What is steampunk? Is it a genre? A special-interest society? A sub-culture? An aesthetic movement? I think the answer is: yes! Steampunk has its roots in the Victorian-era science fiction writing of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Consider The War of the Worlds (1898), The Invisible Man (1897), and The Time Machine (1895) by Wells, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1872), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1871), and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) by Verne. These books were revolutionary when they came out – it was the birth of science fiction. Steampunk is born from this period – a time when the world was on the verge of the technological explosion that led to widespread use of electricity and automobiles. Steampunk captures an era where steam (as a power source) held infinite potential, horse-drawn carriages roamed the land, and brass, leather and wood were king.
Steampunk came about in the late 1980s and early 1990s, arguably as an extension of, or outward growth from, the gothic scene. There are many steampunks who come from the world of Goth. Whereas the Goth movement started from within the music scene in the post-punk late 1970s and early 1980s, with bands like Bauhaus, Joy Division, Siouxie and the Banshees, and most commercially, the Cure, Steampunk seems to derive its forward movement from literature. In today’s instant-consumption society, this may make steampunk seem like a rudderless boat. That is a criticism of our society, not of steampunk.
The term steampunk was coined in 1979, after publication of a book called Morlock Night by K. W. Jeter. Considering the heavy literary influence on the genre, and the value placed on creativity, role-playing and inventiveness, it seems that people who gravitate toward steampunk are seeking something more stimulating and challenging than today’s instant-consumption society. This is a group of people with a Do It Yourself kind of ethos that is admirable, and increasingly hard to find.
At Comic Con, on Saturday (day three of the convention), there was a steampunk panel discussion slated for 1PM in room 24. I went upstairs at 12:15PM, and the line was already 300 people deep. Room 24 holds 100 people. Comic Con should get a clue from this that they need a bigger venue. The interest in steampunk is growing rapidly.
To be sure, I am an outsider as far as steampunk goes. I have sent an interview to Mr. Crackitus Potts (a.k.a. Nick Baumann) and in it, I seek to explore some of the roots and psychology of steampunk. But as he says, “We are still in the development stages, and the community is trying to define Steampunk.” It is a work in progress!
Here are some pictures of the people waiting in line for the panel. Most everyone I talked to and photographed made his or her costume with his or her own hands. It is this kind of ingenuity that makes steampunk so exciting. Take a look.
I spoke with Enki MacAnnuir, a young, green-kilt-wearing steampunk. He had made some of his friends’ accoutrements, and this is what he had to say:
Enki MacAnnuir: The greatest places you can go are antique thrift stores, junkyards and clock repair shops. It’s about scavenging around. In the clock repair shops, oftentimes they have drawers and drawers of broken parts that are not being used, and a lot of times they’ll just give them to you; they have no use for them. They end up just throwing those parts away. There is also a clock convention hosted every year in a different city, and you can pick up a 50-lb box of clock parts for $5.
When I put these things together, occasionally I will use an epoxy, craft glue, gorilla glue, but I go more for the aesthetic and natural feel – if you can find a way to do it that makes it look natural – held together by leather or copper, soldering it with metal, that’s much better.
I spied this guy (below) further down the line, and wow – he was making his eyepiece open and close, winking at me. Creepy AND cool!
Dennis Burke, software engineer: I originally decided I wanted to do a “borg” version of steampunk. I started working on my eyepiece originally, and then I had to go on eBay. I tried building a clamshell mechanism, and a couple of other things before I bought this iris. Then I started working on the armor. I found the jacket on eBay, and I cut the sleeves off. The last thing I did was my gun.
I figured out how to do all of this by trial and error. I had an idea of what I wanted this costume to look like, and then I just started working on it. I made a costume last year, and I didn’t like the way it turned out. So much so, that I kept experimenting. I’ve been working on this all year. Regarding the eyepiece, I started in November, there were a few things that I tried and threw out. Eventually I came up with this, and I’m really happy with it.
The eyepiece is, I believe, from a microscope. I bought it on eBay from a guy in Bulgaria. The gun was the last thing that I made. It’s a piece of PVC pipe, I put some wood veneer on there, I put on some drainage pieces and copper tubing. I put a plasma ball on the inside; it doesn’t show up when it’s light out, so I have it turned off now.
The vest I got through Damsel in This Dress, and the belt I got at Target. The little pouchie thing I got through another girl on Etsy, I’m drawing a blank on her name now. I got the glovelets from Gypsy Lady Hats; she made these to go with my hat, custom made.
It took her about two weeks to turn it around. The pants actually I already had, I altered them and added this front panel with snaps.
I asked her if she sews, and she said, with a smirk, “Well, my mom sews…”
I started talking to a group of people in line, and I asked them, in their opinion, what was the difference between steampunk and dieselpunk.
Sergeant Brain (real name: Mai): Steampunk focuses more on the Victorian era, and alternate possibilities of steam technology becoming available. Whereas dieselpunk, it’s a little more technological in the sense that it’s the era of the 1920s to the 1950s, the advent of diesel technology. A lot of dieselpunk has to do with the romanticism of film noir, and that sort of thing.
The panel began, but with all the chaos of the small space and too many people wanting to get in, there was a general lack of focus – just not enough time to deal with the space, the people, seating everyone, before turning right around to leave. I hope that next year, Comic Con will afford the steampunks a bigger room, and maybe there could be some presentation on the historical influences on steampunk, or maybe something about craftsmanship in the steampunk aesthetic. It would be so cool and so educational for the public, to see this. If I can help, let me know!
In the interest of furthering education about steampunk to the general public, here are some interesting and useful steampunk resources (click on the text to jump):
Steampunk Name Generator this one I thought was particularly funny.
MUSIC: Abney Park (also sells clothing on the site)
I will be posting the interview with the So-Cal Steampunks at the end of the week. Stand by for some interesting discussion of this fascinating subject!!