I’ve just spent the morning geeking out on an online comic book library, as you do, discovering a forgotten superhero of American sci-fi history. The world’s first science fiction periodical, Frank Reade dime-novels had helicopters and airships before Jules Verne, but while the famous French adventure novelist is still considered a major literary author around the world today, who’s ever heard of Frank Reade?
Published under the anonymous pseudonym, “No Name”, during the 19th century boom of boys’ cheap fiction, the series followed the adventures of the Reade family: Frank Reade; his son, Frank Reade Jr., and grandson Frank Reade III. While the first five stories starred Frank Reade, Sr, adventurer and inventor of steam-robots, most of the 184 stories featured the second generation of the Reade clan, a teenage hero-inventor who travelled the globe in his electric machines.
Frank Reade Jr. was a busy guy, usually off fighting sea monsters with his machines, discovering lost gold or killing an astonishing amount of Native Americans. Yep, Frank Reade Jr., was not just a brilliant “superhero” inventor, he was also an unashamed imperialist. And while the adventures and the inventions themselves are the most important parts of the stories, there are strong undertones of imperialism and white supremacy throughout the series. Reade behaves a bit like a bull in a colonial china shop; crash-landing in foreign territories, using his machines to bulldoze through native tribes and then claim their treasure.
While the stories are credited to “No Name”, the author was in fact Luis Senarens, a Brooklynite of Cuban descent who began writing for the series at the age of just sixteen. When he was seventeen, he received a letter of praise from Jules Verne himself. The two would spend the rest of their careers stealing ideas from each other. It was only Verne, however, who would become a titan of science fiction. Of course, it didn’t help that Senarens’ stories were only published in dime-novels, a form of popular fiction typically blamed for the criminal behaviour of young men in the same way that video games are blamed today.
As destructive as they are, Reade’s inventions are pretty damn impressive, fantastical and even more than a century later, still impossible…
Or are they?
Okay, so unfortunately, these aren’t actually historical evidence of steampunk machine sightings. In 2012, a steampunk-inclined duo of historians resurrected Frank Reade’s character with a book, telling the Reade family story as a faux historical biography, using hundreds of fake documentary-style photos crafted from the Victorian era.
You can discover the entire series in the Frank Reade Library on Comic Book Plus.