What the hell is steampunk, you ask?
Over the past few months, I’ve been asked that same question many times. In February, I wrote a story about this group of costumed folks — steampunks — who went to ride the carousel at the Westfield Mall in Carlsbad but were kicked out by management. A small story about the incident I wrote for the Reader turned out to be the shot heard ’round the world. As in going viral. As in blew up on the blogosphere. As in so popular that ABC news felt it important enough to do a segment on them here in San Diego and in Los Angeles. U-T San Diego did a story about it. Steampunk musician Poplock Holmes wrote and recorded a song called “Carousel” about the incident. “Steampunk,” Holmes says, “celebrates the difference, instead of segregating.”
To answer your question, steampunk is a sub genre of science fiction and fantasy that has its roots in a post-apocalyptic view of the 19th century (hence the steam). It includes social and technological aspects of the Victorian period expressed in dress and in the making of retro-futuristic accoutrements. That’s a good working definition. But the true answer to your question lies in getting to know a few participants — a few steampunks.
When I met retired safety engineer (now self-titled “director of creative madness”) and Rancho Bernardo resident Bob Mogg, who is in his mid 50s, he wore what looked like a mechanical arm. Fascinated, I asked him how he made it. “I saw an old-style drafting lamp. Long bones, already connected to an elbow, lightweight, and I thought I had one up in the attic. I pulled off the actual lamp and removed the wires, and I had a perfectly sized arm that would ride on top of my own arm. The springs that balanced it added a great aesthetic. I raided my belt rack and started putting together the support structure. Four U-shaped brackets with leather belts connected to them. This puts smooth leather against your arm and not sharp metal. The belts don’t have to be too tight, as the arm re-centers itself every time you flex your arm. A couple of motor armatures from old drills, nice copper windings, interesting shafts, those can go here and here. Pressure gauge from the plumbing tools, braided steel hoses, and a variety of black rubber hoses. I used a few brass valves left over from an old aquarium and framed the arm with the steel hose. A brass garden-hose nozzle looked great at the end of the hose. Two female fittings got spliced with a piece of sprinkler fitting. A few hose clamps to pull everything together, and a large clock mechanism at the shoulder, just because. A fitting here, another gauge there — how about a retractable keychain cutting across the angle that moves when the arm moves and makes a great ratcheting sound? No painting, very little metalwork, only a little leather work on the belts, and the whole thing put together for under $10 and only weighs about ten pounds.”
Makers such as Mogg are part of a contemporary subculture of the technology-based do-it-yourself culture. This can involve electronics, robotics, and traditional metalworking, woodworking, and arts-and-crafts.
I met Bob at Condor, a science fiction/fantasy convention held at the Town and Country hotel here in March. I was there to observe an award ceremony for steampunk makers. Bob was among the recipients.
In May, I attended the Gaslight Gathering Convention at the same hotel; this event was devoted exclusively to steampunk. There I met with makers Adam Green and Dan Benedict.
Green is a 30-year-old engineer who lives in Oceanside. I observed him at the Lapidary, a place in San Diego where many of the steampunks go to make the pieces they wear. He was busy building a pair of “Hulk-fist-inspired” square-looking boxing gloves out of wood that lit up with LED lights and made loud noises. CO2 devices taken from paintball guns make the noises and are hidden inside the gloves. They feature four feet of braided-steel tubes with a quick disconnect. In honor of a friend who had passed away, he called the gloves “a Ronald Erickson Assisted Pugilism Device, and these are all random junk parts.” Adam figures he spent about $300–400 making them.
Benedict, also in his 30s, is an industrial designer living in Anaheim and owns Derby Kinetic. He was guest of honor at the Gaslight Gathering this year. He makes large pieces such as coffins that have eye-like apertures on the side that open and close electronically and large metal-looking industrial drums that shoot out steam. Benedict says, “They are made to look as if they’re over 100 years old but are made with plastic and are very lightweight, considering their hefty-looking deceptiveness.... San Diego steampunks were the first to recognize my works as a kinetic artist and adopt me into their ranks and invite me to share my works at their events.”
