Just take a look at the cover of this graphic novel for a moment. The kind of overt femininity seen here usually puts me right off, (mostly, it’s the boobs. I am suspicious of boobs). So when my husband received the first two volumes of Lady Mechanika as a Christmas gift I was absolutely uninterested. Took one look at the covers and made all sorts of judgements, the conclusion of which was that this series would not be for me.
However, during lockdown, when I was struggling to read, I went foraging through our comics shelves and dug out Lady Mechanika. And, well, I was wrong. This was a fast and funny adventure that is one hundred percent committed to its aesthetic, but also to its story. The exploits I was expecting did not materialise (in other words, everyone kept their clothes on and there was no kissing or *ahem* tomfoolery) and instead I found myself immersed in a steampunk wonderland in which dark and dastardly deeds occur with great regularity and Lady Mechanika kicks arse just as often.
It helps that Benitez’s artwork is just beautiful. Outfits, furnishings, vehicles and environments are all given loving attention and Steigerwald’s palette is suitably moody without ever being dull. You could take any single page from this first volume and frame it, it’s just that gorgeous.
Lady Mechanika herself is “England’s elegant and virtuous heroine”, whose origins are shrouded in mystery. She is a seamless blend of organic and mechanical parts, created by … she knows not who. Her unique physiology means that she is more robust than ordinary folk and she uses her strength and agility for Good working as a private investigator. When a dead girl turns up sporting similar mechanical appendages to Mechanika’s own our lady heroine is immediately on the case, hoping to discover something about her own origins at the same time as achieving justice for this latest victim. Her investigations see her infiltrating the Ministry of Health, crashing a masked ball aboard an airship, visiting the circus, and fighting tons of bad guys and gals along the way.
The unanswered questions are many and varied. Nika has no memory of the time before she was a mechanical hybrid, but we meet someone from her past, the decidedly gone-to-the-Dark-Side Katherine, who gives us some tantalising glimpses of the road she has had to travel to become Lady Mechanika. Her creator is the big mystery – could it possibly be the shadowy “Engineer” Mr Cain who seems as intent on retrieving the dead girl as Nika is herself? Or is he just another creation? – but so too is the dead girl. While we know where she has escaped from and, later, who she was, we are left hanging over the question of her blood and her eventual fate. There is more to her story than we’ve yet learnt.
We’ve barely scraped the surface of this world either. Yes, it’s an alternative late 1800s in which steam-powered and clockwork innovations have transformed everyday life, the landscape and people themselves, but it is also a world of magic, demonic creatures and superstitions. I like the blend a lot, but, heck, I want to see so much more! The location for this first volume, Mechanika City, is “the most advanced city in the entire British Commonwealth” which naturally begs the question: what’s the rest of this world like? And having seen the cover for the second volume, on which Nika is sporting a very desert-nomad kind of outfit, hopefully that question will soon be answered.
And speaking of outfits … (smooth segue, huh?) … I do have to tip my hat to Benitez for Nika’s wardrobe. Wikipedia tells me that her style was inspired by steampunk model Kato – which may explain the impressive amount of detail lavished on it – but all of the characters are fabulously dressed at all times and the whole volume could serve as a steampunk look-book for costume designers. While I’m not interested in wearing incredible outfits, I do have a penchant for great costumes and everything within these pages looks awesome. Utterly and completely impractical, but awesome nonetheless.
So, should you read it? Well, it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I found it entertaining and funny in places (Nika’s swearword of choice particularly made me snigger repeatedly), but definitely on the light side (I should probably mention that it’s quite bloody in places; when I say ‘light’ I mean not too complex for the brainbox). The story was self-contained and punchy, the world-building was excellent, the characters interesting enough that I want to know more. It’s USP would be the incredible artwork throughout, which is just such a feast-your-eyes treat. If you can get past the boobs (it’s not even just the heroine, everyone in the story is so darned busty, for goodness’ sake!) and you want to fall into an adventure for the afternoon, you could do a lot worse than this.