Madison-based writer and cartoonist Jay Rath describes his serial work, The Washburn Expedition, as “the world’s first Facebook novel.” Updated twice each weekday, the story follows “the continuing adventures of Dr. Allenby, plucky Rita, young Reggie and Billie the Cowboy as they search the world for THRILLS and ROMANCE!” Jay uses film stills, old advertisements, and other historic images he finds online to catalog his characters’ misadventures as they travel the globe by train, steamship, and dirigible.
We recently invited Jay to dig into our digital collections and create a new adventure for the Washburn crew. He started by searching for images to represent his four core characters — professorial figures (Dr. Allenby), 1920s-style ingenues (Rita Rennebohm), earnest fraternity types (Reggie) and, of course, cowboys (Billie the Cowboy). Next, he looked for methods of transportation appropriate to the story’s 1920s-1930s setting. Photos of miniature train cars from Janesville and Two Rivers inspired the plot for this adventure and established a new adversary for the team. Rather than miniature railroads with regular-sized humans, these would be regular-sized railroads with giants at the wheel!
The Expedition’s regular run-ins with giants and other strange beasts are inspired in part by the works of Jules Verne and Bernard Heuvelmans. Heuvelmans, an early 20th century Belgian explorer and zoologist, is credited with coining the term “cryptozoology”–the study of mythic or undiscovered animals. Exploration and a fascination with the exotic and unfamiliar are threads running throughout the series, and Jay says he deliberately set the story in the period between World War I and World War II in order to capture that era of discovery, when there were “still bare spots on the map.” However, the story is less a celebration of global exploration and more a “parody of jingoism,” complete with some sly references to contemporary American politics.
Another central inspiration for The Washburn Expedition is the serial radio drama, a hugely popular narrative form in the 1930s and 40s. Jay cites I Love A Mystery (1939-1944), an ongoing radio play about three friends who ran a detective agency and traveled the world in search of adventure, as a particular influence. In fact, Jay’s fondness for radio storytelling led him to create, in collaboration with The Onion co-founder Scott Dikkers, the series The Radio Pirates for National Public Radio.
What’s next for the expedition? According to Jay, the team will remain in Madison for the next couple of weeks, in order to celebrate the Washburn Museum’s annual Toast Day and take part in a picnic and croquet match. No location has been set for the next adventure . . . so readers, stay tuned!
Jay Rath is a former staff member of The Onion and has contributed to MAD magazine, Utne Reader, Milwaukee Journal, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Capital Times, Wisconsin State Journal, and Isthmus.