Lithobius Quick (real name: Kim Hutsell) is a gentleman in his early 60s and the founder of a maker group of about 30 people called the Starburner Galactic Courier Service. Back in 2008 at Comic-Con, the doors to the magic castle opened to him. He wanted to recognize all the makers, writers, artists, actors, organizers, and events people. He wanted to award them in front of their peers. He handed out six medals at that first Starburner awards ceremony.
As a child, Hutsell was encouraged to go play in the family woodshop in his basement. “I was a 12-year-old kid working with bandsaws and lathes. My dad was a tinker, too. It was second nature.” Hustell also runs the San Diego Lapidary Society, where others come to polish stones for jewelry, and where fellow steampunk Michelle Peoples, also known as Stitch Trickery, teaches sewing classes. The one class I observed was learning how to make corsets and waist-cinchers.
As I talked to Hutsell at the Lapidary, I watched him put together what looked like a vintage wooden personal grooming kit. He said it was called “campaign furniture” that military officers used. It was a wood box about two feet tall and about one and a half feet deep. It opened up and had a pewter bowl sitting flush in a hole Hutsell had made and could be removed. There was a brass towel rack attached, a copper cup to heat up water from a transportable heater taken from a Coleman lantern, soap container, shaving mug and badger-hair brush, vintage razor, bone hair comb, toothbrush, mustache comb, glass tube “humidor” for a morning cigar, vanity mirror, and green felt on all the bottom surfaces. He had given it a personal touch with a small picture of a Victorian woman. He said it was all built to 1860 standards and it was the heater that made it steampunk because they would not have had that back then. This was on display in the maker room at the Gaslight Gathering.
After attending several conventions and events in the steampunk world, I found that many of the vendors at these functions are making and/or selling things that I thought people could be making themselves. Then I found out that while many (possibly most) steampunks design and construct their own outfits and accessories together, others prefer to buy. Sparky McTrowell, a writer of serialized stories called “penny dreadfuls” told me, “I can’t sew, I don’t want to learn, nor do I have the time, so I have someone else make them or I buy all of my outfits.”
The fantastical inventions of Lithobius Quick
Lithobius Quick, aka Kim Hutsell, shares some of his complex, artful "inventions," many of them made at the San Diego Lapidary Society.
A lot of the maker movement exists here because of people like Hutsell, whom others seem to gravitate to for advice and help with their mechanically minded projects. Jeb Haught, also known as “Jeremiah Goodfellow,” is a rider of those “penny farthing” Victorian bicycles with the gigantic wheels in the front. He went to Hutsell for help with the backpack he wears with his outfits. The pack features a rotating fan on his back. The blades “are modern plastic and about two feet in diameter with a wire grill from the 1950s. The body is from a wall clock, all painted in a brass color. It has a copper smokestack exhaust and there is a vintage pressure gauge from the 1930s or 40s on it. There is a hose connected to a knife switch from my leather arm gauntlet which has a DC motor and battery to power the fan when I flick the switch on my gauntlet. He calls it the Splendiferous Aeronautical Flabellum. “Kim [Hutsell] has helped me figure out how to make things and get all the parts working.”
I asked him what inspired him to make it, and Haught said, “I saw the fan and I thought it would look cool if I strapped it on my back. Maybe I could think of it as an early rocket pack.”
Jeb Haught's gadgets and accoutrements
Jeb Haught, steampunk fan and "maker," shares his story of discovering his passion for creating interesting things and shows off one of his more notable creations.
Hutsell says, “The inventiveness in steampunk is why so many gravitate towards it. Nobody tells you, ‘That’s wrong.’ It can get way out there, but the one thing that makes it all fair game is time travel. Because we consider ourselves time-travelers; almost anything goes when it comes to dress and our accessories. Time-travel brings in things you wouldn’t find in the Victorian era. It brings you ray guns or modern technology like a cell phone, but it’s covered in brass and glass. Most of the women dressed in steampunk would be arrested if they were in the Victorian era,” he laughed. “None of it is proper.”
