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Soul of an Machine

(This Stripped column originally appeared in the June 11-17, 1998 Long Island Voice. Click on the artwork for a larger image.)


"Are my seams straight?"

 — Vampirella

"I'm afraid you'd need a proctologist to check."

  — Painkiller Jane discussing beauty pageant attire in Vampirella/Painkiller Jane

by Beth Hannan Rimmels

I get a lot of unsolicited comics, which is both a delight and a chore. While I love getting new books, I always hesitate before opening one for fear it will be some awful piece of dreck. I shouldn't have been concerned about Cathedral Child (Image, $9.95). Lea Hernandez came to my attention via Jimmie (not to be confused with James) Robinson, creator of the awesome Amanda & Gunn, and I should trust his taste by now.

The first thing that catches your attention is how unusual Cathedral Child is: a steampunk story told in manga/anime style. Steampunk's a fairly recent addition to the subgenres of science fiction. Journalist Douglas Fetherling probably gave the best definition when he said it imagines "how the past would have been different if the future had happened sooner." K.W. Jeter's Morlock Night (1979) is generally considered the first steampunk novel, but the best known is The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1991). So steampunk tends to imagine analog computers, steam-driven machines and technology controlled by unusual means, like the Cathedral engine.

Set in 1890s Texas, Cathedral is an analytical machine that gets its name from the odd former church that houses it. The natives are used to "train" the machine because without training (think programming without the arcane language), it can only perform the simplest of functions rather than being the first truly thinking machine, as is intended.

But Cathedral Child is really the story of Sumner and Glory. Sumner Nikola's father acquired the plans for Cathedral from the deceased Mr. B and runs the operation with Parrish Stuart. Stuart is a hard, stubborn man who becomes Sumner's guardian after Mr. Nikola's untimely death. Glory is the only child of the natives living nearby, and she and Sumner are fast friends whose love deepens and changes as puberty kicks in.

But while still children, they sneak in one day to play with the huge pipe organ that controls Cathedral and, to the surprise of the adults scolding them when they get caught, their playing seems to have awakened a new aspect of the machine. Thereafter, they are taught how to tutor Cathedral.

As a 5 1/2-by-7 1/2-inch graphic novel, Cathedral Child is easy to spot on retailers' shelves. Unfortunately, it's also one of the last items to be released as part of Jim Valentino's late, lamented, black-and-white "non-line" line of Image comics. Hernandez' art is clearly in the manga/anime style (she was a contributor to Comic On, the best-selling Japanese CD-ROM manga anthology and colorist or letterer on 2,000-plus pages of manga), but it's also much more expressive and fluid than stereotypical genre art. Original comics like this and Valentino's own A Touch of Silver need a home. Unfortunately, the bottom line rather than critical appeal has always been more important to Image's owners.

IN A TOTALLY DIFFERENT VEIN  The Vampirella/Painkiller Jane (Harris, $2.95) one-shot team-up is a blast. I'm so jaded about team-ups, particularly company crossovers, that they are very low on my reading priority list, but I'm glad I checked this one out. Needless to say, Vampy's continuing her crusade to kill all vampires and crosses paths with Jane in the process.

What made it fun was the beauty pageant backdrop where a clan of vampires uses a "Miss Hemoglobin" contest to rustle up victims. The well-stacked Vampirella poses as human to infiltrate the competition and is repeatedly heckled by the viewers and judges for being too skinny.

Mark Waid and Bryan Augustyn's story has tons of fun touches, from the catcalls Vampirella is subjected to ("Yo, bony maroni! You got an eating disorder?") to a tip of the hat to Bram Stoker ("I never drink...beer.") to a jab at novelist Stephen King via the story's narrator, Rex McCobb, a fearsmith from Bangor Street in Coroner's Corners, Vermont.

SET YOUR VCR: The Independent Film Channel will air an Open All Night Clerks Marathon presenting the widescreen format version of Kevin Smith's film Clerks for 12 straight hours, alternating between the theatrical version and the version with Smith's commentary from the Criterion laser-disc version. After each showing will be outtakes and theatrical trailers from the film. Why am I mentioning this? Because comics fan (and now comics scribe) Smith also turned Clerks into a comic book a few months ago and will release a Jay and Silent Bob miniseries later this year to bridge the gap between the end of Chasing Amy and the beginning of Smith's upcoming film, Dogma. Oni Press, publisher of Smith's comics, is a promotional partner in the IFC screenings and between showings will show placards (since technically, the IFC is commercial free) with the company logo and the covers of Smith's comics. The spots will include the Comic Shop Locator number (888-COMIC BOOK). It's a great opportunity to let Smith fans know about his comics. Now we just have to hope that retailers seize the opportunity by making sure they have Clerks on their shelves. Smart retailers would also suggest other comics that would appeal to similar tastes.

Media Connection: This week, 'Nuff Said hosts Ken Gale and Ed Menje turn the show over to listeners. No guests, just lots of people talking comics. 'Nuff Said airs from midnight June 14 to 1 a.m. June 15 on WBAI-FM (99.5).


Column 1998 Long Island Voice. Cathedral Child artwork 1998 Lea Hernandez. Vampirella/Panekiller Jane artwork 1998 Harris Comics