Sydney Padua's "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage"

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 14, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Imagine a world where Ada Lovelace did not die at 36, and Charles Babbage actually built his computer computer. Now imagine that world chronicled by a mixture of in-jokes and footnotes, and you have the flavor of Sydney Padua's The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. After years of posting rough drafts online, Padua has finally released the first book of the comic -- an event that on my book shelves, ranks right up there with another collection of Kate Beaton's Hark! A Vagrant strip.

If you read Padua online, you know what to expect: a mixture of history, mathematics, and humor in which the reader's attention is constantly yanked from the comic to the footnote and back again until whiplash becomes a distinct probability. Drafts of much of the contents, such as "User Experience," "The Economic Model," and "The Client" are already online, but the book also contains a few new pieces, such as "Luddites" and "Mr. Boole Comes to Tea." Many of the footnotes are also new, while "The Origin," the original comic drawn for Ada Lovelace Day in 2009, is doubled in size.

Sadly, other stories posted online, such as "The Organist," do not appear, probably because they were published earlier as online apps. Nor is "Vampire Poets," which Padua interrupted to work on the book, or the website's blog, which not only regularly breaks the fourth wall but pounds it into the ground. But what Padua does include is rich enough that you may hardly mind what she leaves out.

The greatest difference between the online and hard copy versions is that the book's drawings are more polished. The online drafts have a charm of their own -- but, then, so do the finished versions. As a comics artist, Padua has a knack for facial expressions, especially in her depictions of Babbage, and many of her best sequences shows a character's changing expression as they react to events around them. Several of the larger panels throughout the book actually amount to a Who's Who of London intellectuals done in recognizable caricatures.

Padua's sound effects, too, are funny in their own right. In the heat of the action, they often leave little room in their panels for anything else as Padua works rushes to the brink of what the Muppets used to call a rave-up ending before resolving. Something also should be said about the variation in her backgrounds, which vary from nearly blank to crowded canvasses or dark backgrounds to gritty depictions of slums, and intricate drawings of the depths of the Difference Engine.

However, what really makes Lovelace and Babbage irresistible is Padua's sense of humor. From the footnotes, I have to conclude that, despite her complete lack of credentials, Padua has made herself an expert on her characters and time. Her perspective is thorough, not even remotely reverential. Instead she has a sense of the absurd that allows her to take sober historical facts and exaggerate them into puns and slapstick. As the footnotes document, Lovelace's mothers really did steer her towards mathematics in the hopes of preventing her developing the family madness, while Babbage really does seem to have been a charming egocentric convinced -- on no apparent evidence -- of his ability to entice his listeners with his rambling stories.

To be honest, I have no idea what kind of relationship with history is needed to describe the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as "The Wolverine of the Victorian Age" or to depict Copenhagen, the Duke of Wellington's famous horse, as a sentient ridden by his master in Parliament. But Padua has that kind of relationship, and her jokes are all the funnier for being ultimately based in fact. She even gets away with making Lovelace the person who prevented Coleridge from finishing "Kubla Kahn" two decades before she was born, or arbitrarily omitting all mention of Lovelace's husband because his entertainment value is zero, for no better reason than she does so with such knowledgeable panache.

The only serious complaint I have is that, the book's design sometimes takes authenticity too far. Nineteenth century England was a center for typographical atrocities, mostly involving too many different types of fonts and inept spacing, all of which the book sometimes reproduces too faithfully. This mishmash works on the title pages, which mimic the look of Victorian posters, but the font used in the appendixes is supremely ugly even by Victorian standards. It definitely does not do justice to Padua or her material, which succeed despite the typography and not because of it.

Lovelace and Babbage is eclectic enough that its audience may be small. But if you work in technology, you probably are lucky enough to be part of its target audience. After all, as the first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace has become a cult-figure, and never mind if most of the organizations that make her name part of theirs have little to do with her life's work.

At any rate, if you want the unusual experience of learning and laughing at the same time, look for yourself to enjoy the experience first hand. Lovelace and Babbage is not only in the running for the best graphic novel of 2015, but one of the great originals in any medium.

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