Posted by on Jul 15, 2010 in Blog | 0 comments

This blog post is long because it’s about something I’ve been doing for a long time.

Though I complained about a lack of income in a previous post, the truth is I’ve been kept afloat because of the editorial work given to me by Paul Guinan. Paul and his wife Anina Bennett are working on the companion piece to their hit fake-history-coffee-table-book, Boilerplate. The new book will focus on the dime-novel character Frank Reade, Jr.

From what Paul has told me, this guy was all the rage in his time, basically the 1870’s version of Superman. Is it proto-scifi or the last gasp of classic adventure fantasy? Thomas Edison fan-fiction or the original steam-punk? Harmless escapism for teenage boys, or an Anglo-sadistic fantasy of racist-imperialist propoganda? The answer, of course, is all of the above.

I’ve now skimmed through all 191 issues of “the Frank Reade Library,” summarized them all, categorized them by the type of invented vehicle (usually an electric submarine, airship, or all-terrain land vehicle, but sometimes something preposterous like a steam-powered horse), by quest (it’s always buried/sunken treasure, tracking down a bandit/pirate, rescuing a maiden, finding evidence that will exonerate somebody on death row, or viewing a meteor that can only be seen from one spot on the globe), location (the earlier stories were all in the wild west, but they moved on to Africa, India, China, Russia, Peru, the Arctic – basically wherever there are minorities to blow up… and in the world of Frank Reade, “Spanish” counts as a minority) and by the presence of strong female characters (zero, none, absolutely none, or, occasionally, one). The stories somehow managed to be both incredibly imaginative and diverse while still mind-squashingly formulaic. I can safely say they are everything, but well-written.

Paul is a sensitive guy who knows how to deal with sensitive issues, and I think he and Anina are planning to give Frank a serious 21st-century face-lift. I suspect Frank’s two sidekicks, the dixie imbecile/expert electrical engineer Pomp (called “a negro” if you’re lucky, much worse things if you’re not, and who says things like ‘Massa Lawdy, what am dis chile gwonna do?’) and the comical Barney O’Shea (apparently 1870’s Americans thought being Irish was endearingly hilarious – Barney’s impassioned tirades against British oppression are played alternately for laffs and sympathy) will be transformed into Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt respectively. I’m sure his world-policing expeditions will be morphed into humanitarian diplomacy. I’m still not sure if they should be.

I was a history major, and I’m still fascinated by history. Lord knows that even though my area of study (the Middle Ages) was a millenia-long parade of horrors, I still idealize and even romanticize it. But as a leftist, I cannot help but view the late-19th-century Atlantic world with burning contempt. Truly, when I read about the deeds of the industrialist or imperialist elite of the 1870’s, it makes my blood boil. And in the Frank Reade stories, these are the very people the hero comes to rescue! Half the stories are about rescuing millionaires or millionaire’s beautiful daughters from the ebony clutches of colonized forces.

In the Philolexian Society, we often liked to pretend it was the 19th-century. I did it too, because it’s fun. The inscrutable “steam-punks” have built up an entire lifestyle around how fun it is. But I always feel like I’m dining with the devil. The late 1800s is a period we should remember, which we can respect or even playfully recreate. But it’s not a period I want to identify with. Frank Reade, Jr. may have been the vicarious idol of thousands of boys, but there’s almost nobody in fiction I’d rather not be.

All that said, lookin’ forward to the new book… and even more for _____________ (Paul told me what I had written here before is a secret – if you read this blog on Thursday, July 15, please don’t mention what I accidentally said!)

edit: okay, it’s okay to disclose now! JJ Abrams is producing the Boilerplate Movie! Whoohoo! You didn’t hear it here first.