Images © Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett.
While there are lots of comics connections in this book, it’s not comics, it’s a coffee-table art book of the highest quality, as you would expect from publisher Abrams. Guinan’s creation, the 19th-century robot “Boilerplate” has previously appeared in at least one comic drawn by Guinan, but this is instead an extremely clever “history-pictorial” of the kind that Time-Life books was long known for: an equal balance of informative text and pictures of all kinds, from photos to drawings, to paintings, to maps and diagrams, to reproductions of ephemera like postcards and posters. Anina Bennett, Paul’s life partner, contributed much of the text I believe, while Paul did all the art, which in this case required lots of Photoshop work on existing images from about 100 years ago. In fact, I’d say Photoshop might also deserve a credit somewhere, it would not have been possible to create this kind of book without it!
You see, though the book would have you believe differently, Boilerplate did not exist in the late 19th century, but after reading this book and examining dozens, maybe hundreds of photos that place the robot in historical context perfectly, it might almost convince you he did. At first I was studying the photos intently, trying to see some evidence of the robot having been inserted, like Woody Allen’s Zelig, into all kinds of scenes and historical events, but after a while I gave it up as impossible. There is absolutely nothing to give away the work that’s been done there. Really impressive!
Here’s a sample page, can you find the robot in the photo? There are much more impressive examples in the book.
As a documentary book about a certain time in history, this is excellent, taking readers through the times in various ways: scientific advances, history, politics, social life, wars, travel to all parts of the globe. Wise commentary on the social condition is often implied or even stated clearly.
The one area that disappointed me about this book, and perhaps it was expecting something outside its parameters: we never get very close to the robot, or his creator. We always see them through the eyes of others, in still photos, and we remain closed off from the inner circle except in occasional letters from Archibald Campion to his wife. We are told of Boilerplate’s abilities and even that he can talk, but learn almost nothing about how he interacted with Archie, or what he might have said, much less any insight into his mechanical brain and how it worked. We hear little of any trouble the robot might have had in his many tasks, he always seems perfectly capable of anything asked of him. Only at the end of his story, when he disappears during World War One is there a bit of a window allowing us a chance to at least wonder what might have happened, how he might have finally failed in his last assignment.
Perhaps we’ll get closer to the subject in future works by Guinan and Bennett. I hope so. Meanwhile, this book is way cool and highly recommended!