The Jekyll Island Chronicles by Steve Nedvidek, Ed Crowell, and Jack Lowe, published by Top Shelf Productions, shines a bright light on alternate history in the comic medium with its deep characterizations of historical figures and innovative takes on technology and politics. The titular location, Jekyll Island, is an actual site off the coast of Georgia that became the winter retreat for the rich and famous of the early twentieth century. Fully one-sixth of humankind’s wealth was centered in its luxurious hotel and mansion-sized cottages. The Chronicles ask, in classic “what if” alternate history fashion, “What if these wealthy men had organized their resources to found a new league of heroes?”
The story behind the creation of Jekyll Island Chronicles is akin to the comic itself. As discussed in their widely successful Kickstarter campaign, Nedvidek, Crowell, and Lowe are just average joes with dreams of creating something bold and new. When the idea for the story struck them, they enlisted the talents of young artists at the nearby Savannah College of Art and Design, Moses Nester and S.J. Miller. Rather than billionaire industrialists, the project’s patrons were more everyday people that contributed to something that has grabbed readers’ attention and exploded into the next level of comics through major houses.
The groundwork is laid in the first collection, A Machine Age War. This is by no means the whole story, really just the first chapter or two of what is becoming a grand epic. Even in its first few pages, heroism is displayed in the trenches of World War I during the latter days as Americans join the rugged fight. A theme throughout the work, heroes are defined not only by great power and using that power responsibly but by the importance of humility, civility, and justice.
The action of A Machine Age War begins with a bang and then settles into rising. Pages are packed with backroom discussions and deal-making as President Woodrow Wilson arrives at Jekyll Island to challenge the most powerful men in the world to do something even greater. He senses a new evil arising, the anarchy that drove the hand of Gavrilo Princip to assassinate the archduke of Austria being only the tip of a hidden iceberg that threatens to destroy the world order.
The alternate history inventions are some of the best work in A Machine Age War¸ creating early twentieth century superheroes through marvelous mechanical cyborgs and a mistress of electricity who wows Nikola Tesla and the lesser known, but perhaps equally important, Charles Steinmetz. These are fun enough in themselves, but the comic’s richness is in its deep grounding in actual history, such as Wilson’s campaign for the League of Nations and his stroke near the end of his presidency. Historical figures such as cigar-toting J.P. Morgan, benevolent-minded Andrew Carnegie, and eager newcomer Henry Ford come alive on the page with characterization.
Perhaps the exciting intertwining of historical fact and fiction in A Machine Age War is best portrayed in its final panel as villains sit in a beerhall Munich in 1920, whispering about potential as a skinny fellow with a toothbrush mustache gives a fervent speech in front of a red, white, and black banner. The cliffhanger leaves the reader shivering with anticipation to think of what is to come next in The Jekyll Island Chronicles.