Steampunk Month

Experiments in Comics with Sydney Padua

Have you read 2D Goggles yet? No? Well, you should probably go check it out. Because this article is going to be all about 2D Goggles and its creator, Sydney Padua. 

2D Goggles was created in response to a call for blogposts on Ada Lovelace. Can we just get an “amen” on what a great fucking idea it was to respond to this call for posts with a comic on the origins of Ada Lovelace? Which in turn launched into an alternate history concept that is definitely way more fun than reality? Look at that face. How can you not want to pledge undying loyalty

Because I am a complete suck-up (for reasons that will be revealed later!), I am going to talk about why you need to read this comic.


Sydney Padua’s Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage isn’t set up like your regular webcomic, where you have a page of, well, comic. Instead, it’s in a series of blogposts, which gives leeway in content. You navigate by hitting the top links, there’s no “today” or “first” buttons. It’s very easy for those of us used to blogs, and might take a bit of getting used to. However, it really does work out for the best, since Sydney Padua likes to throw in all sorts of random links after the comic which demonstrate how much of a geek just how intense her research is. And this is a hobby, folks!

She has links to everything – mostly Google books, since a lot of the reference material she’s looking at is out of print. From this reference material, she begins to tease out character studies of her main characters, blending in the real with the hilarious fictional. All good stories tend to have a grain of truth in them, and this one has several grains. Combining what we know about Lovelace and Babbage with current pop culture references and a healthy dose of science, Padua manages to produce a comic that really reads as mathematical pulp fiction which is surprisingly accessible even to non-mathy types (like yours truly!).

One of the things I love about Sydney Padua is her sense of humour, and her willingness to analyse said sense of humour. A lot of people think that if you have to explain a joke, that means the joke’s not funny enough, but I beg to differ! A joke should still be funny, or even funnier, after analysis, otherwise it’s based on flimsy premises and not funny at all! See?  And anyway, it’s not like the joke was all that inaccessible to start with, but the educational interlude was great. All her educational interludes are, so when you read the comic, make sure to check out the commentary below. Warning: huge time-suck.

Her comic was so well-received that she was asked to be a Tech Lab guest for the BBC, and has a couple of pages in the booklet for the Steampunk Exhibition at the Oxford which we on the North American side of the pond are squee-ing over (you can find these pages here). Even so, she maintains a friendly face, continuing to share her research with her readers and curious minds can have a look at her drawing process.

I shall now show you just how friendly she is, by sharing an interview I had with her about her comic and other things.

So I understand you work as an animator whenever you’re not performing experiments in comics! How well does the drawing style for animation translate to comics? Have you needed to adjust anything?

Getting to draw again in a serious way has definitely been the best thing about doing the comic—I did the switch to CG about five years ago, and though I love the power CG gives you as an animator I did miss drawing.  

Of course years in animation gives you a huge advantage in drawing comics—you can’t spend hours every day drawing to such a rigorous standard of draftsmanship, surrounded by awesomely talented people, without learning something!  Most animators are comics fans and vice versa and they’re very similar fields, you’re playing a shorthand of a figure against a composition in order to tell a story.  

On the other hand, well before I started comics I’d been on a quest to get rid of the “animation” from my drawing—trying to find a more personal style maybe, now that I don’t need to draw in the studio fashion. I don’t know if I’ve found my style yet, but the comic has been a great way to mess around with that.  It helps that for some crazy reason I decided to do it in that black-and-white ink look—I animate with a soft blue pencil usually, so the ink forces me to make different choices, to be bolder.

Your episodes are always accompanied by these thrilling historical tidbits. Are you a history geek by any chance? ^_^

:D   My degree, for what its worth (that is, not much) is in Theater History.

How did you fall into the animation business with a degree in Theatre History?

Oh geez, I better give you the short version.

I somehow wound up doing a part-time gig in ink-and-paint, yeah, actual ink and paint on cells, old school! for a lovely little NFB short Cactus Swing, by the wonderfully supportive and inspiring Susan Crandall.  She encouraged me to go the Summer School program at Sheridan College.  I think I had a vague idea of doing some freelance animation to support my PhD.  At this time there was almost no animation work anywhere (in the *cough*eighties*cough*—dating myself there); so I don’t think it was a very practical plan… but then Lion King, and then Toy Story came out, and the business went nuts.  I was hired right out college by Warner Bros; the first film I worked on as an animator was The Iron Giant.

Exactly how much time do you spend researching for Lovelace and Babbage?

Exactly?  That’s a very Babbageian question.. let’s see… I would say ONE QUARTER of my VALUABLE BRAIN-POWER has been wasted by this comic dragging me helplessly down interweb rabbit-holes, and even out into the treacherous physical world of libraries.  I’d produce a chart, but sadly I haven’t been keeping very accurate statistics.  

You live in merry old England! That must help your work tremendously, Y/N?

The Babbage and Lovelace Headquarters is based on a couple of buildings just around the corner from where I live—and of course I can wander down to the Science Museum and gaze upon the Difference Engine any time I like.  Also, people seem to be crazier here than in my native Canada.

You come from CANADA! Where from Canada do you hail from?

I’m from the big empty bit in the middle. Edmonton to be specific.

Do you like confectionary treats?

Eating one right now!  Chocolate, if that is of relevance.

Cupcakes, cake, cookies, or plain chocolate? Also, milk, white, or dark chocolate?

