In two words, Lady Mechanika, Image Comics’ compilation of industry veteran Joe Benitez’s self-published comics, is AH-mazin’!!
Joe Benitez combines elements from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Weapon X, and Tomb Raider to create something uniquely different and utterly enthralling. While this is not all that it does, Benitez’s art style definitely puts the steam in steampunk – steamy-punk, that is.
The corpse of a young woman with mechanical limbs is found by the authorities in Mechanika City, the stomping ground of Lady M. herself. Learning about this peculiarly augmented corpse sets in our heroine in motion – perhaps there is information here that will allow her to discover more about her own shadowy past. Digging into the mystery sets Lady Mechanika up against Lord Blackpool, the top purveyor of advanced weaponry and robotics in Mechanika City. Mystery loves company! The situation grows as Lady Mechanika uses evidence to track down a band of secretive gypsies. The story comes to a head when everyone invents their own way to infiltrate the Mechani-Con symposium and its annual Masquerade Ball that’s being held on Blackpool’s brand spanking new airship hovering over the city. Lady Mechanika hopes there are more than just clues to be found there.
What You Will Find
Lady Mechanika debuted in August, 2010. More than a decade later Image Comics is resurrecting the character in a series of reprints, starting with Volume 1, “The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse.” Series creator Benitez, the man with the plan, as well as the thumbnails, pencils, and inks, gets things going with long-time color collaborator, Peter Steigerwald. The book’s lettering is given a fresh pass by Michael Heisler.
In no particular order, the story involves:
- a tough, busty, mechanically-enhanced, gun-toting heroine
- several nefarious bad guys with very different moral codes
- a simultaneously hilarious yet totally down to earth band of Romani gypsies
- a sleek cloud-hopping airship
- a short-lived, sympathetic demonic creature
- gory experiments aplenty, and
- a smoke-belching winged flying contraption.
Add, “And a partridge in a pear tree,”… maybe you can find that somewhere on one of the pages.
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The book’s title character survived a mad scientist’s horrific experiments. She now has mechanical arms and no recollection of either the experiments or of her past. Forced to concoct a life for herself, Lady Mechanika now solves horrific crimes that the establishment deigns not to touch. She’s so unique and so good at what she does that the public embraces her private eye skills and her fashion sense in equal measure.
A Passion For Fashion
Sherlock Holmes became known for his magnifying glass, Meerschaum pipe and deerstalker hat. Lady Mechanika shows infinitely more fashion sense. By day she might cut a striking pose dressed in an embroidered tuxedo-style Swallowtail jacket worn over black gothic military trousers. Add in Coffin Creature Victorian boots. Top off the look with an equestrienne top hat with military goggles riding atop the brim. Her after sundown work clothes are even more fun to describe, but it might be best just to check out Benitez’s efforts in the actual pages of the compilation. While words don’t fail this humble author, his well-drawn pictures say well more than a thousand of them.
Benitez has a keen eye for detail. He built up a character from the look of many steampunk cosplayers he saw at trade shows. One of those creative types was Kate Lambert, known as Kato. As a result, Benitez derived much of L.M.’s look from the clothing Kato designs and markets. Over time the steampunk ethos dove deeper into his consciousness and took completely over. Hoorah!
Benitez incorporated new elements into the telling of the tale. These new elements include:
- adding mechanical elements of the lady’s persona,
- stripping her of much of the knowledge of her origin and background, and
- having her work as a very public private investigator.
The Interview Section!!
“Cosmic” Tom: Lady Mechanika is a real fashion plate. Is it a challenge to constantly re-invent the wardrobe of this unique character? And is there a look you wanted to try with her that didn’t make the cut?
Joe Benitez: I specifically created her so I could constantly change her wardrobe. I get bored drawing the same thing all the time, so I wanted to design a character that would always be changing outfits. It’s a lot of fun coming up with new looks, trying to make them different but still within the same theme. I can’t think of anything that I wanted to try but didn’t use. If I ever feel like doing a particular outfit or look but it doesn’t fit in the book, I’ll just use it on a variant cover.
