Tuesday, November 17, 2009

I have a new hero -- his name is "Boilerplate"

"Boilerplate" at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition--this and all other images I have employed to illustrate this post are from the BoilerplateRobot.com web site, and are used courtesy of Paul Guinan.

Today I happened into one of those big friendly bookstores (well, not friendly, exactly, but sufficiently indifferent that they don't yell at you if you actually spend some time looking at the books there, unlike the old traditional small family bookstores that people seem to lament the passing of). I wandered into the graphic novels section and saw something new: a large handsome book titled "Boilerplate: History's Mechanical Marvel" by Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan.

I completely and utterly fell in love with this visually stunning triumph of photoshop wizardry. Boilerplate is my new hero: a mechanoid everyman and metallic witness to events from the 1890's to 1918. In his adventures and travels, he interacts with everyday people as well as some of the most famous figures of the era in which the U.S. first becomes a world power.

The robot hero with Pancho Villa, c. 1916.

The premise is an elegantly conceived and executed combination of very real history and actual historical images, into which a steampunk element is introduced that does not markedly alter the course of the real history. As it is explained on the authors' web site boilerplaterobot.com:

"Boilerplate was a mechanical man developed by Professor Archibald Campion during the 1880s and unveiled at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

Built in a small Chicago laboratory, Boilerplate was a prototype soldier for use in resolving the conflicts of nations. Although it was the only such prototype, Boilerplate was eventually able to exercise its proposed function by participating in several combat actions.

Boilerplate embarked on a series of expeditions to demonstrate its abilities, the most ambitious being a voyage to Antarctica. Boilerplate is one of history's great ironies, a technological milestone that remains largely unknown."

The real joy of this book is the variety of images that were selected, ranging from grainy black-and-white photos, to hand-tinted postcards, to drawings and political cartoons. There are even lithographed theatrical posters, which the author is careful to point out do not necessarily reflect historical events in a completely accurate way (laughed my ass off at that one).

With TR and the the Rough Riders in Cuba, 1898.

A review of the book on the Comic Book Resources web site offers an excellent re-cap of where Mr. Guinan was coming from in producing this work. The author was seeking a way to "express his love of history despite the difficulty of selling historical adventure stories." He then developed the Boilerplate robot as a device (both literally and in the literary sense of the term) to tell stories about key events in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that shaped the world we live in today.

According to the very thorough CBR piece, the author "compared the use of his robotic hero with author Gore Vidal's device of using fictitious protagonists in otherwise extraordinarily accurate historical settings." In the interview, Mr. Guinan also states, "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."

Boilerplate the robot is in many ways, just one of the crowd, both in the narrative and the illustrations, such as this familiar scene of the midway at the 1893 exposition.

It is a subtle and wonderful metaphor for the individual in modern industrialized society, where even the most remarkable of us may have a certain limited impact through our choices and actions (like saving Pancho Villa's life) but ultimately the course of history hardly notices us.


  1. He's a Steampunk version of George Fraser MacDonald's Flashman!

    I agree that the small, family-run bookstores seemed to frown on browsing for any length of time (and had high prices to boot). On the other hand, trying to buy a book or, worse, magazine at one of those "friendly" places is often difficult because of the crowd of cheapskates who seem to want to read the entire book standing there, blocking access. They seem to confuse "browse" with "consume."

  2. Hey Rhia,

    Yes, I think you're right Hon. Boilerplate does seem to be a wonderful steampunk exemplar of the same literary tradition that includes Flashman and Mika Waltari's Sinuhe the Egyptian.

    Regarding the issue of big-versus-small bookstores and the ways their customers behave:

    I think it is precisely because of the consumer/browser class of customer that the little guys become grumpy and hostile. The employees of a big chain don't have the same kind of emotional and financial investment in maximizing sales that owner-managers of small shops do.

    It has to be incredibly frustrating for them to deal with people who browse forever and then still buy nothing. But then I also suspect that the big chains make their real money off of their coffee and pastries--sort of like the gas stations that base their profit margins on soft drink and snacky-crap sales.

  3. yes Rhia, I think he's wonderful new addition to the long line of interesting characters in historical fiction, like Flahsman, C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower, or Mika Waltari's Sinuhe the Egyptian.

    As for the issue with the big bookstores being somewhat more tolerant of "browsing consumers," I suspect that it may be that they make a good portion of their profit margin off the coffee and pastries they sell to the lingering customers, not unlike gas stations that make their real profits off their sales of soda and snacky crap rather than fuel.