Boy’s Own inventions
Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of InventionBy Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett
(Abrams Image, £15.99).
American Heritage, a hardcover quarterly, was my favourite magazine in the 1960s for its beautifully printed historical paintings, drawings, photographs and antique artefacts. I was impressed, too, by the faux-vintage material created for National Lampoon in the 1970s. Now, if you combine the artefact-ness of one with the comic-ness of the other, and add a touch of steampunk-ness, you get Frank Reade: Adventures in the Age of Invention by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett (Abrams Image, £15.99).
Frank Reade first appeared in print in the Boys of New York magazine in 1878. This brilliant and total recreation of gilded-age dime novels offers doctored historical photos, off-register colour illustrations and chromolithographic posters so typographically pitch-perfect they are undetectable as fakes. The sheer number boggles the mind. Each is astonishingly work-intensive – each a gem of ironic pastiche.
So real are the artefacts Guinan and Bennett have created that the reader will be hard pressed to believe that their globetrotting inventor hero – whose exploits with flying boats, airships, submarines and steam-powered horses are chronicled in woodcuts and comics – is entirely fictional.
In Guinan and Bennett’s pseudo-history, Reade is as ubiquitous as Woody Allen’s Zelig, clashing with Arabs and Indians, Asian hordes and African tribesmen, as well as wild animals, large and small, furry and reptilian. What a life.
The designers – Martin Venezky’s Appetite Engineers – and authors must have had endless pleasure bringing this fantasy to vivid life. Thank heavens for Photoshop. And the heavens are where, as a steampunk connoisseur, I am with Frank Reade.
First published in Eye no. 82 vol. 21 2012
Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.