Michele Brittany writes for Bleeding Cool from Comikaze:
Right up front, I am fascinated by Steampunk. This year, there was a major presence at Comikaze, with a number of panels devoted to this subculture group as well as an area on the show floor referred to as Steampunk Alley. I was able to catch one of the panels Saturday afternoon titled Steampunk in Popular Culture, which provided some clarity to the team and reveal just how influential this group has become the various media outlets.
The panel was comprised of League of S.T.E.A.M. (Supernatural & Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management) members, Sheyne Fleischer and Andrew Fogel; cosplayer, Bethany Seagrave; Black Hand Mercantile costumer, Johnny Bias; and moderator Dina Kampmeyer (a.k.a. Lady Steam).
I have seen cosplayers with the familiar embellishments (you know, goggles, corsets, boots with buckles, bustles, et al), but I wondered how did they fit together into a cohesive steampunk identity. Kampmeyer first asked the panel to define the term. Fleischer and Fogel stated that it was "Victorian era science fiction." The emphasis on 'era' was very important because to leave out the word was to severely restrict the style to Victorian England of the late 19th century. However, with 'era' inserted, the term became globally inclusive. For example, Fogel was able explore the American Wild West period.
One of the trends I noticed was the increased presence of steampunk via number of vendors and cosplayers at Comikaze. Seagrave shed light on that very observation. She explained that steampunk was conducive to "upcycling" – a very popular movement now – old or inexpensive items to become ingenious steampunk inspired objet d'arts. She also said that steampunk was influencing some of the big names in fashion, such as Alexander McQueen, Gucci, and Prada, which was unusual since it was usually fashion that dictated fashion trends, not the other way round.
Fleischer stated that the steampunk "skin" could be applied to almost anything. To explore that concept, Kampmeyer asked the audience to suggest a character. Someone yelled out Scooby Doo. Immediately, the gears were turning for Fleischer and Seagrave who suggested adding vests, giving the characters more of a Sherlock Holmes appearance and add color accents from the modern characters, so that people identify who the cosplayer was referencing. And the mystery van? Well, how about mystery train with plumes of steam? This simple and quick exercise showed how the process looked at the character and what aspects would make them functional in the Victorian era. Per Bias, this was a very important concept to understand. For instance, it would not be functional to have Cat Woman in a big bustle as she traversed the rooftops.
And it hasn't just been fashion that has been influenced by steampunk. Weaponry is another. As a fan of zombies, Fogel wanted to utilize Ash from Army of Darkness. Fogel's character needed a chainsaw that would function in the Victorian era. He came up with a hand-cranked chainsaw.
Of course steampunk has become more pervasive in media such as film and televsion. Some examples mentioned included Sherlock, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Doctor Who, Hugo, Van Helsing, and Hansel & Gretel. The last two were particularly good examples of weaponry inspired from steampunk.
Once back on the floor, I noticed several steampunk projects. Madeleine Holly-Rosing, writer of the steampunk themed comic book series, Boston Metaphysical Society, stated that she "wanted to show the American experience which could include women and people of color." Started originally as a period piece, it morphed into a "steampunk ghostbusters" story that melded her interest in history and technology. She appreciated that "steampunk is very inclusive and can be integrated to any culture." It was a theme that resonated from the panel as well as it being flexible and malleable to what a person wanted it to be, within the guidelines of being functional to the particular "punk" period referencing.
Paul Roman Martinez, creator of the Adventures of the 19XX series of books and merchandise, had an interest in history too and realized that the 1930s was an overlooked decade. He took a dissenting opinion when defining steampunk. He felt that it hasn't been "really defined – flexible, but maybe too vague." Hence, he started with steampunk, but he sought to improve upon the style in his own art. What emerged could be labeled as "Dieselpunk" a derivative of steampunk and based on the aesthetics of the 1930s rather than the earlier Victorian era.
The panel and speaking with Holly-Rosing and Rowan Martinez were really only the tip of the preverbal iceberg that is the complex nature of steampunk, but it did provide me a start and resources. And who knows, maybe at next year's Comikaze, I'll be a steampunk secret agent..
For more information about steampunk and the projects mentioned in this article, visit The League of S.T.E.A.M. (www.leagueofsteam.com), Madeleine Holly-Rosing (http://bostonmetaphysicalsociety.com), and Paul Rowan Martinez (www.the19XX.com).
Michele Brittany is an independent pop culture scholar and semi-professional photographer currently editing an upcoming anthology on the influence of James Bond on popular culture. She regularly posts reviews and analysis on the spy/espionage genre on her blog, Spyfi & Superspies.