I mention how polite everyone seemed to be at their Gaslight Gathering Convention and I asked why Hutsell thinks that is. “We’ve lost a lot of manners and we’ve lost a lot of how to treat each other kindly. In the Victorian era, even though a great deal of it was stilted, institutionalized, or faked, people were kind to each other. They didn’t have to worry about being verbally lacerated every time they talked to somebody who didn’t agree with them. Steampunks are refugees from people in this world being rude and unkind. [We want] to get back to a place where people are nice to each other. The etiquette part is just an extension of manners and being courteous.”
When I ask him why there seems to be a plethora of people over 40 in this genre, he stated, “You don’t have a sense of dignity or self-worth when you’re younger. Manners and etiquette just don’t come to young people. When you’re younger, you’re not aware that there are rules set up so we’re not running over each other all the time. So, for a teenager, for example, they can’t always see why we do the things that we do in the way of manners. They don’t see a need to do it, and in fact they are young and rebellious and full of hormones, and ready to be dangerous. Dangerous quite often translates to rude, discourteous, and unkind. The raciest costumes you see at the events are usually worn by the younger ones.
“The higher average age has to do with the wisdom of being older and all that comes with that. We send young people into war because they’re full of energy and bravado. They can go out and whip anything because they feel they’re indestructible and immortal. We know better when we get older. It’s the same thing with all the manners. The younger ones, they want to fit in; they need to and want to know the rules. They find people in the steampunk community they admire and want to emulate them. At the Gaslight Gathering, a lot of the younger people wanted to emulate the older characters. Even though they think of themselves as renegades, they don’t really want to be; they want to be part of the pack.”
Hutsell thinks it’s also popular because the older generation grew up with Disney and Walt saying, “If you can imagine it, do it.” He and fellow Starburners are currently working on their first graphic novel. Of course, it’s all about the Starburner Agents themselves, yet it is fictionalized.
“So many genres repel people, but steampunk seems to attract them. While you will see people avoid a bunch of goths walking down the street, people literally come running up to steampunks and ask to take a picture with us. We’re a friendly bunch.”
People in San Diego and Southern California in general are just more accepting of people in costume than they are in other states, Hutsell says. “I used to live in Kansas, and if you walked down the street there in a top hat, they would put you in a straitjacket. Here they might glance but not care.”
An exception he thought of was the mall incident. “We had planned to spend money in that mall. Security were following orders from some guy up in an office saying, ‘Get these people out of here.’”
One of the recent recipients of a Starburner award is Brian Kesinger, a story artist at Disney Animation Studios for 18 years. He wrote and illustrated the steampunk series Walking Your Octopus and is responsible for helping to animate recent hits such as Wreck It Ralph, and the steampunk-influenced Treasure Planet and Atlantis, the Lost Empire. Hutsell said Kesinger was “tickled” to receive the Starburner award.
“San Diego,” Kesinger said, “seems to be a focal point on the global map of steampunk cities. I believe largely because of its yearly convention, the Gaslight Gathering. This boutique con may not be as large as its older sibling, Comic-Con, but it is no less potent. It attracts guests and attendees from around the world. I was fortunate enough to be one of the Gaslight Gathering’s guests of honor last year and was inspired by their fervor for the genre.”
Kesinger speculated that perhaps “San Diego’s location itself next to the sea and the salty air helps draw a connection to the adventures tales of Jules Verne. Those stories have been cited as being a huge influence on the movement in general. So, as one dons a top hat or laces one’s corset, the ocean breeze brings them one step closer to standing on the deck of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus.”
“San Diego steampunks are a loyal bunch. Their delegation has shown up to several of my appearances at conventions from Seattle to Atlanta. One of my favorite experiences was at a recent signing I did at Disneyland for the opening of their first ever steampunk art exhibit, Mechanical Kingdoms. The dapper San Diegans’ enthusiastic greetings had guests and park employees turning their heads. In fact, gallery cast members and park officials were commenting to me on how upbeat, polite, and warm these neo-Victorian guests were and told me they wished there were more like them.”
