Whether you avoid or admire them, 21st century graphic novels are proving to be increasingly diverse in theme and style, taking creative risks and blurring the line between image and text. Showcasing the ever-expanding possibilities of the genre are two recently released books: one a whimsical alternate reality tale of high adventure, the other an intense look at an all-too-real struggle with mental illness.
“The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer” takes its inspiration from historic figures Charles Babbage, recognized as the “father of computing” for conceptualizing the first automatic calculating machine, and Ada Lovelace, considered to be the first computer programmer for her writing about her contemporary’s innovation. Though Babbage never constructed what he called the “Analytical Engine,” author and illustrator Sydney Padua wondered what might have happened if modern computing had been born in the 19th rather than the 20th century.
“The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage” sends the unlikely Victorian-era heroes on a series of mathematic-fueled adventures through a steampunk-inspired alternate reality, scrupulously realized in Padua’s intricate black and white drawings. Lovelace and Babbage clash swords with Queen Victoria, bedevil poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drag author George Eliot into their schemes, and even bump into Karl Marx — all in a computer-aided effort to fight crime.
Richly illustrated, “The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage” is marked by a similarly florid deployment of language as a storytelling tool. Its extreme prolixity — a charming quirk for some readers, an aggravating flaw for others — extends to footnotes on all but a handful of the 320 pages, endnotes to explain the footnotes and an ancillary website cataloging research sources referenced throughout the book. In the introduction, Padua admits that her intensive investigation of the history of computing may have gotten a bit out of hand.
“In the spring of 2009 … I undertook to draw a very short comic for the web, to illustrate the very brief life of Ada Lovelace,” Padua recalls. “I discovered that research was an excellent way to put off working on the comic that I was drawing.”
Wikipedia led her to Babbage’s autobiography, which led her to Lovelace’s letters, which sparked an extended quest for primary documents about the Analytical Engine, Victorian London and 19th century mathematical theory. “This is how one finds oneself in the British Library trying to glean usable jokes from technical articles in the ‘Annals of the History of Computing,’” Padua observes.
This is also how one finds oneself writing footnotes to explain said jokes, which are inextricably rooted in the period and personalities of Padua’s not-quite-fictional Victorian “pocket universe,” as well as endnotes to explain the footnotes, and so forth.
On the other end of the spectrum lies “My Depression: A Picture Book” by Elizabeth Swados, a laconic memoir illustrated in a style best described as a hectic scribble.
Published in hardcover in 2014 by Seven Stories Press and released in paperback this year, this deeply personal account of the author’s ongoing battle with depression relishes its subjectivity and its lack of scientific rigor, inviting the reader to consider their biases about mental illness as they empathize with (but never fully understand) the illusive narrator.
Her drawings and her words tangle together to sketch a life lived on the threshold of depression. Without context, Swados — a prolific author and award-winning Broadway director, though her self-deprecating text makes no mention of this — presents a brutally honest critique of her private and public personas while she is under the influence of depression. “Living with me is impossible when I’m depressed,” she notes beneath a series of unflattering, wild-haired self-portraits emitting scrawled diatribes aimed at an unseen loved one. “I lose all my compassion. I feel completely isolated. I’m tired of this multifaceted and unpredictable depression. So are you …”
Like Padua, Swados brings famous figures from real life into her story. Hers are not lighthearted cameos, however.
“When I contemplate suicide, I think about famous people and their methods. Virginia Woolf, stones in her pocket, walks into a river. Kurt Cobain blows his brains out.
Sylvia Plath sticks her head in the oven,” she writes, captioning scribbled images of each suicide in progress.
Though the book’s outlook can be overwhelmingly bleak at times, “My Depression” ends on a note of hope with a series of triumphant self-portraits. “Getting past depression is big stuff. What a victory when you start to come out of it!” Swados writes. “Remember, you got through once … you can do it again.”