A co-worker and a good friend, Jane Irwin has been a big source of inspiration and motivation to me. Someone who knows her stuff, and with a personality that gears towards the free exchange of information and her experiences, Jane is a prime example of dedication and introspection in both her life and her graphic novels.
Jane Irwin is a comic book creator hailing from Kalamazoo, a college town in western Michigan. An author and illustrator, Jane first cut her teeth on her Vögelein series in 2002, which was named Booklist’s “Top Ten Graphic Novels For Youth in 2003.” She later went on to start the webcomic Clockwork Game in early 2008.
Jane has begun a Kickstarter campaign to consolidate Clockwork Game into a full, bound volume. She is providing significant incentives for pledges, including PDFs of the novel, trade paperbacks, the complete set of all her works, original artwork, and deluxe hardcover editions.
The book is historical fiction based in the 1700s. Clockwork Game tells the tale of a purported “chess-playing automaton,” created by Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen. The story takes us through the 18th and 19th centuries following the career of this machine, through political unrest, cultural appropriation, and a whole lot of failed ambition. At the end of the volume is an array of citations and footnotes that helps to show her dedication to authenticity (though the story sometimes takes liberties when needed).
I had the opportunity to sit down with Jane to discuss the story, her process, and her expectations for the book.
For any newcomers, how would you describe your newest comic, Clockwork Game?
It’s a historical fiction graphic novel. I’ve taken too much liberty with the actual history to say that it’s a true story; the closest I can say is that it’s based heavily in fact, with many fictitious elements. There were several characters whose names have been lost to history for whom I had to fabricate personalities and create histories and actions, when in reality we nothing of about what kind of people they were. When I change things, I do try really hard to point out in the footnotes, “yeah, this isn’t probably exactly how it happened.”
There’s pages and pages of footnotes, which really indicates that you did a lot of research.
Well, I’m just nerdy about stuff, that’s what it boils down to. I used to go exploring in encyclopedias when I was a little kid before the internet, and man, I will lose hours if I fall down the Wikipedia hole (or God forbid, TV Tropes).
How long did it take you, and what was your process?
I had heard about this story a while back when I read a non-fiction book on the topic, and I thought the story was incredible. I got a bug in my ear to do the story and it just kind of snowballed.
When I started, a huge, huge trove of my primary resources — the actual contemporary reports of the automaton — were available on Google Books. I first started writing it in 2007 when Google Books was really starting to get huge. And I think what made it possible was just being able to go and just enter in a couple of terms and get the original sources. Being able to read these books that were written in the 1770s about this automaton when it toured Europe, to be able to read the original French Science Journal talking about how amazing it was, it’s incredible the stuff you can find on the internet.
I still had to go crawling through the Kalamazoo College Library and find some books (which have since been scanned and added to Google Books.) I had to do a bit of both old school and contemporary research.
Well, it looks like it paid off at least.
I hope so. I really hope so. When I restarted the book from its hiatus, it was really my focus to make sure that I was doing a good enough job talking about the Orientalism inherent in the automaton’s presentation, its political motivations, its political import. Its significance changed depending on the audience that was receiving it.
Westerners are still kind of obsessed with casting people from certain countries and cultures as “exotic,” as “mysterious.” It’s interesting to me to see how long this kind of othering has been happening and sadly how unbroken that chain of othering is. What I’m hoping to do with the book is kind of show that parallel, that it’s still going on.
So that kind of leads me to another question. What would you want the reader to come out of this having learned?
Well, it’s not so much an educational book as much in my opinion. I try not to hit my readers over the head with a stick. I think it’s a really — if I can go this far about saying this about my own stuff — I think it’s a really complicated book. And I don’t mean complicated in that it’s complex. I mean that there’s a lot of grey area in there, especially when you try to look at the racial and social implications of the automaton.
The stuff that drew me into this story in the first place were the easy surface elements: The mysteriousness of man versus the thinking machine, the same kind of themes I had explored in my previous two books, the Clockwork Faerie series. What makes us human? What is the difference between human and artificial intelligence? What happens when you believe a machine can think?
What is more important, a thing that actually works or the concept of a thing that actually works? Which do people believe first, stories or facts? Can you hoax yourself while you’re perpetrating a hoax? Everyone that owned the automaton hoaxed themselves in their own different ways, each trying to use the automaton for their own gain, but it seemed to wind up breaking every single one of them.
