Pop Culture Confession Time: I don’t like steampunk. At least, I don’t like what most people think of when they think of steampunk: airships, gratuitous corsets, cogs and gears hot-glued to top hats, the romantic nostalgia for a Victorian England that never existed…it’s not my thing. (Interestingly, Warren Ellis’s introduction for Clockwork Angels begins with “Steampunk is too plain a label,” and argues instead that “Lea Hernandez creates Scientific Romance,” which I think has a certain ring to it.) Perhaps one reason why Lea Hernandez’s “Texas Steampunk Saga,” consisting of the graphic novels Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels, has stayed with me over the years is because her vision contains none of those elements. Cathedral Child is steampunk in the purest sense—set in 1897, the saga merges steam technology and magic to tell the story of a living computer named “Cathedral,” and it eschews a rigid and cliche aesthetic in favor of a unique setting and diverse cast.
Lea Hernandez’s graphic novel debut, Cathedral Child takes place in Heaven, Texas, where the mysterious analytical engine “Cathedral” is built inside the walls of an old church. The Cathedral project is overseen by Parrish Stuart, a.k.a. the “Mad Machinist,” who in addition to possessing the usual “industrialist villain” characteristics of avarice and cruelty, also arranged the murder of his predecessor. Parrish’s estranged daughter Glory—who is secretly married to his ward, Sumner—unlocks the secret behind Cathedral’s seemingly living mind: twin spirits, Cathedral and Camille, with the power to make thoughts real. (Cathedral Child is also a significant work for readers looking for steampunk that isn’t populated solely by white people with British accents: Glory and her mother Dona are part of an indigenous people known as the Cuerpo.) While trying to save Glory’s life, Camille accidentally possesses her body, and Parrish sends the sinister doctor Sacerdote to procure her…
Cathedral Child happens to be one of the first graphic novels I ever bought as a tween in the late 1990s (and, come to think of it, probably my first Image Comics book, too). Alongside Wendy and Richard Pini’s ElfQuest, it was one of those formative books that caught me at the right time—namely, as a young girl looking for comics that were actually aimed at her, and not utterly alienating like *rolls random nineties comic name generator* Bad Girlz Blood Storm #23. Far away as it may seem now, 1998 was a time when if you were a woman asking about comics, you got a very short list of recommendations, usually limited to one or two titles, like Sandman or Strangers in Paradise—comics mainly written and drawn by men. (Female artists like Colleen Doran and Jill Thompson drew Sandman, but really, back then, when people said, “Read Sandman,” what they really meant was “Read Neil Gaiman.”) Like manna from heaven (Heaven, Texas?), Cathedral Child was a welcoming sign, and important proof that comics could tell stories far outside the norm.
Re-reading Cathedral Child today, I still appreciate what my younger self loved about it—romance! magical spirits! a secret marriage! were-coyotes! mystery and murder! Lea Hernandez’s manga-influenced art has a soft sensuality that fits beautifully with the lyrical nature of the story. Another interesting departure from the usual steampunk trappings is the book’s connection with nature. Rather than fixating on cold, sterile machinery, peach trees and morning glories are recurring symbols throughout the book. They figure prominently in Glory and Sumner’s romance (they eat peaches together before their first kiss, and Sumner picks them after they make love) and foreshadow the two living spirits behind the analytical engine, Cathedral and Camille (morning glory vines are depicted psychically connecting Glory to Camille in a dream). Not every aspect of the book melds perfectly—the magical worldbuilding is dreamlike and dense, making it occasionally hard to follow events. Characterization also lacks a few crucial nuances—childhood sweethearts Glory and Sumner are a bit too sweet and perfect, especially compared to Parrish’s pitch-black villainy. But this is a story about magic, so perhaps it’s better to look at the characters as though they were in a fairy tale—Glory and Sumner are princess and prince, Parrish is the evil stepfather, Cathedral and Camille are the good spirits, and the were-coyotes are, well, were-coyotes.
The sequel to Cathedral Child, Clockwork Angels, was released a year later in 1999; though they can be read separately, I think both slim graphic novels work best read together. Clockwork Angels follows Temperance Bane, Parrish’s second estranged daughter (Father of the Century, that one), who earns a surprisingly independent living by using her skills as a mentalist. Temperance is accompanied by her childhood friend Amelia, a freckled orphan of unknown origins. Amelia dreams of an old fairytale about seven sisters destined to stop an evil beast—a beast that happens to resemble a certain wicked doctor named Sacerdote. In Heaven, Texas, Temperance and Amy uncover secrets of their pasts, as well as their true feelings for each other, but with Sacerdote pursuing them, it may be too late.
Clockwork Angels is a strong thematic sequel to Cathedral Child, with Temperance’s ability to read the last thoughts of the dead giving the steampunk genre a dash of gothic horror. (A particularly dark, Frankenstein-ian touch is the broken pitchfork jutting harmlessly out of Sacerdote’s back while he pursues Temperance.) Of both books, Angels is the slightly more polished and accomplished of the two, with Hernandez displaying a more confident hand on the characters’ clothing (everything Temperance wears is gorgeous) and action, including an intense sequence set on a speeding train. Characterization is a bit more relatable as well, conveying Temperance’s struggle to remain independent despite relatives who wish to marry her off for money and Amelia’s desire to protect the only person she’s ever loved. A steampunk fantasy story starring two queer women was a revelation to a young, bisexual female reader who had no idea what to make of herself yet—again, I can’t stress enough how important Lea Hernandez’s comics are if you want steampunk stories with diverse characters who don’t look like Benedict Cumberbatch.
When I first began my Ink Ladies column I hoped to cover books like Cathedral Child and Clockwork Angels—comics by female creators that are important to me and deserving of wider recognition. Revisiting these books now, years after I first put them on the shelf next to ElfQuest and a few stray X-Men comics, I feel a spark of connection to my younger self, the one who was desperately hungry for female voices in comics. Lea Hernandez has created a pair of tender, magical love stories with just a touch of darkness; there aren’t any steampunk comics quite like them, proving that even for a hardened “Steampunk is not my thing” reader like me, there’s an exception to every rule.