For those who are only casually familiar with the Steampunk genre, it’s easy to start thinking of it subconsciously as a single world, or at least a set of worlds that are all aesthetically and philosophically similar. But, that couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the stories in Steampunk Originals set out to prove it. It can be jarring going from Victorian England, to an alternate modern-day United States where steam power remains the prevailing technology, to a post-apocalyptic future landscape populated by automatons, within just a few pages. But, it does serve to give you a sense of just how broad and versatile the genre is.
There are all different levels of Steampunk saturation in these stories, as well. Some seem like little more than just regular comics set in Victorian times. Others feature an automaton or an airship in the background for aesthetic lip service but don’t make any significant use of them. While still others serve up a veritable cornucopia of steam and clockwork-powered gadgets, people, and more.
The characters are greatly varied, too. There are the typical rollicking Gentlemen Adventurers. There are ordinary Joes thrown into circumstances beyond their control. There are oppressed peoples trying to stand up for their rights. There are desperate and obsessed anti-heroes . . . You name it, they’re in there.
All of the stories in these volumes are very short. Many of them, particularly in the first volume, aren’t longer than a single page—one image that’s almost more of a poster than a comic. Even some of the slightly longer comics are hardly stories, but really more abstract concepts than anything else: an interesting idea, poured into a few panels.
That’s all well and good, and several of these abstract comics are fascinating and quite well done. But, others just seem lacking. Stories like “Rule, Britannia! The Messenger” throw us headlong into a world that looks fascinating, but whose origins we don’t know. Then, the story ends before we have a chance to explore that world. The first volume is full of stories that are jarring and abrupt and seem unfinished and unsatisfying.
Other stories, such as “Gladiatrix: The Pneumatic Woman” actually suffer from the opposite problem. They do tell a complete, self-contained story, but are bogged down by too much exposition, with an ever-present narration across every panel that refuses to let actions and images speak for themselves.
In Volume 2, the comics tend to be longer and more coherent. Even the shorter ones still manage to tell a complete story and show us not just the characters but their worlds. This is an essential part of the Steampunk genre: what world does the story take place in? Without understanding the world, you’re just watching a bunch of people in corsets and bowler hats, and it makes you wonder what the point is.
Though Volume 2 is more coherent and generally easier to follow and to get involved with, it’s not without its problems. Particularly, there’s a very unsettling trend throughout some of the stories, of misogyny and, in some cases, very graphic violence towards women. Of course, the stories aren’t actually advocating such behavior. Both volumes make a point of saying that Steampunk is about taking a critical stance on society, and it’s clear at least in a couple of cases that that’s what the stories are trying to do as they depict these scenes. But, that doesn’t make the violence any less unsettling, or any less gratuitous.
“The Case of the Doll Man” graphically depicts no less than twelve teenage female victims of a serial killer that would make Jack the Ripper blush. Another story features a woman being murdered almost as an afterthought, and then devotes no less than three panels to depicting the cartoonish splattering of her blood.
Also present throughout several of the other stories are instances of the rather cavalier and condescending view and treatment of women that was present in Victorian times. A “don’t worry your pretty, little head about it” attitude. Of course, this is usually played for laughs, rather than seriously, but it’s just not that funny unless the women are allowed to have the last laugh. And, they’re frequently not. One of the important characteristics of Steampunk as a genre is that women get to rise above the roles they were traditionally relegated to in Victorian times and be the heroes. And, while there are plenty of stories in both volumes that allow them to do that (see “Gladiatrix,” mentioned above, as well as “A Day of Birth” in Volume 2), there are also several that don’t, and they tend to stand out like a sore thumb.
Despite all of this, however, each volume also features some real gems. “Unconventional Conventions” will make any Comic-Con lover grin. “Gargoyles” is a brilliantly conceived and incredibly drawn story that puts Steampunk in a very new light. Both volumes also feature spoof Victorian-style ads for steam-powered gadgets that are clever and fun and often hilarious. They each also feature a page at the end called “The Future of Yesterday,” which depicts clever and imaginative Steampunk gadgets and creatures drawn by elementary school-aged children.
If you’re a fan of Steampunk, you’ll almost certainly find something to enjoy in each of the two volumes of Steampunk Originals. If you’re not a fan of Steampunk, these volumes could serve as a good introduction to it that goes beyond the simple “gears and corsets” motif that generally represents the genre to the public. But, these volumes are sort of like an appetizer sampler platter. You’ll have to pick around some of the things you don’t like, and even the things that are good aren’t going to be substantial on their own. If you get too much of the wrong thing, it may spoil your desire for more later on. But, ideally, these stories will whet your appetite and make you hungry to pursue a Steampunk main course.