Comics creator Lea Hernandez has put her graphic novel Cathedral Child, book 1 of the Texas Steampunk trilogy, on the web for free. It’s her way of thanking the comics community for their outpouring of support after her home was destroyed in a fire last year.
Yes, it’s a great combination of several concepts, a semi-supernatural love story swirled in with a Victorian computer and the mythology of the west. It’s set in Heaven, Texas, where two partners are trying to build an “analytical engine” in an old, mission-style church. Both the computer and the church are known as “Cathedral,” and the natives who work on it are called “cuerpo de Cathedral.”
When I first started reading Cathedral Child I groaned a bit, because I thought I knew where the story was going. The cold-hearted evil partner murders the humanist-nice-guy partner and adopts his young son. The son is friendly with one of the Cuerpo kids, who is actually Stuart’s illegitimate daughter, and eventually the two young ‘uns fall in love. At this point, I almost stopped reading, thinking “this is going to be awful, the father will break them up and someone’s gonna die.”
Well, I totally underestimated Lea Hernandez. Almost immediately, the story bent off in an unexpected direction and from then on nothing was predictable. Yes, the bad guys come. Yes, the women kick ass. (This is Diva Lea, after all.) But there’s a huge supernatural element that I didn’t expect, and several clever twists, including one involving jackalopes, those mythical creatures of the west.
It’s a complicated story, and at times I felt like I was losing track; at one point I even wondered if a couple of pages had been switched. But Hernandez makes it easier with a variety of storytelling techniques. She establishes her story and characters by using a letter to introduce them and showing them all posing for a photo, so their personalities pop out right away. She ends the book with a “scrapbook” of clippings about the characters’ later lives. In between, she uses creative paneling, repeated motifs and some really spectacular double-page spreads to bring her story alive. And she shows the passage of time beautifully by depicting the peach trees growing taller alongside the church, a motif she returns to repeatedly. The online presentation is lovelyâ€”I really liked the winged cogs that serve as navigation buttons. My only complaint is that the two-page spreads are a bit too big for my screen, so I have to scroll around to get all the action.
Hernandez’s art is manga-influenced but far from standard manga. She relies mainly on a clear, fluid line to define her characters, with a minimum of toning. The children are very cute and rounded, but for the most part she uses little exaggeration. This does make it hard to distinguish some of the characters, especially the men. But these are quibbles. It’s a lovely comic and a wonderful gift to the world.
On her LiveJournal, Lea explains why she decided to make Cathedral Child available:
Last year, I had a house fire that destroyed my home, ruined most of the things inside (which were not just a total of more than a century of lives, but some things were also a century or more old), and killed every living thing in the house. I and my family were greeted with a tidal wave of love, goodwill, and monetary help to start our lives over from, literally, the ground up.
I would have to write over two thousand thank-you notes, a wonderful situation to be in. I think people would rather have more of my comics. I sure hope I’m right about that, and that’s not Miss Manners I hear tsk-tsking somewhere.
It’s posted under a Creative Commons license, which means that readers are free to share it (with attribution) but not to use it for commercial purposes or make derivative works (such as translations).
So go, read, enjoy. And then tell a friend.