The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

by Sydney Padua

Cover image

Publisher: Pantheon
Copyright: 2015
ISBN: 0-307-90827-5
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 317

Buy at Powell's Books

I seem to be writing a lot of reviews lately where any reader can easily do their own research and see if this is something they'd like. This is another of those, but perhaps a bit more obscure.

As Padua explains in the preface, the first Lovelace and Babbage strip was intended to be a one-off joke. A friend suggested that she draw a comic telling the (short and rather tragic) life of Ada Lovelace, widely considered the first computer programmer even though the computer for which she wrote programs was never built: Charles Babbage's Analytic Engine. Padua found the story of Babbage and Lovelace's collaboration fascinating but too grim, and so wrote an alternate ending involving a pocket universe in which Babbage and Lovelace lived on to fight crime! Or at least fought against street organs and poetry.

Padua meant this as a joke. The Internet took it as a teaser. Quite to her surprise, she found herself writing occasional additional episodes and getting lost in fascinating research about Lovelace and Babbage. The result is all at 2dgoggles.com. This book is a curated collection of those comics, including much of their (extensive) footnotes and research notes, in a very attractive and well-constructed book form. The best review, therefore, would be to go read some of the comics yourself, easily accessible via the Comics tab on the web site, and see if this is the sort of thing you'd enjoy. There is some material in the book that isn't on the web site, but most of it is there (including one full story that didn't make it into the book).

There are a few reasons to buy a collection like this of material that previously appeared on the Internet. One, of course, is out of gratitude to support the author, which is the main reason I bought it. If you want to do that, though, you probably already know you do. Another reason is for additional unpublished material, but that's not really the case here. But a third is that, despite all the technology of the web, books can sometimes provide a more elegant and beautiful presentation. And that's very much the case for The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

The hardcover is a beautiful work of art. It has what you would expect from a hardcover graphic novel, of course: sturdy paper, lovely story headings in the form of Victorian-style posters, and very nice artwork beneath the dust jacket. (I've been so happy to see that in the last few hardcovers I've reviewed.) But, best of all, it presents the primary research notes on each page underneath comic panels.

Those who have been reading Lovelace and Babbage as it appears on the web know Padua's copious research notes. But they're normally presented at the end of each complete part, and I found myself often not reading them in detail. This might not be the case for everyone, but at least for me this presentation works so much better. Historical notes are at the bottom of (nearly) every page, in context. This might sound like it would distract from and break up the flow of the story, but at least for me it does the opposite. The comics feel so much richer when intermixed with the actual history (which in some cases is surprisingly similar to what seemed to be wild, invented scenarios).

The historical notes also have end notes, and quite substantial ones. I found that organization less successful (readers of my reviews will know I have a long-standing antipathy towards end notes for anything other than cross-references), but I have to admit I have no idea how Padua would have fit those on the same page as footnotes. They're also written well enough, and with sufficient detail, that I could usually read a chapter and then read all the end notes and mostly remember what they referred to.

Padua also takes advantage of the format to play a few neat games with frame breaks: characters commenting on the notes, stabbing things into them, or otherwise affecting them. I have to admit to some mild frustration where this makes the notes unreadable, since they're nearly as fascinating as the comics, but the overall effect is still worth it. (And, of course, the full notes are available on the web if one wishes to look them up.)

Rounding out the book version are a few of the best original source documents that Padua found, thankfully excerpted and well-edited to not outlive their welcome for those of us who don't like poring over Victorian letters. And, finally, some beautiful illustrations of the mechanisms of the Analytic Engine with supporting descriptions of how they were supposed to work. I'm not particularly mechanically inclined, nor that fascinated by steampunk, and I still found these diagrams impressive and fun to look at. Someone more interested in such things will be in for a treat.

I've been thoroughly enjoying the (sadly infrequent) installments of Lovelace and Babbage for years now, and am utterly delighted by their hardcover appearance. If you already knew about Padua's work and have any interest in nice hardcovers of such things, I don't think you'll regret the purchase. If you haven't heard of her, or this series, before, some quick reading at the web site should quickly reveal whether this is something you'd enjoy.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2015-10-24

Last modified and spun 2015-10-25