Today's arc is part of the Organist arc, in which Babbage has gone a little off and turned his mathematical genius to destroy all instruments which produce street music, because he hates street music, and he really does. Our Lady Lovelace has thus abandoned him to his eccentric, overbearing project, and Chaos Ensues!
Please be to seeing the actual page in all its amazing black and white glory before proceeding further or you will not understand my squee and hilarity.
Sydney Padua's greatest strength in her visual story-telling style is her ability to produce caricatures - really exaggerated versions of the real person that she is caricaturing, based on her porous research and any old thing she can string together. The result is delightfully theatric. The most important part about this is that Padua is capable of caricaturing real historical persons playfully, whilst all the while remaining true to the history of the actual person.
Unlike most caricatures which are designed to mock and highlight the flaws of the subject matter, Sydney Padua's caricatures are designed to give warmth to what would otherwise be overly melodramatic story-telling. They aren't designed to shock, but to delight. Padua's style is one that takes pot-shots at the unfortunate institutions of the past with today's modern sensibilities. So far, she hasn't failed to show her chops at being a complete progressive - she doesn't rely on any -isms to carry her humour, and frankly, the more you analyse her work, as she encourages her audience to do by sharing her primary sources, the funnier it gets.
Now, anybody who reads this blog knows I have an overwhelming loathing for Orientalism and its new forms. I loathe stereotyping and I loathe caricatures because they tend to render minorities (both racial and other types) as cardboard characters who have no real agency in any story.
I generally love Sydney Padua's work. When I interviewed her for Tor.com's Steampunk month, I wrote:
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!
I stand by this assertion. Initially, I wondered if I should have taken offense to the Triads panel - after all, I do hate Orientalist imagery: it's essentially minstrel material.
However, Padua's work is done with a lot of care and affection, and it shows. Unlike some Victorientalists I can name, she doesn't rely on lazy stereotypes that flatten and Other-ize; in her work, she attempts to be inclusive. The only downside is that it can come off as tokenizing, but this steampunk postcolonialist heartily approves of her little efforts.
And I have said before, Sydney Padua is an excellent caricaturist.
Because that Triad panel?
MADE ME LAUGH AND SMILE AND GRIN SO HARD MY CHEEKS HURT A LOT. They are still in pain as I write, and I swear, I really really was going to sit down and deliver to you a Very Serious Review of Gaslight Dogs which will now have to wait until the overwhelming mirth is gone.
ALLOW ME TO DECONSTRUCT THE FUNNY. Let's start with the context.
First, we are given an overdramatic shot of the Organist's lair and a general introduction to the scene: where all the villains have gathered! This comic is not called the Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage for no goddamn good reason.
We are given the Sopranos! Clearly a riff on the well-known mafia show, and a visual gag featuring women, who are sopranos and dressed as famous operatic characters sung by sopranos!
Then the Triads! There are three of them, and a triad is a musical term! Also, a triad is a Chinese gangster organization! Anybody who watches movies and shows involving Chinatowns will know.
Assorted musical miscreants! Based on the Clockwork Quartet, who are a band of very good musicians coming together to create lovely, theatrical music! Each band member has a specific persona representing a pulp fiction type, but don't ask me about the General's Wife. The hilarious thing, of course, is that they really do look like the members of the Quartet. And we know that musicians are miscreants!
And then the Organist himself! Complete with monkey henchman! Steepling his fingers. "MY FELLOW EVIL-DOERS," he pronounces.
Each great group that could possibly have a part to play in menacing the streets of London have been represented! WE CHINEE ARE THERE. (Typo on purpose.)
Now that we've covered the larger context, let's have a look at the panel itself:
So let's analyze this panel further, shall we? To be honest? The only visual cue I can garner that really sends of CHINESEness is that hat. Let's face it, Sydney Padua's drawing style is pretty rudimentary and simple for most of her characters - much of their identifying features are in the little cues, very carefully chosen lines (or maybe in her case she's just so damned fucking talented it could be a goddamn fluke), so all we've got to go on for this picture is the Hat, plus the costume of the tai kor sitting down.
There are three of them, tai kor at the bottom, and two faces one on top of each other, a row of faces. There is a background with a treble clef, and the bottom two lines of music manuscript.
Then we see the name: the Triads - the second clue that this is, indeed, a reference to Chinese gangsters, attending this illustrious, nefarious conference, part of the orchestra of evil!
Then it pings in - the background? The faces against the background? Resembles a musical triad - the line of the Hat being a line for Middle C, and the two other faces perfectly aligned to E and G notes perfectly.
Geddit? Geddit? Chinese gangsters? Chinese musical triad? Part of an orchestra of evil street musicians?
Whew, okay, laughter over. And for all that explanation, the joke does not fail! Because it does not require racism to hold it up. It requires knowledge of gangsterism and music, both of which are incongruously tossed together into an absurd, delightful confection of hilarity. I am so tempted to use this picture for an online organization of Chinese (and other East Asian) steampunks to hilariously rally under.
People like to hide behind "omg shut up it's funny" to defend their humour without analysing further what makes it funny. And you can tell that if they were to do that, a lot of laughter in their lives would be gone. This is good! Because then it behooves our comedians and comediennes to work harder to develop their craft, and not rely on lazy stereotypes to get a cheap laugh at other people's expense.
A quick laugh is one thing. It's shallow and often biased and heavily privileged. Truly inclusive humour can withstand overanalysis. True humour that brings a smile to all doesn't depend on injustice or cruelty, but on care and affection.
Sydney Padua may well disappoint me in the future, but the work she has produced so far is truly enjoyable and a genuinely good spirit shows through. For that, I appreciate the LOL moments that has got my cheeks hurting.