How do you know if steampunk comic books are for you? Ask yourself if the following images would excite you: a man with a glowing furnace for a chest; a Victorian Batman in aviator goggles; pterodactyls; psychic powers; death by guillotine; an Emperor Zombie. Oh, and a kickass lady detective whose limbs have been replaced with machinery by a psychotic serial killer. If you said "yes" to any of the above, kindly read on for a list of the very best steampunk comic books.
The time is 1830. The city is London. Charlie Gravel, new cop on the beat, begins experiencing strange visions of fantastical flying machines and bizarre weaponry. Most dreadfully, he sees a Scientific Phantasmagoria called Spring-Heeled Jack (mythological predecessor to the infamous criminal Jack the Ripper), capable of scaling tall buildings in one mischievous leap. These are just smaller elements in a story of space pirates, rocks from Mars, bullets that don’t kill, and ships that fly through the air in the dead of night. The woodcut style of illustrations, courtesy of Raulo Caceres, is absolutely striking, and Warren Ellis (creator of Transmetropolitan and Planetary) amuses the reader with clever dialogue to bring new life to an old urban myth in the dramatic presence of Captain Swing. This is a carefully conceived and brilliantly executed piece of work and definitely not to be missed.
Iron West does here what some of the best comics do: It simultaneously presents an entertaining tale any young whippersnapper could thoroughly enjoy (then imitate in a game of cowboys and Indians... er... robots) and then mixes it with a ripple of menacing darkness. Here the outlaw Preston Struck, a decent but incompetent fellow, finds California in peril as an army of Tin-Man style robots take control of the railroad and turn the train into a fearsome mechanical beast from hell. Let’s be honest: Cowboys versus anything never really gets old. But the fun doesn’t stop there. Get ready for an elderly magical shaman, Sasquatch, a lovely lady-of-the-night in distress, and the Loch Ness Monster. You may find some enjoyable tidbits to ponder that comment lightly on pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution, but mainly you’ll rally with the community around Preston Struck and enjoy watching him stand up and fight when it counts. This is one of the best steampunk comics for lovers of a classic good versus evil battle for the right.
If you’re a gadget lover, maybe a Bond junkie or just a catalog addict, this is the not-quite-comic-book for you. Totally unorthodox but totally steampunk, this amusingly titled collection of contrapulatronic contraptions is punctuated here and there by the serialized story of the exploits of Lord Cockswain, a naturalist and adventurer famous the world ‘round. At first glance Doctor Grordbort’s looks like a Victorian catalog, but a closer inspection reveals rayguns, rocketships, ironclads, gas-driven gadabouts, metal men, etc. Each unique item is gloriously decked out with tubes, antennas, bulbs, and so on; there’s a very H. G. Wells vibe, to be sure. With its progressively more absurd humor, hilarious descriptions of possible side effects and intended uses, “advertisements,” and slogans, this is a marvelous mess that you’ll want to dive right into.
Some comic book readers like to see an ubermensch triumph over the vicissitudes we petty humans must experience; others like to see real salt-of-the-earth types looking up from the gutter and striving for the stars. If you belong to the latter camp, then Larry Blamire’s Steam Wars, a new adventure from the creator of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, might be just the ticket. In the year 1897, giant fighting machines called “steam rigs,” powered by steam and manned by courageous crews, have been designed to look like the most ancient of warriors in armor. Three regular Joes, blue-collar, gritty-faced steam crewmen all, are the heroes of our story, and what they lack in common sense they more than make up for in courage. The rough, filthy commonness of war contrasts with the elegance and charm of Victorian times in an underdog story with true steampunk style.
If you’re a fan of Edward Gorey, this bizarrely imaginative tale will be sure to satisfy with simply marvelous illustrations and more than a touch of the macabre. From Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy, comes the tale of Screw-On Head, an agent for (really) President Abraham Lincoln. Our hero’s special talent is his ability to screw any object he likes on to his neck after first removing his mechanical head. Well. There you have it. Screw-On Head’s task isn’t complicated, really—just stop the evil Emperor Zombie (originally a groundskeeper at Hyde Park), robbing tombs, thwarting aliens, and piloting crazy machines all along the way. This masterpiece was published well ahead of the explosive popularity of the steampunk genre and yet unquestionably marches to its clanking whirring tune. This is pure no-holds-barred Mignola craziness on the loose and should be savored as such. The only tragedy here is that there are (at least as of now) no follow-ups, so hold on tight and have a rollicking good time while you’re here (and maybe check out the movie version on DVD if you need even more).
Bryan Talbot writes and illustrates a sophisticated story here that transcends the genre and commands a spot on your shelf. The title character here is a formidable force to be reckoned with, an enormously powerful psychic with the capability to travel among parallel universes. Luther Arkwright himself exists in only one, and it is he who must fight the dark forces of the Disruptors, who seek a doomsday device that will destroy every iteration of the galaxy at once. Close attention to detail in the illustrations is phenomenal, and black and white art seems perfectly fitted to telling this particular story. Parallel storylines show multiple viewpoints and keep the reader on their toes. The sequel, Heart of Empire: The Legacy of Luther Arkwright, is also one of the best steampunk comic books, especially of the literary sort. There’s an extraordinary critique here of power and politics which won’t be lost on the careful reader, as long as he isn’t too busy reveling in this carefully created world.
