If you believe Sydney Padua, then nothing to do with her web comic is due to her. "Everything I've ever done is because someone has said to me, 'Hey, you should do this,'" she says. "I need very strong pressure to do anything at all. Otherwise, I'd just be sitting on the couch."
However, fans of Padua's 2D Goggles: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage might question this self-assessment. Set in an alternate 19th Century where Charles Babbage's difference engine was actually built and his collaborator Ada Lovelace did not die at thirty-seven, the comic has a pacing and sense of humor (to say nothing of a fondness for footnotes) utterly unlike anything else. Its intellectual entertainment makes Padua a fitting subject for Ada Lovelace Day on October 7, particularly because of the comic's origin in the celebration.
Growing up, Padua was an enthusiastic reader of comics — everything
from Will Eisner's Spirit to Bill Watterson's Calvin and
Hobbes and The X-Men. "Walt Kelly's 'Pogo' is a big influence, not just on my drawing, but on the tone of the comic," she says. "He did a lot of really gentle social and political satire, very funny and very gentle. And Carl Barks, who wrote 'Tales from the Duck Side' — I used to have stacks of his comics when I was a kid."
As an adult, Padua became an animator and special effects engineer, working on such films as The Iron Giant, Clash of the Titans, The Golden Compass, and the upcoming John Carter. Her work is done using Maya, running on GNU/Linux servers, with Python for scripting. "Every studio I've worked in, at least in London, runs on Linux," she notes.
So far, she does not use free software at home, although she does say that "I'm personally interested in it in the way that anyone is who works on computers is."
Despite her geeky occupation, until beginning Lovelace and Babbage, Padua was only peripherally aware of the steampunk genre, or of web comics — although she did know about Kate Beaton, whose online comic Hark! A Vagrant often deals with historical subjects, including Ada Lovelace.
Origins and footnotes
Lovelace and Babbage is the product of the first Ada Lovelace Day in
The woman who runs it, Suw Charman-Anderson, is a really good friend of
mine. She lives in London, too, and we go out to pubs. And at some
pub at some point, she was like, 'You should do a comic!' [for Ada Lovelace
At the time, Padua was hardly more aware of Lovelace than she was of steampunk or web comics. "It was like, 'Oh, Ada Lovelace, something to do with computers'."
Still, Padua quickly warmed to the idea. "I'd always done comics for
fun, and here was one with a purpose. I started as a traditional hand-drawn
animator, so it's kind of a treat for me to draw these days." As for her main characters, Padua adds, "Babbage and Lovelace were eccentric even by Victorian standards. They were off the wall — and I really respect that, actually."
Figuring that Lovelace was less than a household word, Padua began the episode called "The Origin" with a summary of Lovelace's life, followed by a humorous version of her first meeting with Babbage, which bystanders describe as "the invention of the geek." Her account of the meeting ends with Lovelace rushing off to tweet about the encounter, only to discover that she is a couple of centuries too early.
"But the ending is so miserable — she just dies," Padua says. Consequently, Padua couldn't resist going on to describe what should have happened: Babbage and Lovelace succeed in building the world's first computer, and go on to have adventures and fight crime (or at least their eccentric conception of it). "I did a drawing of them with ray guns because it was fun to draw, and used it as the end of the comic."
The comic was released under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, and, so far as Padua was concerned, that was that. The ending was simply a good joke, and the comic "a one-off thing." However, to her surprise, "a lot of people saw it and thought that I was actually going to do a comic, which I had no intention of doing. But then I started thinking, 'What if I actually did the comic?' I started fooling around, and I guess I'm still fooling around with it."
In the second episode, "The Organist," Padua introduced the series' third main character: Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great 19th Century engineer, whom many female readers view as the comic's beefcake. Padua herself jokes that Brunel is "the Wolverine of the early Victorians," but, in more serious moods, regards him as a pragmatic man of action who counter-balances Babbage's and Lovelace's theoretical preoccupations:
Babbage and Lovelace are very 1840s. Modern steampunk and Victoriana tends
to be much more [oriented] towards the 1890s. But the early Victorian
Period is really dominated by Brunel. You can't get away from him —
he's absolutely everywhere. And he's also this huge kind of personality. I
had to put him in. Like everything I've put into the comic so far, he
seemed a fun gag at the time, and just wound up sticking around.
