Friday, June 24, 2011

Steampowered Cliches

One of the hazards of participating in any new subculture (well, new to the participant at any rate) is figuring out the cultural landscape, so to speak. It's one thing to sit at one's desk and peruse pictures of people and/or things that are considered part of the subculture, but quite another to actually go out and interact with those people and/or things. Anyone who has taken an introductory sociology class can tell you that cultures have unwritten rules, or mores, that aren't always obvious to the casual observer - and being transgressive about mores can get one in serious trouble.

Take the example of Nerf guns in Steampunk. If one looks through, say, The Steampunk Bible (or a quick Google search on Steampunk images), one will find a plethora of images of painted Nerf guns used as props for costumes. They're sold on eBay, and both YouTube and Instructables have multiple sets of instructions on just how to go about steampunking/modding a plastic foam-dart shooter. You'd think that anyone calling themselves a Steampunk would have one (in addition to a set of goggles), right?

Not so much, as it turns out. Even from the outside, I've figured out that the specific Nerf model most often seen in these pictures (the Maverick) has become something of a cliche. In part, the Maverick is a victim of its own successful design - it really is the most Steampunk-looking dart gun on the market, when it comes right down to it. Slap a coat of paint on it and you're halfway there already - it's got a big ol' revolver-style cylinder, an adult-sized hand grip, decent ergonomics, and it functions pretty well for a kid's toy. It's inexpensive, widely available, and easy to take apart. Anyone interested in the crafting side of Steampunk will likely need to learn some basic painting techniques that model makers have been using for years (washing and drybrushing at the very least), and this gun has lots of little bumps, nooks, and crannies that lend themselves to these techniques.

All that said - it's still a plastic toy gun. More accomplished prop makers have gone on to doing their own resin casting, or brazing, or soldering, and prefer to paint their own creations. Retro-grouches turn up their noses at plastic anything, preferring more authentically Victorian raw materials (brass, leather, natural fabrics, etc.). Experienced Steampunks have, no doubt, seen plenty of folks "make" their first modded Nerf gun and then not really do anything else... and may not want to expend a lot of energy encouraging yet another Johnny/Janie-come-lately who is just going to latch onto the next Big Thing whenever it comes along.

I get it. Really, I do. I've been on both sides of this conundrum in various subcultures, which is one reason that I started posting stuff in this blog, rather than  hopping on a forum somewhere and thrashing through my own newbie transgressions in public. I had actually realized just how cliche a painted Maverick was well before I decided to participate in Steampunk actively, and even looked around at pretty much every other plastic dart gun model before succumbing to the urge... Yes, I have a Maverick and a set of paints, and I"m not afraid to use them. After all, you gotta start somewhere. But I promise not to glue decorative brass gears to it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Where to Start?

So now that I know that there is a subculture out there that isn't completely hung up on historical accuracy, that has a sense of humor as well as a sense of style and a sense of history, that encourages DIY and experimentation, and that's large enough to generate its own series of cons, how does one go about joining in?

In my case, being a perennial introvert, I start by reading about it. I've got several lists of blogs and websites (the ones I refer to most frequently are linked in the "My Blog List" sidebar, along with several books (both Victorian and Modern) and a Pandora station set to Abney Park for atmosphere... As I look around, I realize a number of things. One, I already know several folks who are involved to a greater or lesser degree - a friend who attended a recent con as Mama Gkika (of Girl Genius fame), another who got tagged in someone else's Facebook album wearing a pith helmet and khaki shorts while fondling a repainted Nerf rifle, and a co-worker whose steamsona evidently operates of the same basement that my Real Life job takes place in...

Being acquainted with other introverts of a scholarly nature, I also discuss my budding interest with them, and the conversation almost immediately turns to questions of privilege, identity, and racial projects - because that's what we do for fun. Seriously. Look up "Moff's Law" - I found it via the Silver Goggles blog, and had an epiphany. Turns out that while there is a certain amount of reification of imperialism and Victorianism inherent to a Steampunk worldview, the precise amount is highly variable and subject to irony, parody, reflection, deconstruction, and serious analysis. Wheee! I'm already following blogs by two graduate students working on Steampunk projects, and I look forward to finding more. It's almost enough to get me to dust off my GRE scores and try to get back in myself...

But then I might not have time to start the craft projects. After purchasing my second Utilikilt, I had a sudden thought that the canvas duck model with the leather hammer loop would make a pretty good foundation piece for a Steampunk outfit, and that's when I suddenly got the research bug. I'm saving up for a pair of premade boots, but I've picked up a couple of Nerf guns that I plan to spraypaint this weekend... I found out that there's a Tandy Leather Factory outlet just north of my neighborhood, and I've still got some leftover odds and sods from the short-lived Viking Garb making era. And I found out that one of the guys that I work with (and game with, and do game development with) knows how to weld... Time to complete a project or two.