“Cosmic” Tom: What tricks have you evolved to focus your plotting so that you get what you want inside of the limits of the format? Having a writing assist must help, as with M.M. Chen’s thoughts and edits.
Joe Benitez: When I was doing Volume 1, I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I was just making it up as I went. I had a few plot points that I wanted to hit, but mostly I just made it up on the fly. M was the one who helped me make sense of it. So my advice would be to get a writer to help you. I didn’t understand story structure, so it helps having someone who does and is more analytical because I work more in the abstract. It balanced it out, having someone make sense out of the chaos.
“Cosmic” Tom: Having a talented color artist like Peter Steigerwald must be a blessing. His blending of color and tone is sublime. His adding of form to the clothing and skin tones really helps sell all of the detail you invest in your pencils and inks. How much are you involved in what he does?
Joe Benitez: It depends. In some parts I’m very heavy handed, in others I just let him do whatever he wants. If I have a specific color scheme I’ll let him know, like for Winter, I wanted her to be all in white. With LM there were certain outfits I had color schemes for, others I let him do whatever. With Peter we’ve been working together for a long time, so I trust his instincts.
“Cosmic” Tom: Does the character of Lady Mechanika force herself into your consciousness when you are writing and drawing? I love the full page character/clothing studies that you do. They work really well. Is including them organic, or do you enter each issue with the notion that you’ll include one or more?
Joe Benitez: Those were just concept sketches that I did before we even started on the book. Character studies to try to get a better idea of what I wanted to do. Most of the time I just create a character as I’m drawing it on the page, but with LM I wanted a better idea of what she would look like, the look and feel, so I did the character studies for myself. I don’t usually do it that much, though I probably should.
“Cosmic” Tom: Sometimes I’m agog at how much you fit into each page without losing clarity. Do you thumbnail out your page layouts to get a feeling of how panels can, or should, fit together?
Joe Benitez: Yes, I’ll do thumbnails first to help figure out what I’m going to do with the page. That’s part of the approach when you pencil a book, you need to understand the storytelling first. My approach is how to tell the scene as dynamic as possible. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I don’t, but the point is to try to get the feeling across to the reader.
“Cosmic” TC: You won’t be able to comment, perhaps, but has anyone contacted you and your studio to translate LM into animation for films or streaming video? There’s a lot of material to work with, for instance, an amazingly kick-ass female lead!!
(Insert an imaginary pause here, purely for effect, of course …)
Joe Benitez: Yes.
Pretty (Amazing) Pages
Benitez designs each comic book to be equal parts striking pinup and rock-’em, sock-’em action / fisticuffs. The quieter sections containing backstory and context are as nicely drawn as the action scenes. Benitez pushes and pulls the camera around in various panels. What results is a dynamic panel structure that makes each page breathtaking to look at and a joy to read.
A review of this work would not be complete without discussing Peter Steigerwald’s colors. Steigerwald’s colors are appropriately gloomy when required, which is much of the time. Considering that the tone of the writing is dark, this is perfectly understandable. The overall darkness of the tone allows the reader to settle in and concentrate on the story itself without becoming distracted with too much radical changing of the color palette.
Last, but certainly not least, Heisler’s letters remain consistent and strongly legible throughout. He stylizes the voices of machines and automatons, easily differentiating them from the humans within the narrative. He also adds in SFX at Benitez’s direction, punctuating the narrative with wonderful bursts of sound.
Let’s Get Going, Shall We?
The trade paperback edition of Lady Mechanika is a full retelling of the first story. Because it includes the entire first Lady Mechanika mini-series, The Mystery of the Mechanical Corpse, as well as its prequel chapter, The Demon of Satan’s Alley, it has everything one needs to get started with the character and all her mechanations!