Lady Mechanika Volume 1 by Joe Benitez

As beautiful as Benitez’ illustration work is (and it is truly stunning), I don’t buy a graphic novel to stare at pretty pictures. I want a good story as well and Lady Mechanika (along with Benitez’ other offering, Wraithborn) doesn’t deliver. I can’t help but feel that no research or groundwork was really put into the genre (steampunk/AU universe), characters, or plot. It’s all bog standard ‘how to write a story 101’ that somehow manages to disenchant and almost insult the readers in its simplicity. So while this is by no means a terrible series, I can’t help be mourn the wasted potential. Or perhaps, being female, staring at ugly men around beautiful rail thin women with jutting breasts and exposed belly buttons just doesn’t do it for me. Imagine if this had been ugly women with studmuffin handsome men with huge codpieces and you’d get the idea of how this title is too simplistic / panders to prepubescent boys in the worst ways. There is a bigger audience out there now for graphic novels.

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Story: Lady Mechanika is a women missing a past. Someone replaced her arms and eyes with mechanical parts and she is searching for a reason why that was done to her. When a similar beautiful young corpse with mechanical arms arrives on a train, she undertakes a search to find out who the woman was and how they are connected. It will take her into the world of the circus, where gypsies hold their secrets closely and protect each other against all outsiders. It will also pit her against a megalomaniac who may hold the answer to her past but also wants to destroy her so she doesn’t discover it.

The illustration work here is superb. Not just because we have beautiful women but because the layouts, backgrounds, decorative motifs, etc., are just stunning. This is top class work and as such, it’s a shame that Benitz sticks so closely to the dated ‘Top Cow Soft Porn” archetype of the 1990s. Missing here is the nuanced, sometimes even ugly, fluidity of Y2K comics. The poses, full page reveals, and character designs all feel dated. Which is a shame because everything from the coloring to the designs of the ‘not attractive’ male side characters are actually interesting. The one person I wanted to follow was her inventor companion, whose mutton chopped visage really felt like the only true Victorian London inhabitant.

Most problematic for me was the steampunk angle. Even in an AU world, where we can remake the era’s rules, artists and writers really should stick to the conventions of the genre. In this case, Victorian London is so poorly represented as to be almost a joke on how Americans think every place in the world is exactly like the modern West Coast US. Lady Mechanika’s story would have worked better in e.g., a Boston or a frontier town. But this Victorian London has none of the feel of the time at all. For one, a place where women have more power than men. For another, where a woman walks around on the street with a bare midriff (akin to someone in the future drawing a comic where women walk around with no shirts on in 2016). And lets not get into everyone wearing goggles all the time – cliche much? There was only one time anyone even remotely needed them.

Here’s the epitome of the problem with the plot: Lady Mechanika lives in Mechanika City. Why would anyone rename a City for the industrial/mechanical revolution? By that logic, London should have been renamed Industrial City in the 1700s. It just doesn’t work. Nor does having “Lady Mechanika” not having a real name (she could have given herself one until she finds out who she is) and walking around the city with no one figuring out who she is (especially considering she is always wearing goggles when no one else does). Then the whole “find out who the other person is who has mechanical arms like me” maguffin pretty much goes no where. I guess we get some hints that the mechanical women have secret ‘gypsy’ powers due to some nonsense about an ancestor’s mating habits, but it all gets more outlandish and sillier the more Mechanika learns. I’m not sure why, when Steampunk is such a rich world, someone always needs to add either angels, fae, wereworlves, or other supernatural elements. Steampunk is science with a bit of magic – it doesn’t need anything else. I got bored a lot, to be honest, going through the motions of a story that didn’t really take advantage of the steam setting.

There is some action as we are given the dreary requisite ‘cat fights’ between women that teen boys must love but kind of make me want to roll my eyes at the pedantic nature of it all. Think poor Kate Blanchett as the evil character in the lamentable Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and you get the idea of the villain in Lady Mechanika. It doesn’t make for impressive storytelling. Lady Mechanika herself is a bland cipher – there’s no personality there at all.

In the end, I read volumes 1 and 2 of Lady Mechanika. I can’t say there is much to draw me to any future stories in this world. I would want more effort put into story and milieu, character development and believability. The digital art revolution has greatly progressed beyond the 1990s and this is no Saga. There has to be more than pictures of gorgeous rail thin women’s belly buttons and jutting breasts to make an interesting read that appeals to a larger audience. Reviewed from an advance reader copy provided by the publisher.

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