for this book?
Paul Guinan: Back in 2000 or so, while researching 19th-century robots for the early Boilerplate web site, I was Googling phrases like “mechanical man.” That's how I stumbled across the fictional Steam Man and its inventor, Frank Reade, in dime novels from the 1870s. I was blown away by the elaborate, action-packed cover illustrations of science fiction vehicles!
This character was so popular that he got his own series in the 1890s: Frank Reade Library, the first science fiction periodical in the world. In addition to our own new stories, we're reprinting restored artwork from the dime novels, unseen for more than a hundred years.
It's an all but forgotten legacy of American science fiction—hardly anyone outside of collectors and academicians knows about Frank Reade. I knew I wanted to resurrect the character, but we needed more source material than I had at the time.Nrama: What sort of research did you have to do for this book, and did you discover any historical facts or illustrations that surprised you throughout this process?
Bennett: We both did extensive research on specific events we wanted to include, as well as general research on the period and the settings. I also researched the language to make sure I got it right in the family's journal and letter excerpts.
One thing that surprised me is how many times the U.S. invaded and occupied Central American nations between the Civil War and WWII. I remember being a teenager during the Reagan administration in the 1980s, when the United States was backing the Contras against the Nicaraguan government, and not understanding why that region was so “troubled.”
Well, now I know that the U.S. has invaded Nicaragua multiple times and occupied it from 1912 to 1933. It's hard to blame them for holding a grudge.
Guinan: On the visual side, I had to find or create all the images for our stories. Plus I scanned and restored hundreds of dime novel illustrations from my own collection and that of Joe Rainone, who is the top collector of Frank Reade and other vintage periodicals.
I discovered that in the later color covers, the helicopter airships' “helices,” which house rotor blades, were mistakenly colored in to look like cocktail umbrellas. So I fixed them digitally.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge in making this distinct from Boilerplate?Bennett: First off, Frank Reade was far more complicated because it involves three generations of characters, over a much longer time span than Boilerplate's 25 years. Beyond that, I wanted to not only make Frank Jr. a totally different character from Boilerplate's inventor, but also give the book a faster pace and livelier tone. Frank Reade is written as the biography of a very adventurous family, whereas Boilerplate is more like a pop history book.
Guinan: Frank Jr. is friends with Archie Campion, who created Boilerplate, and they make cameos in each other's books. I love how Anina portrays them as politically opposite—Campion is progressive, Reade is reactionary—yet lifelong pals. Frank Reade is the Stephen Colbert to Campion's Jon Stewart.
For me, the biggest issue was probably that I had much less time on Frank Reade, yet needed to produce just as many images. It was also challenging to figure out how to visually portray the various family members as real people, since I couldn't just build them the way I did with Boilerplate.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing an entire alternate history of popular culture, sort of a Boiler-verse with Boilerplate, Frank, etc.?
Guinan: We'd love to do more stories set in the “Boiler-verse,” but at this point we have no plans to take it past the 1930s. One of the stories we want to tell next is Kate Reade's adventures as a super-science spy in the Pacific, during the run-up to WWII. Dieselpunk!
Nrama: What was your collaborative process like on this book?Bennett: I wrote most of the main narrative and edited all the reprinted dime novel excerpts. Paul wrote most of the sidebars and captions, and he restored or altered hundreds of images. He built physical models of three vehicles—an electric gunboat, battle-wagon, and helicopter airship—and digitally inserted them into vintage images to represent the “real” Reade family's inventions. And we both worked closely with the graphic designer to lay out the book. That's the simple version.
Working out the plot and the family's timeline was a complicated process. Early on, Paul set a few key dates and events in the Reades' lives: Frank Sr. builds ironclads in the Civil War, Frank Jr. travels to the Belgian Congo and fights in the Banana Wars, Frank III flies with the Lafayette Escadrille in WWI, and Kate does espionage work against the Japanese during the years before WWII.
Guinan: Anina and I then added more dates and events, including a couple of Boilerplate crossovers, and she miraculously figured out how to weave it all together with a believable backstory, motivations, and character arcs. Although we're dealing with preexisting characters, the dime novel stories are entirely plot-driven, so she had a lot of creative latitude in writing the characters as real people.
Nrama: What are some of your all-time favorite pulp adventure novels?Guinan: I loved the Doc Savage books, as well as 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. Those were definitely a big influence on Boilerplate and Frank Reade.
Bennett: I confess I never read pulp novels, but I read tons of Golden Age science fiction as a kid. I also watched any science fiction programming I could find on TV, including old Flash Gordon serials. I read pulp characters in comic book form much later, like The Shadow and Jon Carter: Warlord of Mars.
Our mutual favorite touchstone for adventure stories is The Man Who Would Be King, a Rudyard Kipling yarn that was the basis of a smashing John Huston film starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. We made it Frank Jr.'s favorite adventure tale too.
Nrama: Any updates you can give us on the Boilerplate film?
Guinan: J.J. Abrams is still planning to produce it, and we're still totally stoked. He took pitches from a number of screenwriters, and toward the end of last year Paramount announced that it had hired John D. Payne and Patrick McKay. They wrote Goliath, which is slated for 2013 release by Relativity.
Nrama: What's next for you?Bennett: The Kate Reade adventure that Paul mentioned, Kate's Commandos, is on our short list. Another project, which came out of his research into early periodicals, is a coffee table art book reprinting 19th-century newspaper engravings of crimes and other lurid topics.
Like the Frank Reade engravings, these true-crime illustrations haven’t been published for more than a century! They're the first wave of “pictorial journalism,” which of course evolved into photojournalism and TV news.
Guinan: We also have other projects percolating away, individually and together, but it's too early to talk about those. You'll have to wait until our next book comes out!
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
Guinan: If readers are curious about our work but reluctant to commit to two hardcovers, they can get a taste of Boilerplate and Frank Reade in our Eisner-nominated team-up graphic novel, Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate. You can find it on our web site, www.BigRedHair.com.
Experience Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention in stores now.