Images © Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett.
This large, handsome coffee-table size hardcover is similar to the authors’ previous book from Abrams, “Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel.” In some ways it’s a companion and continuation of many of the same themes and ideas. The difference is that, while the robot “Boilerplate” is something Paul and Anina made up completely, the characters of Frank Reade and his family have a long literary tradition as the stars of a series of dime novels (predecessors of pulp magazines) beginning in 1882, and continuing for decades. Most featured Frank Reade Jr., a hot-headed adventurer and teenage inventor, the model for later heroes that are better known today like Tom Swift, and probably inspired by Thomas Edison in part.
What the authors have done in this book is present the life story of the Reade family in text and pictures, with the dime novels providing lots of great illustrations as a starting point, and artist Guinan adding many more apparently period photos and illustrations. This book, like “Boilerplate” attempts to blur the line between history and fiction as much as possible by including many real people and true events in the narrative, sort of like what films such as “Forrest Gump” have done. They’re really good at it. So good that, even knowing the game, I often had a hard time deciding if some photo, illustration, or description was real or made up, or where the convergence was between the two. The book is beautifully designed and very well printed, adding to the enjoyment of each page.
The photos are the most unsettling visuals for me. In “Boilerplate,” I knew the robot wasn’t real, but in this book we have what appear to be either actual historical photos or very convincing modern replicas that seem quite authentic, down to the “hand-tinted” look of the one at right above. It’s a fun game, though playing it does distract from the narrative (written mostly by Anina I think), which is quite well done. The only downside of the project is that the heroes don’t come off very well. Frank Reade Jr. in particular seems to have been rather unlikeable; bloodthirsty, at times cruel and uncaring about his comrades and family, suspicious of any who would befriend him, and always conniving to gain advantage over his rivals. Then there are the excerpts from the dime novels, usually just a page or two, but none of them seem to have been very well written. In all the images and inventions are the most fun thing about the Reade family. Those inventions, as depicted by excellent but unknown artists in the dime novels, are really the stars of the Reade adventures, and are great fun to look at and think about. Guinan has apparently created diagrams, cutaways and models of some that are quite impressive.
I enjoyed this book, and recommend it. If you’ve already tried “Boilerplate,” you’ll certainly want to have this one as well.