Emerald City Comicom: Steampunk and Superheroes

With San Diego Comic-Con still fresh in our minds, it’s a good time to plug Seattle’s local version, Emerald City Comicom. Different name, smaller event, similar sensibility. But much more intimate. And it’s in Seattle.

There’re lots of reasons to head to the Seattle Convention Center for this annual springtime fest. Some people go just to buy stuff. And there is plenty of stuff to buy. Others go to celebrate a favorite character, showing up in a simple Storm Trouper helmet or rocking a complete Yui Hirasawa costume, right down to the barrettes and guitar.

There’s cosplay, fandom meetups and speed dating. But for me, the ultimate nerd, Comicom is for panel discussions. Oh, that’s right. I go to learn.

I can’t comment on the quality of the discussions in San Diego, because I’ve never been to Comic-Con. (Yet.) In Seattle, it varies. This past March, I sat through a gaming panel that never got deeper than tossing out favorite horror movie titles and a modern monster session that brought together lovable dragons and brain-eating zombies for an awkward mishmash.

But there were two panel discussions that were worth the price of my ticket: one on Steampunk and the other on redesigning comic book heroes. Both excellent and full of ideas worth sharing.

I’ll start with Steampunk…

Fascinating verbal wrestling with the definition of Steampunk. What is it? Panelist Quincy Allen described it as “an aesthetic.” But I liked the three elements that the group finally settled on:

— Techno fantasy — not really science fiction
— Retro futurism — going backward and forward
— Neo Victorianism

Mix all that together, and you have Steampunk.

The panelists also took up the question of “Why the Victorian period?” Steampunk, they said, is built on adventure, inventors and discovery, and the Victorian period is rich in all of these: the opening of the American west, British colonization, the industrial revolution, and developments in science and technology.

All true. But what the panelists didn’t talk about were the era’s darker themes, and these play a role in great Steampunk: sexual repression, slavery, cultural oppression, persecution of homosexuals, and the subjugation of women. So to me, the wonderfulness of the genre comes when writers take advantage of the Victorian Age as a crossroads of human and mechanical possibilities, of great progress and horrific heartlessness. It’s like Science Fiction:  It shows us our potential, what we could become/  But it’s different, because it also reveals our narrow miss, what we could have become…if…

(Panelist Ren Cummins reminded the audience that there are sub genres. Most notably, he said, “Stonepunk,” featuring the Flintstones.)

Feeling Steampunk inspired? Check out Fiddlehead from the Clockwork Century series by Cherie Priest.

The “Redesigning Heroes for the Modern World” panel consisted of superstars. And what a difference the best in the business can make in a discussion: Kris Anka (Spider-Woman), Jamie McKelvie (Ms. Marvel), Cameron Steward and Babs Tarr (Batgirl), and Robbi Rodriquez (Spider-Gwen). Yep, that’s who was talking.

For those who don’t know, the comic book world has artists who draw every issue and “specialists” (also artists) who do the amazing covers featuring a new or re- design. Both groups are talented (and there is some crossover), but the designers are especially interesting to me because they reimagine well-known heroes and invent new ones. This is tough. Superheroes have to be, well, super, but they also have to capture the current aesthetic and values. We have to be able to relate to them, to see in them vulnerability, as well as our own potential.

So I listened with my mouth open as some of the greatest comic book artists talked about their ideas and inspiration for their breakthrough characters. And I was especially interested in how they approached super women.

I’ve linked above to Andrew Wheeler’s great piece on Kris Anka’s Spider-Woman design. His headline starts with “Oh Thank God,” and he goes on to praise Anka for burying the old look that had Spider-Woman costumed more like a lingerie model than a superhero. Wheeler writes:

“[The old Spider-Woman costume is] ugly, tacky, and it doesn’t match the personality of Jessica Drew, the woman behind the mask. So I’m delighted that artist Kris Anka has given Jess a new set of togs that look chic, modern, and appropriate to her character… The new look is designed to serve Drew’s role as a private detective hero.”

I wrote a few months ago about the Batgirl redesign, praising her sensible shoes, and I’m equally excited that Spider-Gwen, too, has left her stilettos behind. This isn’t coincidence. The Comicon panelists all talked about the change in superhero costumes for women, saying that they’re now more practical and less sexualized, with the design growing out of their characters. This is right in line with a 2012 Q&A on Ms. Marvel, in which Jamie McKelvie wrote,

“[Her costume] is a result of us trying to create something that came out of her character and background in the military. I think the best and strongest costumes arise from the character’s personality, backstory and so on… I’d like to see more consideration for what message a female character’s design is putting across. I think we, as an industry, are getting better at it though, which is heartening.”

Designing my own character’s superhero costume has become a bit of an obsession. And the reason is exactly what McKelvie says: It has to be organic to the unique person she is. She can’t run around in a generic onesie.

Here’s my final thought for today: How does Artemis’ costume impact fashion? If she becomes a cultural hero, what she wears becomes part of her urban legend. But what else in society would her story and her costume influence?

Spider-Man meets Steampunk Girl