Write on and on
“Penny dreadfuls”? I had to look up that name, too. I found out they were serialized lurid tales written in the 19th Century and that they cost a penny. I also found out Penny Dreadful is the name of a new Showtime series that started in May. The show’s set design and fashion display a lot of steampunk influences.
Continuing in the penny dreadful literary tradition are David Drake and Katherine Morse, a married couple in their 50s, research computer scientists who are also the authors of a book and podcast series (On Krypton Radio, “Sci Fi for your WiFi”) called Perils in a Postulated Past.
Dr. Sparky McTrowell is the nom de steam of Morse, who has a real-life Ph.d. in computer science and a B.A. in Russian literature. Along with her husband (steam name: Chief Inspector Erasmus Drake), Morse created this series over the past four years.
“People are first attracted to the visual aspect of steampunk,” she told me, “they see costumes, which is the gateway drug.”
Drake said, “People are designing their houses, their offices with this aesthetic.... Steampunk crosses over so many artistic boundaries, so many different aesthetics, they feel they can easily be a part of it. I may not be able to sew or make things, but I can write, so I can be a part of this. That is my superpower.”
Regarding steampunk in San Diego, she opined, “In order to be a successful steampunk, you’ve got to not take yourself too seriously. Los Angeles is full of people taking themselves way too seriously. San Diego is an easier-going sort of place.”
Morse and Drake organized an event called “Duel at Dusk” this past March. Drake is a 40-year veteran of the sport of fencing, popular during Victorian times and even further back. He functioned as the master of ceremonies at this competitive duel that over 100 steampunks attended at the Team Touché Fencing Center in Sorrento Valley, right around the corner from where the couple lives.
On display for the duel was the Strato Sculpin, designed and created by Hutsell.
“This is a reconnaissance vehicle that’s normally attached to the Starburner airship,” said Hutsell. “It’s a three-engine single-seater made mostly out of wood. It takes six people to put all the parts together and set it up.” Many sat in it and took pictures.
Steampunk vendors at "Duel at Dusk"
A short tour of the interesting, mostly handmade wares for sale at the "Duel at Dusk" Steampunk gathering in San Diego.
I mentioned to Morse and Drake that I was seeing a core of the same group of people at each event or gathering I attended. Drake agreed that there was a good sampling of the steampunk community at the duel. He said that even when they attended the recent Wild, Wild West convention in Tucson in March, half the panels were conducted by San Diegans. They were doing the “heavy lifting.”
When I asked them what possessed them to write penny dreadfuls, Morse said, “We do a lot of technical writing, we have a certain amount of mechanical skills for that.” Drake said, “We’re not going back in time, we’re borrowing a lot from that and bringing it forward.
“People see us in our characters because we dress like them, but unlike me, Sparky McTrowell is fearless. Sometimes I think to myself, What would Sparky do?” says Morse. “I channel my inner steampunk and get through things that are invasive, like the scanner at the airport.”
Morse considers McTrowell to be feminist literature because Sparky does things that would never have been allowed in Victorian times. She says it’s a colorful rewriting of what she hopes the future can be, just as sci-fi is in that same school of thought.
Drake further states, “It’s what you wish you could be. You get to create this persona. I can create this fictional horse and ride it for the next five minutes, and it’s wonderful. Was that in me all along? But as authors, it’s given me the confidence to do some things I would never have been able to do.”
They take turns writing episodes from their characters’ perspectives and have finished four novelettes in the past four years. They also host writing panels at steampunk conventions. They mentioned that Brian Kesinger just did the cover illustration for their latest book.
When I asked her how she got into steampunk, Morse told me that she had gone to sci-fi conventions in high school doing Star Wars cosplay. Four years ago, a friend at work told her, “Let’s hang out at this steampunk convention,” and they rummaged through their closets to put outfits together.
They led a panel I attended at the Gaslight Gathering called “Martian School of Hot Potato Writing.” They led two guest authors in an improvisational writing game show. Audience members selected plot elements and the teams took turns writing the beginning, middle, and end of a story, incorporating the different plots with two “hot potatoes” thrown in for excitement. Lots of laughter ensued. They also signed copies of their books in the vendor hall.