Pfft…  I mean CHOCOLATE chocolate… Dark. Bitter. Film noir dark and bitter. Ideally accompanied by some kind of concentrated alcohol.

Will you ever do Charles Babbage vs. The Organist? (What kind of chocolate would it take to bribe you into doing it?)

Although I animate for chocolate, I draw comics for one reason, and that reason is: flattery.  The more flattery I get, the more I will draw comics.  

The Organist is Currently In Production!  I’m trying to decide if I should actually know where it’s going before I start putting it up, or just say to hell with it.

(Note: See? Come ON people, the more flattery she gets, the more 2D Goggles we will see!! Help me out here!)

In the Person From Porlock, Ada IS the person from Porlock disrupting Coleridge’s writing of Kubla Khan—will you be doing more literature-related gag strips like this in the future? (How many boxes would it take to bribe you into doing more?)

“Vampire Poets” contains quite a shocking amount of No Science (except, of course, statistics and epidemiology). I have bits and pieces of quite a few comics floating around my head; most of them ARE about science (well, kind of), because I love that stuff… one of the things I’m really grateful to the comic for is giving me a chance to reconnect with my love of math, something I hadn’t thought about in a very long time.

I know comic output is a lamentable indictment of my efficiency; in excuse I say, to those who know what this means, I work in the Visual Effects Industry!!

When you did the guest Tech Lab strip for the BBC, was it difficult deciding what colours to use for Lovelace and Babbage, seeing as you predominantly work with them in black and white?

I was stressed about doing something in colour, as I suck at colour… happily I just totally stole the tonal scheme from old “Terry and the Pirates” strips. Literally stole it, with an eyedropper tool stole it.  Ha HA!  You’ll never get me alive!!

Will other women from Lovelace’s circle also appear? For example, Mary Somerville, and other such women who were totally doing science-y stuff during the age when men were like “EW! Cooties on our science!”?

See, now that would be a spoiler!

I go back and forth on how much I want to deal with the actuality of being a woman in this period.  Like the Irish Potato Famine it’s not exactly a fun, light-hearted thing, and there’s still enough cootie-ism today for me to find it not relaxing to put that stuff in the comic (and the comic is a hobby, so “what would be fun to do” is my main criterion). The 1840s was a miserable time to be a woman (Ada Lovelace herself keenly felt this; she really ought to have been living in either the 1780s say, or ideally the 1930s). Also, the fashion was hideous.  That is my controversial statement for this interview.

I’d like to take this opportunity though to give a massive shout-out to Charles Babbage (the real one).  He was a man who both liked women and respected their abilities, which for a Victorian man took all of his characteristic independence of thought. Reading a lot of this period stuff can really get you down, and he always cheers me up again.

Cagefight between Brunel and Babbage : Who would win?

You haven’t seen Babbage in Berserker Mode yet.

What do you think of steampunk? If I asked you to define it, what would you say?

Haha, “Define Steampunk!” should be a new parlour game!  To be honest before I did the first comic I only had the vaguest idea of Steampunk, aside from as an aesthetic of film design where of course it has a big presence, especially in VFX films.

There’s something hugely appealing about the tech of Steampunk—maybe it’s just me, because I work on quite complicated computer stuff all day, but the Difference Engine really is at the heart of it. There’s a lot anxiety that comes from the intangibility of the technology we interact with.  Who hasn’t wanted to reach inside the computer and just unjam the damn gears? It’s nice to re-materialize all this invisible stuff so you can get at it. Sometimes you just want to be a monkey and hit stuff with rocks.

Define steampunk… of course I’ve just ignored the whole history part of it which is kind of, you know, important…

 Trying to hit the present by averaging the past and the future, and missing, but thereby winding up somewhere cooler than any of them! I still haven’t had a chance to read much at all on the literary end, so I don’t feel qualified to address that angle at all!

Do you consider the Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage to be steampunk?

Mmmm… I think I’m more of a steam-ironist!  There’s a Romanticism to what you might call unmistakable Steampunk I don’t think I can do. Especially in the aesthetic part.  I’m gobsmacked by the gorgeousness and detail of the stuff people make; I can hardly be bothered to draw a curlicue on something, never mind reach for the baroque heights of actual makers.  That seems to be one the critical things that says “Steampunk.”

If I had time to draw the comic more seriously I think that would be high on my list though, to do nicer design on the machines.  If you, for instance, go to the Steam Museum at Kew, the sheer beauty  of the engines there is shaming to the grungy way I draw the Difference Engine. Drawing is a bit of blunt instrument for me, I do what I need to sell the effect, and I’m not strong on “beautiful” drawing, so that’s something I’m like to improve.  That might make the comic more “Steampunky,” I don’t know!

So, how awesome is the Steampunk Exhibition at Oxford?

So, so awesome..  Beautiful, beautiful crazy stuff, that’s the real point of Steampunk isn’t it!

See? See how awesome she is? Not only that, but there is Lovelace and Babbage merch! It features t-shirts and mugs and a mousepad with this awesome picture of Ada Lovelace crawling around in the Difference Engine, like Scotty in a Jefferies Tube:

Well, folks, that’s all for now. Hope you enjoyed the interview with Sydney Padua! If this doesn’t make you want to read the comic, I don’t know what will. Until next time, toodles!

Jaymee Goh is a Malaysian living in Canada. Currently freelancing, she spends her free time rooting around the internet hunting for material for her MA thesis idea, clearly indicating that she needs to be hired.


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