Following up 2009’s “Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel,” which inserted the titular robot into turn-of-the-20th-century America, the husband and wife team of Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett return with another alternate history tale from Abrams Image. “Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention” resurrects the family of heroes first introduced in the pages of boys’ magazines in 1868, which rose to even greater fame during the late 1880s and 1890s in the pages of dime novels under the banner “Frank Reade Library.”
The original Frank Reade was created by Harry Enton, while Louis Senarens (under the pseudonym “Noname”) picked up the reins with that character’s son, Frank Reade, Jr. Both were inventors and adventurers of the highest order, creating steam men, fantastic flying machine, and improbably electric gadgets to aid them on thrilling expeditions and patriotic missions — with, of course, all of the subtlety and nuance that juvenile literature of the time entailed.
Guinan and Bennett’s new book is a multigenerational tale, with Frank, Jr. taking center stage much as he did in the source material, though his story is filtered through the perspective of his daughter, Kate. Like “Boilerplate,” the book is not what would normally be called a graphic novel, but rather combines text with photography and archival materials, the images altered to add the fictitious characters into real-world events or otherwise Photoshopped to fit a narrative.
With “Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention” in stores now, Comic Book Resources spoke with Guinan and Bennett about their latest project.
CBR News: Paul and Anina, before we get into talking about the new book, I’m hoping you can give us a quick update on the “Boilerplate” movie, which is set up with JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot — where does that stand at this point?
Paul Guinan: They recently hired screenwriters. We have yet to sit down and have a meeting about specifically what the storyline will be. It’ll be a process of picking, outside of the origin, of course, which adventures to depict.
Anina Bennett: They went through a process of talking to a whole series of screenwriters. These guys are the ones who made it past JJ, so we’re eager to hear what their take on the story is going to be. But the fact that screenwriters have been officially hired, and it’s been officially announced in the trade press means that it is at last moving forward.
For your follow up, why did you choose to draw from the old “Frank Reade” dime novels?
Guinan: I stumbled across the “Frank Reade” dime novels around the time I that I conceived the Boilerplate character, around 2000. I was doing research on automatons in the 19th century for “Boilerplate” and I stumbled across these references to “steam men,” and it turned out they were part of this “Frank Reade” dime novel series. Beyond steam men, this guy invented land, sea, and air vehicles, he would travel around the world, treasure hunting, discovering lost civilizations, etc. I just got tremendously thrilled by it — so much so that I wanted to do the Frank Reade book fist!
Bennett: Yeah, and you were thrilled by the illustrations and the concept rather than the text of the dime novels. Once you took a look at the text…
Guinan: Yes. The reasons for Frank Reade being completely forgotten are obvious once you read these stories. They’re not only badly written, but from our perspective they’re also racist and imperialist. And they deal with technology that, by World War I, had become obsolete. The idea of land war-chariot armored vehicles became tanks, and heli-carriers, the reality of it was fixed-wing aircraft and dirigibles. So by World War I, people thought of “Frank Reade” as not only juvenile but also old fashioned.
You highlight the imperialism and idea of “manifest destiny” in the sidebars, and of course the racism of the original is apparent. You flesh out the character quite a bit, but was it difficult to make Frank, Jr. a sympathetic character?
Bennett: That was, in a way, one of the biggest challenges, but also the most fun. I knew from the start that we didn’t want to make him too different from the dime novel character, but the dime novel character, from our perspective, is pretty unsympathetic — not a good trait for the protagonist of our book. I also wanted Frank Reade to be notably different from Boilerplate’s inventor, Archie Campion, who ends up being socially progressive. We based him pretty closely on the dime novel character in the sense that he goes off on these adventures in far-off lands and kind of thinks of brown people as being a little bit lesser than him. He has no hesitation about picking gold out of any mine that he stumbles across, [stealing] ancient artifacts from Egypt — and yet we had to give him some kind of inner life. That’s part of the reason I chose to make his daughter the point of view character and using the device of having her find his secret journal after he dies and getting to know him posthumously. He was a really fun character fun to write, and it was fun to write the political arguments between him and Archie Campion.
In the end, we decided that our sort of short hand for [how to write] those characters and the way we treated their adventures, in political context, is that Boilerplate is like “The Daily Show” and Frank Reade is like “The Colbert Report.” We’re putting on this persona to makes some of the same points.
How would you describe the character of Frank Reade, Jr., both in your story and in the original “Frank Reade Library?”
