A challenge that most geek subcultures face is when they start to creep into the mainstream or when the mainstream starts to creep into their sphere. Hot off Tor.com’s Steampunk Week,tThis was the main topic of discussion at the “Steampunk 101” panel on New York Comic Con’s first night. A history of the community was hardly necessary, so instead a lot of the discussion focused on how steampunks feel when newbies and Hollywood start to explore their world.
One of the most incredible aspects of steampunk is that it’s advanced into the public sphere in only three or four years—much faster than other subcultures. The four portals through which people most commonly enter into steampunk are (in descending order of interest) fashion, music, art, and writing. (Boo! says the writer in me.)
When we say fashion, we’re not just talking one-of-a-kind Etsy pieces—Forever 21 has incorporated clockwork earrings and military-cut coats into its repertoire the past few seasons.
It’s this very visual, interactive nature that makes steampunk so accessible to newbies: The historical elements act as a sort of shorthand that make the subculture easier to understand than if you were dressing up as a manga character or even a vampire. Also, you can’t do it wrong! As long as you have the key elements, you’re in—and you’re nearly guaranteed to look great doing it. One panelist took an informal poll of the audience, asking, “Girls, who doesn’t want to see a guy in a nice button-down and vest?” and “Gentlemen, when does a girl not look good in a corset?”
Similar to what’s been going on with LARP, Hollywood has bogarted steampunk, turning a niche interest into an expensive movie designed to attract girls who love pretty boys, guys who like swordfights, and kids who are mesmerized by historical settings. The most glaring example is Summit Entertainment’s The Three Musketeers, which could be called a remake of the 1993 version starring Chris O’Donnell if it didn’t add in the kinds of steampunk elements we saw in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. Logan Lerman dons an awful wig to play D’Artagnan, the impressionable youth who reunites the disgraced Musketeers. You also have Orlando Bloom, looking even more foppish than usual and an awesome-looking airship.
Surprisingly, the panelists were of the opinion that a Hollywood-ized vision of steampunk is still forward progress. One laughed, “I think the movie’s a travesty, and I can’t wait to see it!” And of course, we can’t forget that The Three Musketeers originally came from Alexandre Dumas, who was actually alive during the period that steampunk depicts!
What’s important, the panelists stressed, is that introducing a subculture into the mainstream gives those artists the chance for more exposure and attention. But new converts have to give them their due; otherwise, it’s all for naught.
Back to Hollywood: One of the panelists quoted a line from the film SLC Punk!, where the characters are arguing whether it was the Ramones or the Sex Pistols who invented punk: “Who cares who started it? It’s music!”
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter @nataliezutter. She really wants to buy a bunch of steampunk clothing now.