So often a work of prose or comics is a love story for its creators; for something, someone, or for the craft itself. It’s usually these types of reads that make the story all the more pleasurable because what love letter isn’t a great or ahem, passionate read?
Of course there is the occasional overly long non-fiction book, poem or comic that’s only long because the creator didn’t want to say goodbye. I take a look at Pantheon’s buzzworthy webcomic turned graphic novel and ponder if this love letter is worth reading. Is it good?
The Thrillling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (Pantheon)
There are a few safe assumptions when it comes to an author of a tome such as this: Sydney Padua must adore history, be incredibly thorough in her research and be a complete nerd for all the 19th century early mathematics included. Frankly, if you are a lover of any of those things you should stop whatever you’re doing right now and go purchase this book. I for one am not a big history buff nor all that interested in Britain in general let alone Britain in the 1800’s, but the story appears to be so damn genuine and pertinent I had to read it. The fact is, this is a very early history of the days when the very idea of computers as we know them were coming into effect and to understand the machinations people went through to even conceive of a computer is fascinating stuff.
History meets steampunk!
Of course I am ahead of myself, but not so far off. This book is all about a woman with the cognomen Lady Lovelace, who was the daughter of Lord Byron, the famous rockstar poet of his age. Her mother was afraid of her gaining her father’s predilections and forced her to study math to avoid the whole poetic thing. This made her a genius in her own right, eventually helping her to meet Babbage, a man in the throes of inventing a math calculating machine he called “the Analytical Engine.” This was a machine inspired by a punch-card-pattern Jacquard loom. Babbage’s machine, while conceptually way ahead of its time, never truly got off the ground. Lovelace and Babbage however became fast friends and nerded out over math and the machine itself. Together they wrote letters and conceptualized things, wrote papers and autobiographies. You can actually read much of this here.
The fact that most have never heard of these two is probably the source for why Padua set out to write this comic. They lived fascinating lives which ended tragically in different ways and were ahead of their time in many of their technological concepts. Which makes one wonder the meta-ness of this book itself, but that’s neither here nor there.
But it looks like the dark arts!
You might be wondering to yourself, “But if they never did make the computer how is this book 317 pages long?” Great question, and the answer is a simple one. The first 28 pages of this book can be considered historical fact. It is at this point the graphic novel takes a turn and takes us into the multiverse! Padua continues the narrative as if Lovelace and Babbage continued to work together inventing a much more complicated and superhero-esque machine in a very steampunk like story. Padua doesn’t leave history behind however, but instead continues to instill historical factoids, direct quotes from Lovelace, Babbage and others into their dialogue and thoroughly takes us on a journey combining fiction with fact. It’s a fun concept and entirely original. By using the extensive research Padua most obviously did and weaving it into a fictional alternate dimension of Lovelace and Babbage she creates a semi-realistic future; an untapped genre I’m sure others will partake when they see how effective it can be as it was here.
Calling this work a comic is a bit of a misleading statement though as Padua fills nearly every page with footnotes, excerpts and pages of endnotes with passages from books of the era to strengthen her narrative. By reading this “comic” I learned a lot, not just of Britain in the 1800’s but interesting factoids in general. Take for instance Uranus, which was originally called George, or the fact that Queen Victoria never looked behind her when sitting down because she had “no doubt somehow a chair would appear beneath her.” It is Padua’s thoroughness and ability to stick these compelling facts into the comic narrative that make it so much fun. It’s bound to have footnotes and factoids that are of no interest to some readers (frankly I could care less about the 1837 American property bubble or other obscure facts of history), but again I’m not a history buff.
This captures their fascination with math and Babbage’s ego.
The fact though, that I found this graphic novel endearing and fun is a statement all in its own. Padua has a great sense of humor which she translates to plenty of humorous visual moments. She also makes fun of Babbage’s ego, which isn’t a slight when you consider how much historical evidence she has on others pointing this out in letters and such. Anyone looking for lowbrow humor should probably look elsewhere, as most of the humor lies in the realm of nerd humor, puns and the like. One particularly fun chapter sends Lovelace into the fourth dimension and hilariously judged by a talking asterisk. Considering how many footnotes this book holds it’s a nice way to poke fun at how important and judgmental these little guys are.
The humor works in many cases due to the cartoony art with characters that sometimes appear as if they were plucked from an animated film. The way Padua draws horses are particularly old school Disney in that they express themselves as if they were people. In some ways her art reminds me of Doug TenNapel’s work, partially for the cartoony thick lined characters, but also because often the characters are drawn over a white background and nothing more. It is their characterization that’s important to a scene. That isn’t to say there are no backgrounds, quite the contrary, as there are many marvelous ones due to the incredibly complicated and labyrinthian take on the Analytical Engine. The characters plunge into this machine that’s some kind of steampunk version of a computer only much much larger.
Ultimately this is a hefty read for those that may want a brisky pace when it comes to their comics. If you’re willing for a challenge however, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastic sense of exploration.
Looks like a map to the stars.
I never thought I’d find myself enjoying history so much. In many ways this graphic novel allows the reader to escape by going back in time and living through the characters’ actual words via letters and books. When the story goes into its alternate future it’s equally captivating and engrossing. Padua captures an endearing relationship by honoring them in this exceptionally well rendered graphic novel that contains an inventiveness that is infectious.