Guinan: The big difference is, in the dime novel stories, the character is unabashed, he’s completely unapologetic. Also, they really emphasized his youth. Even though the series ran for decades, it’s one of those things like Superman where he’s always a specific age.
Bennett: He’s purely heroic, and his superiority to all the people who work for him is absolutely unquestioned. He’s always the smartest guy in the room, and he’s always the calmest even though he loves adventure. But he’s really a pretty thin character. All of the characters in the dime novels are pretty two-dimensional. So that was where the challenge was, to try to flesh them out into real people.
Guinan: Right. All of the stories, none of them had any kind of through-line. There wasn’t any kind of overall arc, every one of these dime novels was completely standalone. And often they would be contradictory. In one installment, he would have a wife back home, in another she wouldn’t be mentioned.
Bennett: It’s interesting, I recently found out they tried later in one of the reprint series to construct kind of a continuity between these Frank Reade stories, between Frank Reade, Sr., and Frank Reade, Jr., and try to transition from steam-powered robots to the electric vehicles, but that was sort of the extent of the continuity. And sometimes Readetown is near Chicago, sometimes it’s near New York. We had to iron all that out. A lot of the work went into the timeline and figuring out where they live. We just had to make executive decisions about that kind of stuff.
Guinan: At the same time, we had specific events that we wanted to deal with, that were important to us. It wasn’t so much shoehorning our history into the character’s story, but we would discover dime novel plots that we could jump off of. For instance, he goes to Central Africa. So in our history, we were able to talk about the realities of the Belgian Free Congo without it seeming like “Where’s this coming from?” out of left field.
Bennett: Our version is a little bit more self-reflective — well, a lot more self-reflective — although nobody knows that until after he dies. So our version of the character, from the perspective of other characters in the story, comes off a lot like the dime novel character, but through these letters and journals we try to reveal the inner life and think about, well, what would this inventor-adventurer persona really be like on the inside?
Guinan: You always hear stories about actors who are playing villains not regarding them as villains, not playing them that way. Even though Frank Reade from a modern perspective might be a villain, we tried to portray him as he would have been perceived at the time, as a hero.
Frank, Jr.’s children, Kate Reade and Frank III, both follow in their father’s footsteps, though in different ways. As the technology advances, how do the children’s perspectives reflect the changing world?
Guinan: Both the kids are not as down with the motivations of their father, to treasure hunt or to bring enlightenment to the darker corners of the world. They’re much more interested in the technology that’s exploding around them at the time. Frank III gets involved with fixed-wing aircraft and Kate, after the death of her brother in World War I, decides to involve herself in science because she sees that she needs to give something back.
Bennett: She starts off as kind of a party girl. This is all made up almost from whole cloth, as those two characters are almost non-existent in the dime novels. But Kate wound up being our favorite character and we’d like to do more stories with her. The transition from party girl to serious scientist brings her into an era when the technology could be a little more advanced, but at the same time we had to leave it a little more mysterious. It’s getting into more recent territory, it’s getting into the pre-atomic age — even though those helicopter airships look so crazy, you can almost imagine they could fly, so you can get a little more into how they might work, but with Kate Reade’s technology it gets a little bit more science fictiony and mysterious.
Guinan: Right. Frank Reade would be described as “steampunk,” whereas Kate Reade and Frank III are “dieselpunk.”
I would think that, in writing about inventors, you’d have to have at least some idea of how their contraptions would work. How deeply did you get into the technical stuff?
Guinan: The dime novels have these lovely descriptions of his technology that we riffed from.
Bennett: These very long, lovingly-described descriptions of every single vehicle.
Guinan: There are certain things, like their battery technology, where they don’t get into too much detail, so we took our cue from them about how detailed we got with our explanations. We tried to follow the general rule in science fiction where you try and only make your audiences completely suspend disbelief once or twice. Everything else you should explain. Or, explain nothing!
Bennett: It’s the same approach we took with “Boilerplate” — we explain just enough to make it sound convincing, then leave it to readers’ imaginations. In the case of the dime novels, it’s funny; once they switched from steam to electricity — which happens pretty early on — it then becomes a series of stories about these electrical inventions. They keep coming up with different ways to use electricity, and none of it’s described in great technical detail except for the fact that it’s all electrically powered and has something to do with dynamos and batteries. He has electrically-charged wires that he uses as weapons, he has electrically-charged gauntlets, electric guns that shoot dynamite projectiles that he blows people up with. People die left and right in the original dime novel stories. They were known as “blood and thunder tales.”
