An amazing mechanical man debuted at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, only to be overshadowed by even more awe-inspiring innovations…like the Ferris Wheel. The automaton, dubbed Boilerplate, would go on to quell riots, race against the emerging technology of automobiles, and fight in the Spanish-American War. Of course, none of this is true, but “Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel,” a steampunk art book from Abrams Image, weaves a convincing history for what might have been one of the twentieth-century’s most profound inventions. Written by the husband and wife team of Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan, an featuring meticulously crafted visuals by Guinan, “Boilerplate” envisions a robot created to prevent human deaths in war, though his creator soon finds nothing is quite so simple. What follows is a tour of major world events from 1893-1918, featuring Boilerplate as the focal character. CBR News spoke with Guinan and Bennett about the book, which is in stores now.
Initially, “Boilerplate” began as a way for Guinan to express his love of history despite the difficulty of selling historical adventure stories. “I realized I needed some sort of hook,” he said, “and the hook I came up with was this robot.” Guinan compared the use of his robotic hero with author Gore Vidal’s device of using fictitious protagonists in otherwise extraordinarily accurate historical settings. “A more recent pop culture example is the ‘Young Indiana Jones’ TV series, where the character meets famous people and is involved in famous events but doesn’t change anything in history,” he said.
From there, Guinan said, he had planned to create a graphic novel starring Boilerplate. “I made a figurine, which I wanted to use as a cover for the graphic novel and also as an eight-page backup feature that would have fun with the idea that this graphic novel is based on this real robot from back in the day. So I superimposed this model into vintage photographs and posted them online. People really started to react to that,” Guinan told CBR. “The graphic novel fell through, but I pursued the web site and started adding to it. It started getting attention.”
The Boilerplate web site even attracted some visitors who believed the robot had actually existed at the turn of the twentieth century, and this included some viewers who Guinan said “should have known better.” “It started to get strange when I started to get letters from people who were involved in robotics or history and asking me for more information,” he said. “So it started to get press and, at one point, there was one article that got a local publisher interested in doing a coffee table book, because in the article I mentioned how my ideal for this web site would be to turn it into a coffee table history [book]. And someone actually took me up on it. That’s when I brought in Anina to help me write it.”
Bennett, who is married to Guinan and describes herself as his “in-house editor and co-author” on several projects, noted that there were still a few stumbling blocks in Boilerplate’s path to publication. “The publisher that we started out with ended up having some problems with their distributor and I don’t think they’re publishing anymore, and so then we wound up moving to Abrams,” she said. “The character’s had several setbacks along the way, each of which led to another opportunity that turned out to give it a higher profile. The timing of it is actually better now because steampunk culture is really becoming prominent and people are starting to hear about it in the mainstream. This has a lot of appeal to steampunk fans; most of them already know about Boilerplate. Boilerplate has already been included in steampunk FAQs, and steampunk presentations. So the fact that it’s coming out as a book right at this moment when steampunk is starting to break out is actually really good timing for us.”
Guinan, for his part, agreed about the book’s good fortune. “It’s actually in a better place than it would have been if the original concept of a graphic novel had just gone forward,” he said. “I would have expected it to be just another graphic novel on the shelves, but in doing this, we’ve done something that’s kind of unique and getting people excited about the novelty of it.
“Boilerplate” includes correspondence between Archie Campion, the automaton’s creator, and notable figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, and such notable persons also write about the book’s main characters. Bennett said that any quotes attributed to real people are authentic, save for their descriptions of Boilerplate. “I think the Mark Twain quote about informing Archie Campion about the Spanish-American War is the only one that I wrote from scratch,” she said. “And then all of the quotes from fictional people, from Archie and his sister, obviously those are completely written from scratch.”
Similarly, Guinan’s photographs, illustrations, and other artwork are culled largely from authentic documents with Boilerplate inserted digitally. “It’s similar to what Anina was doing with the quotes, taking as much real material as possible and then adding as little as possible to give it the greatest authenticity. I would take the figurine–which is articulated–and pose it in different ways,” he said. “One of the advantages of turn-of-the-century photography was that much of it was daylight–they didn’t have flash and high shutter speeds. To match the light, all I had to do was match the time of day and the angle of the sun, which was a lot easier than doing special lighting studio set-ups. So I had been superimposing him into these vintage photographs, and in a few cases I would do a couple things from scratch. Some images are completely fabricated, but others are 80% the original, with the 20% that isn’t being our own fabrication. The most fun part for me was just being able to do mixed media, being able to do photography, drawing, painting, and that was the intent to make the audience believe this is real, is that kind of range of stuff-of a toy, of poster, of a photograph, of a drawing.”