Drake and Morse love that Victorian manners have been brought back through steampunk. And, she says, they appreciate that “there is no entrance exam to be a steampunk.”
Many I talked to described Jeffrey and Lisa Vaca as being ambassadors for steampunk. But Lisa’s face blushes when I tell her that, and they both try to deflect suggestions that they are leaders in the community.
“The idea of a central leader is anathema to steampunk,” Jeff insists. “It will never work. Interests are too varied. They are not followers or trying to find a group identity to belong to. They are individuals at heart. They are creators, innovators, thinkers. Unlike the goth scene that was music-based if a small group tried to establish that, it would be rejected out of hand.”
Lisa (also known as Lady Amethyst) said, “It’s not up to one group to make an event. If you want to do it, make it happen.” Jeff states, “We want everyone to be an organizer, everyone to be an ambassador and we tell people this all the time. Steampunk lends itself to being social; it’s a social hobby. Person-to-person. Exchange of ideas. We discourage cliques.”
“Having a friendly personality helps you succeed in the steampunk community. Steampunks come from sci-fi, fringe people, Comic-Con, not the norm. They fit in with a friendly group. Other groups might be more suspicious; i.e., ‘What do you want from me?’ But steampunk makes you feel welcome,” says Lisa.
Jeff adds, “The community gives back if you’re friendly.”
I got some long answers when I asked them what they feel San Diego’s impact on the steampunk community is.
Lisa’s take is, “It’s because of our weather, our history, our Victorian heritage, we still have the feel of the wild, wild west and that’s very steampunk. Because the weather is great, you can get a Victorian bathing suit on and go to the beach, dress as an engineer and go to the Campo Train Museum. We have the Gaslamp, which is perfectly themed. What can be more steampunk than the Gaslamp District?”
Jeff and Lisa are in their 40s and have two teenagers at home. Their daughter, Hanna, sometimes dresses, and I’ve seen her at several of the events. Lisa is a private-school secretary and Jeff is a traffic engineer for the City of San Diego.
I asked them what led them to steampunk. Jeff started going to Comic-Con in 1982, so he’s been on that path for awhile. He is also a gamer and a woodworker, hobbies that transferred easily into steampunk. Lisa home-schooled her kids and says, “Steampunks in a lot of ways are like home-schoolers: they’re self-motivated to learn. There’s a term, ‘lifelong learner.’ Steampunks are always looking for something new to do and to learn.”
One of the reasons the Vacas have earned the unwanted title of ambassadors is because of their involvment in the Gaslight Gathering, which they say, “is very important to us. Gaslight brings people from all over California, Florida, Arizona, Washington. We get to show off our city and steampunk community.”
At the last Gaslight, they organized a side competition in which contestants steampunked Pez dispensers for prizes.
High-status rock stars
Johnathan Sebastian Greyshade is his name, but don’t call it a persona or a character’s name. He asked me not to use his real name. This steampunk is living off the grid. I read his blog, “Greyshade Estate: The Divided Heart of an Agrarian Steampunk DJ.” He bought some land and moved his family out to East County to live out a more agrarian lifestyle, sans electricity. He says, “Nineteenth-century American households produced much of what they consumed: food, clothing, and household items. They were repurposed when they could not be repaired.”
He is considered by some to have started the first steampunk gatherings in San Diego with a club night called Chrononaut from 2007 to 2011. He says it was one of the most successful steampunk clubs in the western United States.
But Greyshade seemed to get his feathers ruffled when I interpreted some of his writing as putting down less...serious-minded involment in steampunk. I asked him if he felt everyone should be as serious as him. What about the joy these people seem to get just from dressing up? Why was he judging that?
His response was, “There is nothing wrong with costuming and its associated past times, but there is a great deal wrong with trying to push aside other, older aspects of the movement and trying to pretend that steampunk is just fan culture as usual. It can never be that because fan culture largely ignored steampunk until a bunch of bohemians made it sexy. The makers were the high-status rock stars. Making things was always better than buying them. Making things that did something and looked awesome at the same time was the ultimate in cool.”