Yes. Oh yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I didn’t even know I wanted it until I saw it. How did you know, Dark Horse? How did you know?
So, quickie review: this comic is great and you should go and buy it. Do it! Do it now!
The Steam Man is a steampunk revenge story from Dark Horse Comics; it was created by Joe R. Lansdale and written by Mark Alan Miller with artwork by Piotr Kowalski. The name and concept of the book are based on The Steam Man of the Prairie, a science fiction dime novel written in 1868 by Edward S. Ellis. The book inspired the “Edisonade” subgenre of science fiction; written primarily for young boys and featured young inventors creating fantastic things. And now Lansdale and Miller are bringing that genre to the 21st century. Let’s take a look.
The cover is glorious. It features a gorgeous image of the titular Steam Man doing battle with martian tripods and tearing them to pieces. The thing looks like a cross between the Iron Giant and Abe Lincoln, complete with top hat. I will repeat that: the giant, alien killing robot, has a top hat. This comic is awesome! The background is full of exploding buildings, more tripods, and lots of fire. It gives us a scale to measure the massive size of these things while giving us a taste of the comic’s highlights. Also, the title is well positioned so it doesn’t take up too much space, but it still draws the eye. I like the old-timey look to the logo.
The story is set in the Wild West during the martian invasion of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. A small town commissions a man named William Beadles to build and pilot a giant steam-powered robot and go toe-to-toe with the invaders. The robot is huge, standing even taller than the aliens’ iconic tripods. They have an epic fight and the alien goes down. But, as anyone who knows the classic Wells story can tell you, the fighting is not long, as soon all the Martians are dead from Earth’s bacteria. Now the Steam Man just casually strides past the wrecked tripods like road kill. So, you’d think that would be the end of the robot, right? Wrong.
Apparently the arrival of the Martians has caused irreparable damage to Earth’s atmosphere, and other monstrosities have moved in. One of these monsters is the Dark Rider, a vampiric creature who feasts on blood, ravages town after town, and is always followed by his army of mindless Morlocks; though, amazingly, he never seems to actually ride anything. One of the victims of the Dark Rider is Captain Beadle’s wife Matilda, so now it’s personal, as Beadle chases the Dark Rider in his Steam Man with his crew of specialists: a boxer, an engineer, and an Indian tracker.
The Steam Man #1 is a great start to a story with a lot of potential. It is steeped in the lore of traditional steampunk, from character references to the look and feel of the surroundings (Beadles’ name is taken from Beadle’s American Novels, the publishing company that printed Ellis’ original story. The Morlocks are a callback to Wells’ other seminal work The Time Machine). Piotr Kowalski seems to get how steampunk works and his artwork, along with Kelly Fitzpatrick’s earth-toned colorings, provides a greatly balanced aesthetic.
Steampunk sure is on the rise in pop culture as of late. With the continuing popularity of shows like Steampunk’d on the Game Show Network, the publication of Marvel’s 1872 title still in publication, and the style’s pervasive presence at conventions, The Steam Man is a nice addition to a growing resurgence in this subgenre. It takes us back to the roots of the fandom, drawing on the old dime novels as legendary foundations for greater stories.
Quick warning: this book is not for kids, as they use a lot of strong language throughout.
If I had any problems with the book it would be that it feels like the best part of the story may already be past us. Make no mistake, I love the possibilities that the Dark Rider could have in store as a villain; it brings to mind Roland chasing Marten Broadcloak in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. But I wonder how this series is going to keep it interesting.
A good chunk of this book was just the crew going through maintenance procedures on the Steam Man. Sure the Dark Rider is scary, but the Steam Man should be able to squash him like a bug. There are very few enemies that could not be dealt with by having Steam Man step on them. So the only way our heroes will ever be in trouble is if they botch up the maintenance procedures, or if they step outside the Steam Man.
But, who knows what’s in store? This is just the start, and hopefully there’ll be more awesome fights, amazing artwork, and tales of terror in store for us in further issues. So bring it on, Steam Man, “Go get them sumbitches.”