Disney and Steampunk
I'm fully aware I'm two posts behind, but when Gail Carriger said "This Disney steampunk thing is a far more complex issue than I had thought. Someone (not me) must do a blog" and then demanded "bloggage" from me on Twitter, I felt compelled to weigh in early, rather than waiting to read what others say.
Disney has steampunked it's most iconic animated characters in a new product line called The Mechanical Kingdom. Several posts on Twitter stated that this was the day steampunk had died, or that it was the day steampunk "jumped the shark" (@catvalente and @DawnTaylor666). Like so much of what I read on forums and twitter regarding steampunk, these statements are indicative of a movement that hasn't so much forgotten its roots as never known them. While there are steampunks who have read the original three (Jeter, Powers, and Blaylock), who watched Wild, Wild, West when it had nothing to do with Will Smith or giant steam-spiders, there are those who seem to think that steampunk is the product of the last three years of what I would call the steampunk boom years. Few steampunks read, and even fewer have read early steampunk, or proto-steampunk like Pavane or Nomad of the Time Streams, to say nothing of the handful that have actually read Verne and Wells. So I'm not too surprised when steampunks display an ignorance for the literary origins of the sub-culture. I am a bit shocked though, when people respond as they did to the steampunked Disney characters, being that Disney is a huge part of steampunk's cinematic roots.
The outrage seems to stem from the idea that this means steampunk is finally, incontrovertibly, mainstream, which stems from a gross misconception about Disney's use of steampunk. The misconception is the idea that Disney is appropriating steampunk, cashing in on something hip and cool as yet another way for the monolithic institution to cover the world in mouse-ears. My friends, Disney cannot be accused of appropriating steampunk, because Disney studios is arguably very responsible for creating what we call steampunk.
From Harper Goff's designs of The Nautilus in Disney's 1954 adaptation of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (which SF giant Greg Bear conjectured as the beginning of steampunk at the 2009 Eaton Conference), to the '90s adventurous departures from the formulaic musical approach of their 2D animation with Treasure Planet and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (remembering that the design work for Atlantis was done by steampunk fave, Mike Mignola!), Disney has been both inspiration for, and user of, the steampunk aesthetic (And while it wasn't made by Disney, one can't deny the studio's impact on the approach Albert Broccoli and Roald Dahl took in their fanciful highjacking of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: Dick Van Dyke originally wanted Julie Andrews to play Truly Scrumptious, which would have resulted in a sequel-in-heart to Disney's Mary Poppins).
Disney's live action adventure films of the '50s, '60s, '70s such as Treasure Island, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Island at the Top of the World are among films many steampunk cite as being what they love about steampunk: the sense of derring-do and whimsical adventure. How about the design of the Tin Man or the evil Wheelers in Return to Oz (1985), or the incredible climactic battle amidst Big Ben's clockwork in The Great Mouse Detective (1986)? What steampunk (or dieselpunk) worth their salt didn't cheer to the on-screen adventures of Dave Stewart's The Rocketeer (1991)? Whether you loved it or hated it, Disney was still playing in the steampunk toolbox with the 2004 version of Around the World in 80 Days. And most recently (and at the risk of someone deciding to add Fairypunk to the ever growing list of punk styled fictions), the Tinker Fairies of the direct-to-video Tinkerbell films share a kinship with steampunk makers. Last year, images were released of what appeared to be a steampunked Disney video-game, which showed a clockwork Goofy, among other things.
Disney isn't jumping on the steampunk bandwagon: they helped build the damn thing. Like the recent release of Steamed, steampunks seem to be more interested in being upset over steampunk becoming popular, than celebrating the fact that more people are about to be exposed to it. This sort of exclusivity is the very thing I hear people paying lip-service to hating at online forums, and yet when the doors get opened wide, it appears that after all, steampunk apparently (and please hear the irony in my writing here), can't be everything.
I close with a quote from Jake von Slatt's keynote speech at Steam Powered in 2008, on the subject of steampunk going mainstream:
And Steampunk continues to attract more people. Recent coverage in the New York Times, Newsweek, and on MTV have introduced new people to our little hobby. Some of you may be here tonight because you spotted one of these stories and were entranced. Welcome!Since I posted this, I've had several people comment on how Disney's attractions have also employed the steampunk aesthetic. Check out these posts at Cory Gross's Voyages Extroidinaires to see what they're talking about:
But as Steampunk expands it will exhibit all of the characteristic of past movements and sub-cultures. Sub-cultures do have a natural life cycle. Some of you will likely find this irritating but it is natural, to be expected, and best ignored. There is no way that someone else can ruin the thing that you are passionate about by liking it too!
Then go read Cory's post on the Mechanical Kingdom, which bookends where I'm coming from really well: