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Good Read Column for April 27, 1998

Cathedral Child

By Lea Hernandez
112 pages, Image, $9.95 (TPB)

(of a possible five)


A few years ago, a curious sub-genre emerged in science fiction: stories set in Victorian times, usually in alternate universes where certain aspects of our modern world were playing themselves out a hundred years earlier. Most of these books involved Charles Babbage's "Difference Engine" (an abandoned invention that might have become a mechanical device much like our own electronic computer) becoming a reality. Since several of the early ones were written by writers known as part of the "cyberpunk" school (which never was a school, but never mind), the genre became known as "steampunk."

As far as I know, Lea Hernandez has produced the first steampunk comic book (sorry, Lea, 112 pages isn't a novel, as those who've visited my Comics & Comic Books rant know). Like its prose brethren, it's densely packed and not the easy kind of skim-through read folks are used to in comics. You may have to read it twice - or at least refer back to parts already read - just to figure out what's going on. This is not a criticism; indeed, I thought it was clever of Hernandez to mirror so well the experience of reading a prose steampunk novel despite the fact that as a visual medium comics are usually so much easier to read.

Hernandez is a fan of anime and manga - she used to write a column on those subjects for Wizard magazine. Her artistic style, obviously, is heavily influenced by Japanese artists like Miyazaki. Nothing wrong with this, of course, and the art itself is beautiful, but it's not really my cup of tea. One reason why I like Adolf so much is the fact that Tezuka deliberately plays against the familiar manga style - sliding in and out of it at times but generally using a very different rendering style.

So the story was hard to read and the admittedly beautiful art wasn't really my style. So why am I recommending this book? Well, for one thing, because the story rewards the close attention it demands. The singing computer is a wonderful idea, and I liked the geographical mysticism. Symbolism is important throughout - all the character's names mean something, for instance - and it's used in a way that recalls the magic realists of Latin America more than the heavy hand of Frank Miller. Plus it's a wonderful love story - and despite the soap opera antics of too many superhero comics, there's a dearth of really good romantic stories out there.

Besides, I'm not so much of a philistine that I can't enjoy a good looking page just because the characters have big eyes.

I wish the book had been published in a larger format. Personally, I like bigger pages, especially when the artwork is nice. At least the art isn't shrunk down here - Hernandez reports in an afterword that she drew the same size as the printed page. Most comics are drawn as much as twice as large as they are printed, and this tradition was started to cover up mistakes. Since the best of today's comics artists are so meticulous that they don't really need to be reduced to look good, I wonder why more don't do what Hernandez does here. Michael Zulli, for instance, or Brent Anderson. Do these guys really need to work in 11 X 15? Maybe it even slows them down (Hernandez reports that she made the decision to work real size based on speed).

Still, I wish the pages were at least the size of a regular comic magazine. These is closer to a mass-market paperback - not much larger than those old Mad Magazine paperback reprint books. In my opinion, that's just too small, unless you're going to do like one panel per page.

On the other hand, keeping the page size small and the art black and white probably contributed to the reasonable price - unusual for comics in book form these days.

If you're at all into manga, the art alone is enough to buy this book. If you like the "steampunk" genre, this is a near-perfect example of it (only near-perfect because I would have liked to see more information about Cathedral's workings). And even if you're not a manga fan and don't care much about Victorian science fiction, read this book for a romantic love story and thrilling plot.

(NOTE: An addendum to the original review, 5/25/1998)
This comic is also an example of how a good website can do a comics creator a world of good. I first heard about it from Lea Hernandez' self-promotion on the rec.arts.comics.* newsgroups, and visited her website and was impressed. I forgot to mention this in my original review, but found it important enough to mention it in a later review of another comic. Since it turned out to be irrelevant to that comic (for reasons I won't go into here), I decided to tack this note onto the end of this one.

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