Lady Mechanika Vol. 1 Serves Up an Impressive & Ambitious Steampunk Tale
Bella Wheaton
More than a decade after her comic debut, Image Comics is reviving Lady Mechanika with a series of reprints, starting with her first adventure, "The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse." Creator, writer, and artist Joe Benitez is re-joined by his long-time colorist Peter Steigerwald, and Lady Mechanika's letters have been revamped by Michael Heisler for this new collection. Following Lady Mechanika, the detective untangles the machinations of corporate and government villains in Mechanika City. After months of Cyberpunk 2077's sleek, neon aesthetics of human augmentation saturating popular imagination, this steampunk period-drama offers a refreshing foil to grim futurism by inventing an even grimmer past.
Lady Mechanika Volume 1's prologue sets up the core of the story, introducing part-machine detective Lady Mechanika and her abilities as a sleuth, marksman, and all-around tough nut -- as well as her amnesiac past. Using this tantalizing mystery as a jumping-off point, the main story is incited by the pursuit of another mechanical woman. Lady Mechanika investigates this potential lead into discovering her own past. She infiltrates the Ministry of Health and confronts old enemies with clues eventually leading her to a suspiciously tight-lipped circus troupe. By the epilogue, new questions and villains have been exposed -- and the original conundrum of who Lady Mechanika's true identity has gained new and ominous dimensions.
Although detective-fiction snobs would argue that the plotting could be tighter, Benitez is unparalleled in terms of his characterization and world-building. So much information is effortlessly imparted through the characters and their interactions, including utilizing conventions of Victorian etiquette to underscore relationship dynamics. His writing and art blend to create a world that feels raw with naturalistic exposition and harsh but intricate lines that express the foreboding synthetic beauty of Mechanika City. Benitez delivers many moments that translate the visceral nature of Victorian violence as well as some truly chilling body horror. Despite his high standard of illustration, some of the action can feel a little muddled, with the momentum of the sequence not quite matching the panels or lacking precision in its details.
There are places where the character design is interesting and laudable, a particular highlight being the main antagonist Lord Blackpool. However, there are instances where a lack of variation actually impacts the clarity of the plot. From a practical perspective, Seraphina and Lady Mechanika are hard to distinguish at times, which leaves the reader unsure if they are reading events in the past, present, or future. Overall, the female character designs are only distinguishable by superficial elements like their differing hair colors and clothing choices, leaving them a little unmemorable.
Steigerwald’s colors are gloomy and bleak almost without respite, setting the techno-dystopian Victorian tone perfectly. That being said, the lack of variation means the effect is diminished a little. Without enough vibrancy to offset some contrast, the stylized color pallet loses its impact. Heisler's letters are consistent throughout, with a few elegant twists -- such as his stylized depiction of machine voices. His expressive use of sound effects is worth further praise, adding extra verve and direction to fast-paced action sequences.
This reprint demonstrates that Lady Mechanika has been an impressive and ambitious comic since its inception, but is not without its unpolished aspects. This paperback collection serves as a perfect introduction for anybody looking to plunge into the world of Lady Mechanika, or the steampunk genre as a whole. It is impressive enough to create an engaging and immersive fantasy world. The real masterstroke is its unsolved mysteries that will persist in the readers' mind and leave them eager for the next six volumes awaiting reprint.