As I rewrote the book – in addition to all the fun, nerdy ideas that caught my attention in the first place — I got much more interested in the racial and cultural aspects of the automaton, how that kind of Orientalism is still pervasive. I’m kind of hoping that if people see how tawdry and weird it looks to see it happen in the 18th and 19th century settings, maybe we can think about how we all react to similar cultures today — the exotification, the objectification, cultural appropriation, all those factors that still plague popular culture.
You mentioned a little bit what inspired the comic, what really pushed you to work on this. It sounds like it was a really big undertaking.
I just have this thing where if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it. And I’ll continue to self-flagellate until I get there. I talk big a lot of times, but I try not to write checks that I can’t cash.
I had started writing it in 2007 and I was hoping to finish it in 3 years, intending for it to fit right in the steampunk genre, and it was supposed to be just a lot of nerdy fun.
But during Racefail, hearing so many writers of color, so many fans of color, talk so profoundly and so harrowingly about the way they are affected by other people’s ignorance, by other peoples lack of attention to big cultural ideas, it really impacted me. It made me realize how the story just seemed hollow because I wasn’t properly addressing those issues as I introduced them. And that’s why I put the story on hiatus, I could no longer reconcile the story I had set out to write with the truth that had been presented to me.
So I stopped the story, went back, talked to some cultural consultants, got an editor, showed my stuff to them, went through a couple of iterations. The first editor I had (who had to bow out because of time constraints), he told me some truth that I wasn’t ready to hear, and it took me two years to re-write that story. That’s part of the reason why it took me so long, in a lot of ways I was not prepared for the scope of my own ignorance.
So above all else, this book has brought profound internal changes in me, the process has taught me so much, and it’s absolutely not the book I set out to write.
Talking a little bit more about it being a learning experience, is that something you think whenever someone goes to write a book or create a comic: that they should be conscientious and open to criticism?
And to new information, to new concepts, to new ideas, as well. I can’t speak for anybody else, but that has absolutely been true for me. Never once, in the three books that I’ve written, did I wind up writing the story that I set out to write. If you go in with this fixed idea, why do research? Talking with people, speaking with cultural consultants, getting an editor, that should teach you not only about the book that you’re writing, but about yourself.
It’s not only going to shape you as a writer, it’s going to shape you as a human being. The constant page by page failure that occurs when you have to write — and I don’t mean that necessarily negatively — but you fail on every single page in a different way. You have to learn from all those mistakes. You have to correct your theories as new information is presented to you.
It’s like the scientific method. I feel like if I close myself off to the possibility of changing my initial idea, I’m closing myself off to not only being more educated about the subject I care deeply about, I’m closing myself off to learning and growing as a human being. Because you grow by having your ideas challenged.
When I started working with my editor, whose name is Nisi Shawl (an award-winning author, who also wrote the foreword to Clockwork Game), she made several suggestions to the script which I feel improved it immensely. Based on her own personal experiences, she was able to see things about certain characters that I couldn’t, and her input definitely made it a stronger book. Nisi is an accomplished writer in her own right. She’s an incredibly thoughtful writer, very empathic in her writing, and I don’t think I could have found a better editor for my specific needs than Nisi.
I have a cultural consultant because, to be completely honest, while I have the time to do the reading into the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and the US during the 19th century, I don’t have the time to get super scholarly informed on it. I have read a couple of books, one called The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge 2006) by Dr. Timothy Marr, who actually introduced me to Dr. Emrah Sahin, who was my Turkish cultural consultant. His area of expertise is Turkish politics and society from the 19th century forward, with specific attention to Turkish-American and Turkish-European relations. There literally was not a better person that I could have found help me with the book.
Definitely not one of those cases where it’s just you in a room writing. There’s a lot of hands in this book.
There are now. There weren’t originally. Originally, it was just me in a room. I think the structure that I’ve adapted for my writing process of this book is better than what I was doing before.
Again, I don’t want to try to hold myself up as an expert. I can only talk about the process that I used for this specific book. I tried to treat the issues of cultural appropriation and Orientalism as just another topic I had to research. So, I did my best to educate myself with books, and when I thought I had a basic understanding, I sought people with more experience in those subjects to help me with the story, to help me see the problems my ignorance prevented me from seeing. I wasn’t always successful – I have failed a lot in the process of making the book and expect to have errors in it despite my best efforts. All I can do is learn from my mistakes and apply that knowledge to my next book.
For more information about Clockwork Game, check out the site or go take a look at her Kickstarter, which does a fantastic job of outlining her goals and how the funds will be used.