Bennett added, “I think a big part of what sells it is the sheer variety of the types of images. There are photos of toys, and animation stills, and paintings and drawings and photos.” She praised Guinan’s ability to match the new elements to the quality of the original image. “You’ve got examples where you inserted the robot into an illustrated dime-novel cover, other examples where it’s a scratched-up old photograph, other examples where it’s a really pristine photograph or a painted illustration. I think that’s one of the things people really like about it.”
“I wish I could write a tutorial about it in ‘Photoshop Magazine,’ but quite frankly, a lot of it is intuitive,” Guinan said in response. “I just have a good eye, which certainly compensates for my lack of sheer computer skills. It’s a very intuitive program, so I don’t do a lot of fussing with the numerical things–‘this is 32% black, this is whatever shade or hue’–I just go by the eye and my experience as an illustrator. Actually, I should probably be a poster boy for Photoshop. If I can do it, a lot of other people shouldn’t be so intimidated.”
Though Boilerplate looks like a mechanical man, and, at one point, Archie Campion expresses some fatherly feelings toward the robot, he is consistently referred to as “it” throughout the book, rather than a personal pronoun. “That was done quite deliberately,” Guinan told CBR. “When I started the website in 2000, just as a lark, a few images, a few bits of text, and basically just for myself, one of the things I didn’t want to commit myself to was Boilerplate’s specs-how tall is he, how fast can he run, his vocabulary, and the question of sentience. I made up a vague notion of fuel cells just because I didn’t want to deal with the idea of hauling around coal or batteries. So I kept it all vague. But then, over time, I got this interesting reaction to the character. The vagueness was actually appealing to people, they were imprinting their own thing onto this blank slate. So Boilerplate’s tabula rasa became his character, it became his schtick. It’s similar to this movie ‘Being There’ with Peter Sellers. Sellers plays a character who is a complete mirror to all the characters around him, they sort of read their own thing into who this guy is. He’s nothing, he’s a complete cipher. So when we went to write this, that was our intention, to always use ‘it,’ that sort of vague impersonal sort of quality so that you decide what Boilerplate is, what he’s about.”
Given that “Boilerplate” provides an accurate (with the exception of the title character’s presence) survey of early 20th century American history, Guinan sees the book as a useful tool for educators and curious students of the recent past. “My secret wish for this book is that it be used as a teaching supplement in history classes. With, you know, the obvious caveat that the robot part is a fiction,” he said. “But in a way, I sort of challenge the readers to come up with discrepancies or inaccuracies. I’m even interested in the biases, too, I’m very interested in the feedback about the history part. Because we did our homework on that.”
“Paul and I talked a lot about how you can use it to teach history as well as critical thinking and research skills, because nobody who’s writing a paper about history or researching history should rely just on one source,” Bennett added. “They should be able exercise critical thinking, look at this material and go, ‘Hey, I don’t think there was a robot at San Juan Heights in the Spanish-American war — let me fact-check that.’ In fact, the material on our web site has been used by educators in different countries to teach classes on how to evaluate the relative validity of different information that you find online. It’s a multifaceted teaching tool, if anybody were to pick up on it on all those different levels.”
Readers may also learn about events outside the United States that shaped the world at the turn of the 20th century. At one point, Campion and Boilerplate find themselves caught up in the Russo-Japanese War, a conflict that might not be familiar to most American readers. “I grew up on samurai movies and was always interested in Japanese culture. I’ve always been fascinated by their quick leap from feudal society to industrialized nation in the period just before the book takes place,” Guinan told CBR. “Even though Boilerplate isn’t a part of that, the Meiji Restoration, they make heavy references to it in the story and will hopefully encourage people [to read more about it]. Especially now that everybody’s into manga and anime, maybe they’ll go, ‘Hey, I’ve never read anything about the Russian and Japanese war, maybe I’ll go check that out.’ And then they’ll learn something about the Meiji Restoration as backstory and maybe they’ll appreciate the manga piece that references those cultural things they wouldn’t otherwise have known about.”
“The other piece of that is that, Paul and I are generally interested in geopolitics and exploring different perspectives about all these different events and different time periods, how they relate to each other and how they affect current events,” Bennett said. “This is a really great way to explore some of that and try to present that information, both in a larger context and in an entertaining way, as opposed to the way that history gets taught in our grade school and high school systems, which is more about rote memorization and not so much about the big picture and connecting the dots between these different places, which I think gives you a better picture of what actually happened and what led up to it and what kind of fallout it had.”
Guinan agreed, saying, “Yeah, I couldn’t care less about what exact day this piece of paper was signed. That’s not a big deal. The sequence of events, or how that impacted later events, that’s what’s important.”
Summing up both creators’ fully evident enthusiasm for the project, Bennett said, “We’re both very excited about this book, we’re very proud of it. We’re very gratified that everyone we’ve talked to about it and everyone who’s seen it so far has reacted very positively to it.”
“Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel” is available now from Abrams Image. A trailer can be found at boilerplaterobot.com.