By Joe R. Lansdale, Mark Alan Miller, Piotr Kowalski, Kelly Fitzpatrick, and Nate Piekos
The skies have opened up, giant squid aliens are starting trouble, it’s hot as balls in your giant steam-powered gentleman robot, there’s a interdimensional space vampire on the loose, and now your navigator is giving you sass; it ain’t easy being the captain of the Steam Man. It’s the turn of the century and things have played out a little differently than your history books and great grandparents may have told you. Around 1895 some cephalopod-looking nasties appeared out of nowhere, so obviously a mechanical rock’em, sock’em robot with a top hat was built by enterprising man named William Beadle to take care of them. As far as high-concepts go, that’s pretty rad. With a story by Joe R. Lansdale, script by Mark Alan Miller, and tremendous art from Piotr Kowalski and Kelly Fitzpatrick, The Steam Man #1 is science-fiction pulp fueled by a steampunk aesthetic and tinge of horror. It’s a fun start that shows plenty of promise, even if the genre mashing feels a little incongruent to start, but god danged if it doesn’t looks gorgeous all the way through.
Lansdale and Miller unleash a deluge of ideas without drowning the reader. Instead, they control the pacing to allow for all the unnatural wonders and horrors to be introduced naturally and comfortably with a playful wink at the beginning into a twisted smirk by issue’s end. It’s a blend not only of genres, but of tones. The banter of the Steam Man’s crew is that of romanticized pirate adventurers and each is given welcomed attention to highlight their demeanor and place within the microcosm social structure of a walking steam bot crew. With Beadle providing narration, the backdrop and fictional history are expediently and charmingly set up replete with succinct, humorous dialogue like the concise summation of his motivations: “…And then there was only one thing left to do. Whoop a little ass!” Lansdale and Miller tease these halcyon days of alien ass-whooping knowing full well that’s where we’ll want to spend the most time, but before you’re settled into the old timey science fiction adventure the tone transitions radically.
A morose red curtain is dropped over the Vern Welles revelry in jarring fashion signaled by the ensanguined wash over every pore of the page. Clearly, it’s intentionally discordant, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to swallow before the readers feet had properly settled. Though one could surmise Lansdale and Miller need to have you unsettled and on your toes in order to have the tension hit with greater impact. There’s promise to the horror elements and it upends the steampunk tropes nicely, but they themselves feel a little too steeped (at this early junction) in rote horror conventions. The end reveal is particularly gruesome, but like much of the structure here, is turned quickly back towards the more buccaneer spirit with a simple turn of the page. The trick going forward will be finding the most effective way to strike the balance between these genres and how best to dip toes into the various waters without getting submerged too deeply in any one individual.
Kowalski and Fitzpatrick are a heck of an artistic tandem when it comes to establishing tone and effective storytelling. With very clean lines and a knack for adding just enough texture, Kowalski really lets loose on the bigger set pieces: robot-on-robot fisticuffs are framed by massive flames and the considerable heft of the combatants hits hard; the impossibly vast interdimensional tear in the sky is ominous and wondrous; the snow covered forest is rich with layers making for a nice contrast to the relatively flatter figures in the foreground. There’s some fun design work as well, but Kowlaski hardly goes full-bore into the steampunk aesthetic, thankfully. There’s a pleasant mix of era appropriate dress, twisted monster design that’s just subtle enough to be even creepier, and War of the Worlds machinery. Constantly trying to establish scale, Kowalski frames the titular warrior well without venturing into anything experimental in terms of panel layouts. For the most part, it’s straightforward and alternates between densely packed pages that convey an overwhelming sense of direness or duress, but when those splash pages come, they come for reals and few are more impressive or tonally effective as the ones found in the opening sequence.
It’s impossible to really appreciate the appeal and effectiveness of the art without giving the coloring its proper due because Kelly Fitzpatrick is arguably the reason this book succeeds as much as it does. The colors are deceptively flat, there’s plenty of subtler shading and toning at work, but the palette as a whole proudly asserts one foot in the expected sepia realm and the other in a horror science fiction wonderland. Fitzpatrick adds a ton of texture to the more industrial elements, with a sponged layer of soot and metallic rust where necessary, but she also creates a soothing, smooth chromatic sense of vastness with a setting sun below the unknown interstellar backdrop. The serenity of those opening pages is gorgeous and nuanced. Fitzpatrick plays with a shaded burnt-around-the-edges effect in flashbacks that’s very effective during Beadle’s summary. A similar effect is used later on as Beadle recalls the fate of his wife, although it borders on being perhaps too dark in that instance as it is applied in more of a fish-eye scope and obscures (thematically intentional, no doubt) almost as much as it reveals. On the whole, Fitzpatrick nails it and is reason enough to return for issue two.
Look, if the fact that the giant robot is wearing a metallic top hat isn’t enough for you to get on board with The Steam Man, that’s a problem you need to figure out for yourself. For everyone else, this debut issue entices a sense of whimsical adventure and then promptly punches you in the face with beguiling horror. Whether that balance gets smoother or leans more heavily towards one will be interesting, but for now its still establishing itself and finding its feet with sharp dialogue and an unbeatable premise. It’s too early to tell if the multitude of ideas thrown at the steampunk fan will result in a cohesive story or if there’s any larger allegorical elements at work, so its still something of a stew instead of a finished dish. A mish-mash of genres that’s still structured compellingly and a rich, clean visual presentation make for a strong start. A history that never was, a threat that never ceases, and an adventure that’s never yielding, The Steam Man is worth a look.