This weekend I attended Detroit Fanfare in Dearborn, MI. Writer/Illustrator Ken Krekeler was set up in Artists Alley selling Westward Vol. 1 and Dry Spell. I had bought Dry Spell (a non-traditional superhero story) from him last year and really enjoyed it. Westward Volume 1 collects the first three issues of the steampunk series, a genre that I’ll admit to not being that familiar with. Krekeler had a hell of a pitch though…
Steampunk Inspector Gadget.
Now there’s a lot of ways a thing like that could go; it could be full of in-jokes, it could be dependent on references. Or it could be an intelligent, intriguing, and often fun examination of what it means to be almost human as a former human in a steampunk world.
Luckily Westward is the latter.
The book opens in the past, there’s an explosion (?), and then we’re in the present and Victor West is waking from a 10 year coma. He’s told that his body was badly damaged, that he wasn’t expected to survive but the doctors did the best they could. Victor seems to have amnesia; he meets but doesn’t remember his sister and niece (Penelope), we know his family is rich and powerful but he seems oblivious. Then we flash back to learn about who Victor was, a douchey male model, a philanderer who comes off stupid in interviews. The rest of the book is constructed this way; Krekeler jumps back and forth so the reader learns more about who Victor was as he learns more about who, or what, he is now.
It’s a funny and engaging read. Old Victor is a narcissistic asshole; he catches all the breaks, spends his family’s money and sleeps with his business partner’s fiancé. New Victor is at a loss, rudderless, staying with a sister he doesn’t know, slowly learning about the changes made to his body in order for him to survive. Krekeler has a nice trick up his sleeve here, some of Old Victor’s speech patterns and mannerisms manifest themselves in New Victor but they feel awkward and stilted in his current circumstances. There are also deliberate Inspector Gadget nods peppered throughout; a terrorist organization that may have ties to the explosion that opened the book is called the “Civil League of Anti-Worship” (C.L.A.W.), Penelope has a steampunk robot “dog” that she calls Brain. None of it comes across as forced or contrived though, Krekeler weaves these things (and a few others) deftly into the narrative. I don’t want to say much more about the story here; there are revelations in the past and present and Krekeler neatly sets up a new mission for Victor and a possible antagonist by the end.
The book is black and white and while I wouldn’t quite call it a noir there is a lot of shadowing, some of it to help convey the emotion of a scene. Krekeler uses models in his artistic process (there are some examples in the backmatter) so the book has a sort of Alex Maleev feel but is, in my opinion, less stilted or contrived than Maleev can sometimes be. Krekeler’s faces are often rendered with few lines but they are very expressive and emotional. In particular there is a flashback to a discussion between Victor and his father which impressively shows a range of emotion from each character as the tone moves from anger and frustration to forgiveness and acceptance. There’s not a lot of action in the book and the panel layouts are pretty standard but I wouldn’t say it’s visually boring. Krekeler’s knack for dialogue keeps everything well-paced and the storytelling is clear enough to match.
While the pitch intrigued me I want to say that Westward stands fine as its own work. If I hadn’t been expressly told I don’t know if I would have ever made the Inspector Gadget connection. It’s not a property that I often reminisce about, though I did enjoy it as a child, and Westward didn't just shove it back into my face. It’s a well written, well drawn book that I hope to see more of.
One final note, Krekeler funds the printing of each issue of Westward via Kickstarter. The current campaign for issue #6 ends in a few days. If you're interested there are several reward levels that include digital editions of all issues or the trade that I reviewed.