You’d mentioned in our previous interview that you’d hoped “Boilerplate” could be used to teach history. Is that possible with “Frank Reade?” How might the lessons be different?
Guinan: With “Boilerplate,” all you have to do is fix in your head that everything is true except for the robot, his inventor, and the inventor’s sister. You can use that same strategy in “Frank Reade.’ Everything in “Frank Reade” is true, with the exception of the Reade family and the things that they create and do. But, unlike “Boilerplate,” there’s a lot more fiction in “Frank Reade.” So this time around the historical facts are primarily relegated to the sidebars that are done in a slightly different color. It’s a little easier to separate the straight facts from fiction in “Frank Reade” — again, if you know that the Reade family is not real.
Bennett: I think “Boilerplate” is a little easier for a young audience to learn history from. For ‘Frank Reade’ you might need a more sophisticated reader to be able to use it for real historical research purposes. A part of that is that “Boilerplate” is written like a pop history book, whereas “Frank Reade” is more of a family biography, with many journal excerpts and a more personal tone.
The other historical aspect, aside from the real history that the [fictitious] family is embedded in, is the dime novels themselves, which are pretty much unknown outside of the collectors community. There are a handful of people who collect these things and have a handful of original copies of them, and outside of that it’s sort of this lost piece of science fiction history. It comes before the time Jules Verne was doing the airship stories — he was writing and publishing books, but hadn’t yet done those stories — and H.G. Wells hadn’t started publishing anything yet. It was before early science fiction magazines in the 20th century, it was before pulp magazines, but it just doesn’t exist for most people. So we’re excited about that additional aspect of history, to restore these dime novels to their proper place within the science fiction timeline.
Guinan: Right. And that may confuse some people, who perceive us as having created Frank Reade ourselves or using my Photoshop skills to replicate the look of these dime novels. Actually, what I did is restoration to these images. In some cases I would alter them to fit our narrative — just a little bit! For “Boilerplate,” I made an articulated figurine of the robot to Photoshop into vintage images. Similarly, for “Frank Reade” I built models of land, sea and air craft that I then Photoshopped into vintage images as the “real” Reade family’s vehicles.
But the real history is that the endpapers of the ‘Frank Reade Library’ that you see in the front and back of the book are the covers of the first science fiction periodical ever. And the steam man story in ‘Frank Reade Library’ #1 is the first science fiction story with a robot in it, ever.
Bennett: Well, the one it was a knock-off of was the first ever…
Guinan: Nevertheless, these are pioneering science fiction stories and concepts. And even if Frank Reade, from our perspective, is a little hard to take, he still deserves to be recognized for his place in history as the first science fiction hero.
After “Boilerplate” and “Frank Reade,” do you have plans for additional books in this series?
Guinan: The next Reade book, if we have a chance to do one, we’d like to get more into this hybrid format, where we do the books that we’ve done but add graphic novel continuity pages to flesh out the story rather than only photographs and posters and stuff like that.
Bennett: Yeah, we’d like to combine our comic book storytelling with this new type of visual narrative that we’ve been doing in “Boilerplate” and “Frank Reade.” The way we’re envisioning it is, the pages that are illustrated prose would be a little less complicated design-wise than our two most recent books, but then they would be interspersed with some graphic novel stories and you could then use different media for different parts of the story.
Guinan: In a graphic novel we did a few years back, “Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate,” we did a story where we team up our comic book characters, the Heartbreakers with Boilerplate, who had yet to have his book published. It was sort of a trial run for Boilerplate. But in that graphic novel, we used traditional comic book pages but we had these interstitial sequences of text and graphics that ended up being the “Boilerplate” look. So we envision something that reverses that ratio, that’s primarily still the storytelling we’ve been doing but with comic book pages.
Bennett: And better graphic design. I did the graphic design on the “Heartbreakers.”
Speaking of graphic design, though, on both “Boilerplate” and “Frank Reade,” we were fortunate first of all to work with a publisher and editor who love to make beautiful books, and work with these great design teams who we collaborated with and helped art direct the book. For ‘Frank Reade,’ his name was Martin Venezky, he is a highly influential graphic designer and he said it was one of the most complicated projects he’s ever done in his career, but that he’s really proud of it. It was an honor to work with him, and I love what he did with the typography and the way that he took this sort of Victorian design sensibility but totally brought it into the 21st century.
Anything else you’d like to add about “Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention?”
Guinan: The tough thing is to make your follow-up as good as your first book — and I think we pulled that off.