The Strange Case of the Spoofer Captured by a Spoof
By EDWARD WYATT
The New York Times - November 1, 2005
As a comedian, actor and satirist, Chris Elliott has made a career out of blurring the line between truth and absurdity. As a novelist, he has unintentionally fuzzied things further by falling for an online spoof and incorporating a fictional robot into his book as a historical figure.
Now, Mr. Elliott finds himself in a comic nightmare, bending over backward to avoid being accused of a comedian's cardinal sin - lifting someone else's joke - and agreeing to a financial settlement with the robot's creator to head off potential litigation.
"The Shroud of the Thwacker," Mr. Elliott's debut novel, published in October by Miramax Books, tells the tale of Jack the Jolly Thwacker, a serial killer terrorizing New York in the late 1800's. A spoof of period mysteries like Caleb Carr's "Alienist," the book also nods to the thrillers of Patricia Cornwell and, perhaps inevitably, to "The Da Vinci Code."
But it does so in characteristic Elliott fashion, mixing historical figures like Teddy Roosevelt, here seen as a disturbingly flatulent mayor of New York (a wink at those who know that Roosevelt was a police commissioner of New York, but never mayor), with fictitious creations like the police chief, Caleb Spencer. Some inhabit a kind of time-warped middle ground, like an intrepid reporter named Liz Smith who writes for a paper called The Evening Post and a time-traveling investigator named Chris Elliott.
To his satirical 19th-century mix of gas-powered wooden cellphones and imagined New York landmarks like the original Ray's Pizzeria, Mr. Elliott adds a minor but intriguing character named Boilerplate, a robot said to be developed by the inventor Archibald Campion in the late 1800's. According to a deliciously detailed Internet site that tracks the robot's history (bigredhair.com), Boilerplate was designed to replace humans in combat; it took part in Roosevelt's campaign at San Juan Hill, joined the hunt for Pancho Villa, and fought in and, ultimately, disappeared during World War I.
But in fact, Boilerplate never was. It is the creation of Paul Guinan, an illustrator and graphic novelist in Portland, Ore., who with his wife, Anina Bennett, is the author of "Heartbreakers Meet Boilerplate," published in July by IDW Publishing.
In an interview, Mr. Guinan (pronounced GUY-nan) said he learned of Boilerplate's inclusion in Mr. Elliott's novel when he read a local newspaper article last month about a promotional appearance by Mr. Elliott in Oregon.
In the acknowledgments section of his book, Mr. Elliott says that Boilerplate came to his attention thanks to research performed by his brother, Bob Elliott Jr. "You can't make up something like 'Boilerplate,' " Mr. Elliott writes. "Well you can, but it's a lot easier when your brother just shows you a picture of it."
Soon, Mr. Elliott heard from friends of Mr. Guinan, who said that he was considering legal action for the "fairly blatant and quite unauthorized" lifting of a copyrighted character.
Mr. Elliott, who is scheduled to give a reading tonight at 7 at the Barnes & Noble at 4 Astor Place in Manhattan, said in an interview that he knew Boilerplate was some kind of a spoof. But, he said, he thought it was a 19th-century spoof, not a postmodern, post-dated parody of a hoax.
"I knew something like that could not exist," he said. "It was an innocent mistake, and I felt like such an idiot. It made me feel like less of an idiot that the background information he gives on his Web site is fairly convincing.
Mr. Elliott said he did find a bit of humor in the episode: "I think it's really kind of funny. The whole thing about this book is that I did almost no research for it, and the one little bit of research I did I got wrong.
Mr. Elliott, it turns out, is not the first person to be caught in Boilerplate's net. The Boilerplate site's digitally altered period photographs have roped in a number of victims, including various students of robotics who have asked technical questions about Boilerplate's means of propulsion and other historical details.
Mr. Guinan said on Saturday that Mr. Elliott had agreed to pay him a percentage of his earnings from the book and would credit Mr. Guinan's creation in future editions. The two negotiated a settlement themselves, both said, sharing a desire to keep lawyers out of it. They were both surprised, they said, that at no point in the publication process did anyone at Miramax raise questions about the legal standing of Boilerplate.
Judy Hottensen, publisher of Miramax Books, said the company had lawyers look at the manuscript, given that the story included real-life characters. "But it has things like wooden cellphones powered by gas, and all this other crazy wacky stuff," she said. "The robot just didn't hit the radar screen."