The full audio of this interview is available as part of The Den of Geek Podcast (at 23:34)
Imagine a version of history in which superheroes were veterans of the Great War, needed at a time when anarchists threatened the American way of life, and captains of industry met on Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia to assemble a team to combat those who would halt progress. Such is the world envisioned by The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Machine Age War, a diesel-punk graphic novel from IDW by collaborators Steve Nedvidek, Jack Lowe, and Ed Crowell, and with book two in the series, A Devil’s Reach, being released this month, Nedvidek shared the origins of this unique blend of superhero adventure and alternate history.
The industrial associations of the term “diesel-punk” allow for innovative interpretations of enhanced abilities such as those present among the super-team known as Carnegie’s Specials in The Jekyll Island Chronicles. The heroes include gentle giant Peter Karovik with his custom-made prosthetic legs and the electrically-charged nurse Helen Huxley. In the historical context, Nedvidek explains, these superheroes may almost seem like steampunk creations taken to the next stage of technological development.
“Steampunk, if you think of the classic wild, wild west kind of a thing, the railroads are really big; everything’s driven by steam. Well, diesel is the next stage, so it starts in World War I and extends out,” Nedvidek says. “What would happen if Andrew Carnegie took technology and put it on steroids, if Nikola Tesla got involved, and they really tried to harness electricity in this age of industrial invention? So it’s not as ‘geary’ as the steampunk world. There’s some of that in there, but think more pistons, think more fuel, think more diesel.”
Nedvidek and his colleagues Lowe and Crowell hatched the idea for the post-World War I action hero tale out of an understanding of the political upheaval of that era. “We wanted to put a group of heroes from the war who were then rebuilt, redesigned, and enhanced by the likes of Tesla, Carnegie, Steinmetz, Ford, and other inventors of that age to go out and fight the anarchists that were really trying to blow things up,” says Nedvidek. “1920 was the year that the anarchists led by Luigi Galleani tried to blow up Wall Street and more than 38 people were killed, so it’s a real thing… so it’s an alt-history, sci-fi, fantasy, action hero adventure kind of a thing.”
The superheroes in The Jekyll Island Chronicles don’t have powers that spring from mutations or radioactive spiders; Nedvidek and his colleagues tried to keep the enhanced abilities realistic. “For example, Helen Huxley, who’s the nurse, she gets electrocuted in a freak accident, and she begins to store energy in her body. Everything she touches, she shocks, so there’s plausible stuff going on,” Nedvidek argues. “And then we have Tesla coming in with Steinmetz, who’s a hero of the age that nobody knew, a contemporary of Thomas Edison… and they help Helen harness her energy. They create a backpack for her and a suit for her that allows her to store the energy until she needs to release it against the bad guys at the right time.”
Top Shelf Productions published The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Machine Age War after its successful crowdfunding campaign, and the authors had an interesting way of hiring their artist and colorist. “We sponsored a class at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and we actually brought in Masters students to help us visualize this world of The Jekyll Island Chronicles… and hired two of them after they graduated to help us with the book,” Nedvidek explains. “But we needed money to actually create the book, so we did a Kickstarter campaign. It was successful — we blew the doors off our goal, and as a result of that, we were able to start book two.”
IDW Publishing eventually acquired Georgia-based Top Shelf, and with IDW Entertainment converting many of its intellectual properties into successful television shows like Wynonna Earp and series in development like October Faction and Locke & Key, there’s hope that the diesel-punk world of The Jekyll Island Chronicles could show up on the small screen someday. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” admits Nedvidek, “and we’re hoping that there’s a showrunner out there that’s interested in this age.”