A few months ago, Brunel even showed up in the comic's blog, where, asked to help, he immediately converts a toy-like model of Padua's narrative into a massive steel and girder construction while poetically urging her to aspire to greatness — and adding an extra four pages about himself to the story outline.
In fact, the addition of Brunel is typical of how Padua writes. Aside from deliberate anachronisms, many of the comics' details are historically accurate, and the jokes simply exaggerations of her characters' recorded opinions. Babbage, for example, really was obsessed with the nuisance of street musicians, and Lovelace's mother actually did try to shield her from poetry by encouraging her studies in mathematics. In this sense, Lovelace and Babbage has always been as much about Padua's research notes as the actual comic.
As Padua continued to write, she soon became absorbed by the times she was
The thing about the Victorian Era was, it's kind of the gold rush of
ideas. There was so much. I mean, once you had the steam engine, once you
had the money and all these people concentrated in one place, and the
scientific method, everything was ready to go. It sometimes seems
extraordinary that all these ideas could have come out of just one place,
as if everyone was just that much smarter than we are now. But I think
we're a bit mined out now of all the easy ideas. Then, the ideas were just
waiting to be discovered, and there was this great, savage excitement about
finding things out. The Victorians were when everything started. I mean,
the post office started, the banking system started — everything we
assume is obvious now, somebody had to invent it. And that somebody was a
With this fascination, Padua was soon delving deeply into original source material, tweeting about her findings as she went.
"Some of the documents are more entertaining than the actual
comic. Plenty of times, I've thrown something into the comic just so I'd
have an excuse to refer to some document," she says.
Along the way, she also became something of a believer in open access, as she found many of her historical sources disappearing for one reason or the other from the web after she linked to them.
This year, the next episode of Lovelace and Babbage, which includes an appearance by novelist George Eliot, has been delayed by Padua's special effects work on John Carter. All the same, the comic continues to develop and gain new audiences — again, thanks to other people's enthusiasms.
In June 2011, Padua was asked to produce 25 limited edition prints as thank-you gifts for donors in a fund-raising campaign for The Ada Initiative, a non-profit whose goal is to increase the participation of women in free culture and technology.
Valerie Aurora, co-founder of The Ada Initiative, explains:
We needed a really spectacularly cool gift to raise the kind of money we
were looking for.
Probably few donors knew about Sydney's work before, but
it only takes about thirty seconds to fall in love with the comic. It's
like computer nerd catnip. Definitely, donations fell off after we ran out
of Sydney's prints. And Sydney was so incredibly nice and helpful, even
though she was the one doing the favor for us. Apparently, no one told her
that talented artists are supposed to be difficult.
Yet another project began when app developer Dave Addy, who had heard Padua talk, recognized her on the London Underground. "He's another one saying to me, 'Oh, wouldn't it be fun if we did this?" Padua says.
With Addy's assistance, she began work on an iPad app consisting of "The
Origin" and the episode entitled "The
Client," which features the young Queen Victoria, the Duke of Wellington, and his famous horse Copenhagen. For the app, which is scheduled for release on Ada Lovelace Day, Padua has cleaned up the drawings, and added more notes.
The process has also turned Padua's thoughts to the long term. "The stuff I'm putting online is just me throwing things against the wall. There's no real plan. I'm trying to figure it out now." An Android version of the app seems a likely next step, and Padua is also considering print publication.
Padua is even playing with ideas about how she might write the comic
full-time. But, like many people producing free content, she is still
struggling to find a way to make it pay:
People do make a living from web comics; I'm just thinking how to manage
it. One of the things I'm thinking about is that the Victorians did
everything with advertising. In London, there's whole sides of buildings
that are advertising. So I'm wondering if we could sell ad space —
but you'd have to have your ad Victorianized. But I don't know.
Meanwhile, Padua's interest in the comic shows no signs of diminishing.
Babbage and Lovelace both had very big personalities, and they're very
relatable as human beings. Things like computers in most people's
experiences are very cold, but they have their roots in this very, very
human source. To me, that's a lot of the fascination. It's dramatic, and
it's a lot of story. I'm obsessed with it. I can't get away from it.
No matter who or what is responsible for the comic's erratic progressions, clearly Padua has an avocation that fascinates her as much it does her readers.
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