Batman wearing leather and brass? Captain Marvel screaming “SCIENCE!” and having a bottled lightning gun and a jet pack? What is happening? Oh, the superheroes have been tossed back into Victorian England? But why? Well, aside from “Because it’s cool,” an entire panel at Dragon*Con was dedicated to this emerging idea, headed by Mike Mignola, of Hellboy and Gotham by Gaslight fame, and Andrew P. Mayer who has a forthcoming book from Pyr called The Falling Machine, the Society of Steam, Book 1.
The panel was fairly wide ranging, from discussing the origins of steampunk as a genre to a steampunk Captain Marvel telling Mignola to suck it up, he does steampunk. For his part, Mignola actually smiled and said “cool” as he loves the idea that he helped father the movement.
For the most part, though, the panel focused on “why superheroes in steampunk.” Mignola had probably the best answer of the panelists. In the Victorian Age and up through the Second World War, the world was a bit of a simpler place, or at least more naïve. Someone could be honestly fighting for what is right and good, or at least perceived to be, and not be a flat character or an idiot. The concept of “For God, Queen, and Country” was noble, and doing things for the sake of doing right didn’t have to include some angst ridden side story of “what right do I have” or some such.
Mayer had a further point to make, which was that dealing in the Victorian era allows for a writer to play with ideas and mentalities that aren’t as readily available in modern day. Civil rights movements were much less pronounced back then, and attitudes towards political correctness and feminism were underdeveloped at best.
This is a double-edged sword, though. Unlike with much science fiction which exaggerates social issues to address them, the writer cannot just look back then and have a smug moment of “oh, we are so much smarter than these loonies.” One has to remember that there were a good number of very intelligent people back then, and they believed what they did for a reason. So not only do you get to play with the idea of what kind of stigma Batgirl would have to deal with in Victorian England, you have to also remember that her own progressive ideas are going to be much more muted than our own as well.
Of course, there is the aesthetic itself. So often, when a comic franchise tries to reboot a character, they give a mild change to costume and personality, but nothing too overly noticeable. By going the steampunk route, not only do you get a massive change on the costume, you also get a massive change on the character. The most drastic is the above mentioned “Captain Marvel,” who was on the panel and explained that as he was making the concept for his costume, he want to completely get rid of the magic of “Shazam!” and turn it into the power of “Science!” Flight via a rocket pack, energy bolts via a steampunk lightning-gun, and so forth. You can get the same basic concept, he reasoned, and be even truer to what that concept is by changing things pretty radically.
So, want to make a steampunk superhero costume for your next con? Just remember, it is more than goggles and a waistcoat. Take a little time and think about what a character like the superhero would be like a hundred plus years ago. Then add the goggles and waistcoat, ‘cause those are just cool.
Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and clockwork time traveler, just don’t tell anyone. You can read more of his ramblings and some of his short stories at http://RichardFife.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and Facebook.