Given my enjoyment of the webcomic Girl Genius, it should come as little surprise that I’m a fan of the steampunk genre. Perhaps part of that lies with the type of people attracted to steampunk; while anime tends to attract tweens and teenagers (to the point that I’ve grown quite cautious at taking pictures when at anime conventions), steampunk tends to attract a more mature crowd with a more creative bent of mind. This isn’t to say that there aren’t creative people in the anime crowd; rather, they tend to be more into drawing… while steampunk aficionados are more creative in creating their image.
This sense of creativity has branched out into the webcomic world as well, with steampunk increasingly taking on fantasy elements. One such example lies with the webcomic Shadowbinders by Thom and Kambrea Pratt, which combines elements from fantasy and steampunk to craft a fascinating hybrid world that the character’s teenage protagonist, Mia White, finds herself transported to after she put on an antique ring that belonged to her grandfather. Interestingly, she’d been having dreams of this world prior to getting her grandfather’s journal (which she couldn’t read as it’s in French) and ring.
Unlike many Transference stories, Mia isn’t trapped in this other world. Instead, she soon learns how to manipulate the ring to some extent, using it to escape from classmates she’d very much prefer to avoid at school (and at a movie theater) at a couple of points… and return home when she’s had enough of this other surreal world she’s found herself in. Indeed, the story itself bounced between Mia’s mundane world with typical problems that teenage girls in Western countries often suffer through (oversleeping, crushes on cute boys, jealous girlfriends of said boys… you know, the usual) and your typical fantasy plotline involving evil forces seeking to overthrow the peace-loving good guys. Or something to that effect.
Fortunately for Mia, the fantasy-steampunk world she finds herself in is akin to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, with time flowing a bit more rapidly there than in her mundane reality. Several hours can pass for her there and mere minutes pass in her world, while days pass between her own visits to the magical world. Interestingly, Mia’s not some predestined “hero” of this steampunk-fantasy world. There are no prophecies of her arrival, or dread evils that only she can defeat. Instead, that role seems to default to Captain Crimson Rhen of the airship The True North, one of the few remaining wizards of his world. And Rhen is more rogue than romantic hero of old, switching between flirtation and threats to try and learn who Mia is and how she keeps appearing on his ship.
Another interesting aspect of Shadowbinders is that the story continues without Mia; readers are given glimpses not only of Rhen and his crew, but also of the antagonists behind the plot to seize control of the magical world. Unfortunately, while we’re given glimpses of these antagonists and even an entire story segment to expand on their personalities, their motivations remain somewhat vague. Seeing that the heroes of this tale are flawed humans, it would be enjoyable to learn that the antagonists aren’t just some cardboard cutout villains but instead may have legitimate reasons for their actions… reasons that they believe justify means that are still at their heart unpalatable to most.
One area I didn’t enjoy as much was the comic’s start. The Pratts utilized over a half dozen wordless updates that to be honest didn’t make much sense, though once readers realize this is just one of Mia’s dreams (despite the fact the characters and ship are quite real) I suppose the surreal elements make more sense. Likewise, there are sections where the pacing could be tightened up. Despite these fairly minor issues, the story itself seems sound and the artwork is solid (if a bit cartoonish in places). The combination of story, enjoyable characters, and a fascinating setting help make Shadowbinders a comic well worth adding to your reading selection.