The gorgeous illustrations in Lady Mechanika are in perfectly stark contrast to the beginning of her story as we find it here. The only one to survive the three-year killing spree of a psychotic maniac, Lady Mechanika awakens in a laboratory, abandoned save for the corpses and body parts surrounding her. Her limbs are gone and in their place are fully operational mechanical components; memories of her past are also mysteriously missing. Not a fainter, Lady Mechanika becomes a detective, solving cases that prove too tricky for the police and ever searching for the smallest hint as to her former life—and the identity of her monstrous maker. Here and there she catches sight of other part-living, part-mechanical beings, but she is not the only one on their trail. At turns both horrifying and strangely beautiful, Lady Mechanika is the compelling story of a strong protagonist who won’t let a few amputations and gear-limbs get her down.
Have you always wished that War of the Worlds had a sequel? And that it was a murder mystery? And that it was totally, awesomely steampunk? Well I’m sure you do now, and you need look no further than Scarlet Traces. Ten years after the Martians’ attack on earth, Victorian England has brought Martian technology into everyday life; Imagine hansom cabs with crab’s legs, green vapors instead of smog, and the Martian heat ray as an instrument to spread the British Empire’s reign over most of the Earth. Of course progress has its price, and when the corpses of young women drained of blood wash up on the banks of the Thames, a gentleman adventurer and his manservant must take on the task and journey to the Hall of the Martian King in their search for answers. The graphics in Scarlet Traces are both lushly gorgeous and plausible and richly background a gripping story. Don’t miss “cameos” from both Tintin and Captain Haddock.
Perhaps anything by Alan Moore (V for Vendetta, Watchmen) would be an obvious choice for a “best” list, but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen unquestionably deserves a spot on a list of the best steampunk comic books. In 1898, a surprising legion forms to combat the forces of evil, including Allan Quatermain, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, Dr. Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, and Hawley Griffin (the Invisible Man). Reader beware—this is one graphic novel that really lives up to its name in graphic material and is certainly not for the kids. The characters are unsavory and yet we love them, attributable to the author’s skill in creating complex persons to whom we can relate. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has been shown at the British Museum among the illuminated manuscripts; Consider you that when exploring its characters, their flaws and their finest moments alike.
It was too difficult to resist including another masterpiece involving Mignola’s illustrations. Here Bryan Augustyn tells the story of Batman in an alternate universe, set in the nineteenth century; This is a perfect fit for the already-gothic themes of a shady, shadowy world of ghoulish villains and a godless city. The key events of Batman’s life are recognizable in their new time and place, though definite steampunk details have been added—consider, for example, Batman’s aviator-style goggles, which give him a more menacing, vintage visage. The washed-out colors and the structure of the panels gives the reader the feeling of having found an old manuscript, but one with the pacing and suspense of the very best action films. This is a solid reimagination of the Batman story, very competent in its art and in its storytelling. If you’ve been reading Alan Moore and are familiar with the Ripper legends, you’ll enjoy the Easter eggs here that will help you narrow down the suspects.
The year is 1838, and London is reigned over by a terrifying madman Mortimer Absinthe who has cruelly divided English society into a caste system. Aboveground, the lucky higher class wander through a delicate Victorian world of steam and clockwork-powered machinery. Underground, the “Underdwellers” plan a revolution led by Cole Blaquesmith, an amnesiac man-and-machine hero with a furnace for a chest and an enormous metal contraption in place of his arm. Seeking both power for the people and answers about his own forgotten past, Blaquesmith stands front and center in a story that takes big risks and builds a detailed world the reader can plunge right into headfirst. Perhaps one of the most amusing parts of the comic book is the fictional quotes (for example, "I didn't have nightmares until I met Doctor Mortimer Absinthe” —Immanuel Kant). While the title may not seem particularly creative, the illustrations more than make up for it. Each page is jam-packed so dizzyingly full it takes more than one read to catch even half of what’s been crammed in. The story is epic and written large, steampunk on a grand scale that never takes no for an answer.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec is an oldie but a goodie, enchanting readers for decades. The series has now been published in 10 hardcover volumes for the American reader. With a clear love of the past, the author-illustrator involves her protagonist in a series of mysteries involving dinosaurs, murders on stage, death by guillotine, hellish creatures from the Satanic realms, turncoat traitors, and the Eiffel Tower. One of the best steampunk comic books, it’s an adventure a minute that’s both beautifully rendered and fast-paced, and it’s no surprise that it has enjoyed such a devoted fandom over the years. Murky colors flowing through mysterious pathways set the mood; historical research and an obsession with Paris make the story’s sometimes pulpy writing fun to read against the richly imagined backdrop.