A Robot From an Alternate History Visits Our World

A Robot From an Alternate History Visits

Veteran comics creator Paul Guinan achieved an unusual cult following by crafting a series of faked historical documents and images depicting a robot named Boilerplate.  The mechanical man earned a huge following from historical buffs, online fans, and even a place in a parody of historical thrillers.  Now, Boilerplate finally gets his due with a new collection, Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel from Abrams Image that came out on Oct.1.  We chatted with Guinan about his fabulous hoax, whose  history you can read <a href=http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate/index.html>online here</a>.

Newsarama:  Paul, or those unaware of the famed robot, give us a brief history of Boilerplate.

Paul Guinan: Boilerplate was a mechanical soldier invented by Professor Archibald Campion in 1893. Built for the self-proclaimed purpose of “preventing the deaths of men in the conflicts of nations,” Campion’s Mechanical Marvel charged into combat alongside such notable historic figures as Teddy Roosevelt and Lawrence of Arabia.

The robot had adventures around the world: it reached the South Pole, saved Pancho Villa’s life, fought in the Boxer Rebellion in China, made silent movies, and hobnobbed with the likes of Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla.

Nrama: What will this collection include?

Guinan: The entire 25-year biography of Boilerplate, from its unveiling at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago to its mysterious disappearance during World War I.

The book includes photos, drawings, paintings, posters, and even toys of the robot to illustrate its story. It’s a hardbound coffee-table tome designed to look like a popular history book—and most of the history is accurate, except for one robot.

Nrama: What techniques have you used to create the Boilerplate images?

Guinan: I built an articulated figurine of the robot, then photographed it and inserted it into vintage images using Photoshop, matching the lighting and image quality. 

For some images, I hand-drew the robot into an existing illustration.  Others were drawn or painted from scratch.  Easy as soufflé.

Nrama: The character has really caught on -- why do you feel so many people have been convinced Boilerplate was real?

Guinan: People want to believe it’s real. Pictures don’t lie, right?  There’s also the thrill of discovering something novel, coupled with a widespread lack of historical knowledge.

As to Boilerplate’s popularity, I like to joke that it’s all due to the big round eyes—they have timeless appeal, as seen from Disney to anime.  It’s right in line with Scott McCloud’s theory that characters drawn with simplified facial features invite audience identification.  The robot is a blank slate, a cipher, on which each person imprints their own conceptions.

Nrama: And there's the Chris Elliott incident -- would you share this odd footnote in Boilerplate's history with our readers?

Guinan: Some of the material in Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel has been on our web site for while and attracted a large following.  In 2005, Boilerplate turned up as a character in Chris Elliott’s Victorian mystery spoof novel . I’ll let the New York Times tell the tale (<a href=http://www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate/nytimes.html>Read their coverage here</a>)

Nrama: What sort of research have you done for Boilerplate?

Guinan: Extensive.  Lots.  Tons.  Everything in this book is accurate—from the Great Chicago Fire to the Russo-Japanese War—except for the robot and its inventor, of course.  Boilerplate doesn’t change history, it merely participates. 

My wife and co-author, Anina Bennett, had a great time immersing ourselves in history.  For starters, we created a timeline of all the events the robot could’ve participated in from 1893 to 1918.  Then we narrowed it down to the ones we most wanted to cover and figured out how to weave in Campion and Boilerplate.  We tried to find plausible reasons for their involvement, such as Winston Churchill sending them to assist Lawrence of Arabia.

In the end, we had to jettison some stories to save space and others because they were logistically impossible.  For example, aside from Boilerplate, other technology is historically accurate, so it takes a long time to travel internationally.  There were no overnight flights to Europe or Asia.

Nrama: What is your favorite historical hoax?

Guinan: It has to be the Turk—Wolfgang von Kempelen’s chess-playing mechanical man, created in 1770.  The automaton was attached to a cabinet with a chessboard on top and panels that could be opened to allow inspection of what were supposedly its inner workings.   

The Turk toured the world for decades, wowing crowds and playing chess matches with famous figures from Benjamin Franklin to Napoleon Bonaparte.  After von Kempelen’s death in 1804, the Turk was purchased by Johann Maelzel, who continued to demonstrate it.

Eventually, it was revealed that the Turk was operated by a person hidden inside the cabinet. With Maelzel’s death in 1838, the hoax finally came to an end, having lasted more than sixty years.

Nrama: What has been the most unusual/flattering reaction to Boilerplate for you?

Guinan: The cultural spectrum of interest, from local papers to Russian magazines and Japanese blogs, is flattering.  The wide variety of age, ethnicity, and class among fans is unusual.  As a movie buff, I’m pleased to have Hollywood come a-knocking. 

Amazon.com picked Boilerplate as one of the Best of 2009, and retailers like Powell’s and Borders are already praising it, even before the book’s release!  The whole situation is unusual and flattering for us, really.

Nrama: What else is coming up for you?

Guinan: The book’s release on October 1 has kept me busy with Boilerplate-related projects, marketing, and merchandise.  There is a possible Boilerplate spinoff book in the works, as well as the aforementioned potential for a Boilerplate movie or TV program.  I can’t think about much else right now—I’ve got Boilerplate on the brain!

Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

Guinan: The Eisner-nominated Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate graphic novel that I did with Anina has gone back to press for a second printing.  I recolored the book and added new and upgraded Boilerplate graphics.  Anina was able to tweak some of the text and fix a few technical problems with the design that had been bugging her for years.  A much improved edition!

Anina and I will be guests at  <a href=ttp://www.steam-con.com>Steamcon</a> in Seattle, October 23-25, a few weeks after the book comes out.  It is my great honor to have been selected as Artist Guest of Honor.  Steampunk, for those who may still be wondering, is a fast-growing subculture whose adherents dress like they’re in a Jules Verne movie.

It began as a literary genre and is still centered around science fiction with Victorian elements.  Now there are steampunk bands, jewelers, vehicles, you name it.  The level of craft and imagination involved in the costumes, accessories, and scenarios is impressive.  I’d say the subculture now has a permanent foothold, like hippies and hip-hopsters, goths and grungers.  I think we’ll be seeing goggles and gears for years to come.

Finally, a big thanks to all of Boilerplate’s fans and friends who’ve made the robot real.  Visit Campion’s Mechanical Marvel in the 21st century at  <a href=http://www.BoilerplateRobot.com>www.BoilerplateRobot.com</a>, the Boilerplate Historical Society on Facebook, or <a href=http://www.twitter.com/boilerplate1893>@boilerplate1893</a> on twitter!

<i>Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel streams into stores on Oct.1.

Zack Smith (zack.zacharymsmith@gmail.com) is a regular contributor to Newsarama.</i>

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