Sunday, 28 March 2010

The Mechanical Kingdom

With the announcement of The Mechanical Kingdom pin set on the Disney Parks Blog last week, there has been a certain degree of apoplexy over Disney "appropriating" Steampunk. For the first time, they're even using the term "Steampunk"! A few are holding out hope that the set's April 1st release date means that this is really just some sort of horrible April Fool's joke.

For some people, Steampunk is about being Punk. Which is to say, Steampunk is about being cool. And Disney is not cool. Disney is for "Ed Hardy Housewives" who do tacky things like have children who play sports and buy art from department stores. Some time ago, in the first issue of Steampunk Magazine, the Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective stated:
Steampunk is a re-envisioning of the past with the hypertechnological perceptions of the present. Unfortunately, most so-called “steampunk” is simply dressed-up, recreationary nostalgia: the stifling tea-rooms of Victorian imperialists and faded maps of colonial hubris. This kind of sepia-toned yesteryear is more appropriate for Disney and suburban grandparents than it is for a vibrant and viable philosophy or culture.

There you have it, the Axis of Uncool: Disney, suburbia and grandparents. But for those in need of a refresher...

Disney has been at the forefront of the genre for over 55 years; much longer than any of the complaining scenesters that have been leeching off the aesthetic, contributing nothing for the enjoyment of others but some photoshoots of their raygun. In other words...

However, to recite this history as I have done and Mike "Steampunk Scholar" Perschon has done before me is, I think, to miss the point. These people know the history; there is no excuse not to. For as much street cred as they (successfully!) try to earn by proudly proclaiming that they don't care about either the Victorian Era or Science Fiction, they know that Steampunk has always been mainstream. Steampunk was mainstream before it was Punk. Steampunk was mainstream before it was Steampunk!

Steampunk has not always been popular, which is what most folks mean when they say "mainstream". The genre has only had intermittent waves of popularity on a roughly 15 year cycle. Unlike those previous waves, Steampunk's current fame is not because of a string of mainstream books, comics, movies and games. Rather, it is because Steampunk has been turned into a fashion statement, and fashion statements are always marketable. Popularity is a knife-edge on which something has to be just popular enough for the train-jumpers to find out about it, yet not so popular that other, tackier people find out about it. That's really what's at stake here. People who are into Steampunk because they think it makes them cool dudes are worried about losing their status.

Like Ray Bradbury, it's easy to feel sorry for people who are too cool to like Disney. Now that I've flogged that for a while, and for the benefit of my Disney fan readership, how do I actually feel about The Mechanical Kingdom?

My only real criticism is that Disney Design Group artist Mike Sullivan studied the Steampunk look too well. When Disney is serious about doing a Scientific Romance, it's usually much prettier and more visually interesting than most of what passes for Steampunk aesthetics. The complainers could actually learn a thing or two from Disney. The Columbiad from Disneyland Paris, the Hyperion from Island at the Top of the World, the RLS Legacy and eponymous sphere from Treasure Planet, and the Windwagon from The Saga of Windwagon Smith are particular favorites of mine. I guess the outcome of caring neither for the Victorian Era nor Science Fiction is this drab set of sepia-toned repetitions of Cyberpunk fashion. The Fab Five have definitely stooped to get the look down perfectly.

It might have been nicer to have the characters hew a little closer to the fine work Disney has already done. I've already seen Mickey dressed as Captain Nemo, but they could easily have drawn from The Nifty Nineties, pull the Hyperion from cold storage, or put Shrunken Ned ahead. There was no need for the story to reimagine the castle in wood and brass when the real castle Disney bases theirs on was only built in the 19th century. I do enjoy the inspiration behind attaching each character to a land, though, even if Daisy is stuck representing the all-time least popular make-over of Tomorrowland. Minnie recalls Mary Poppins in her Fantasyland outfit, Goofy handles Frontierland's Weird West, and Donald is intent on offending somebody by traipsing into Adventureland with his pith helmet. It's a cute reference to have Mickey in his Steamboat Willie hat, even if he is a tinkerer. Despite these criticisms, I do generally like it. Having Mickey and Co. dressed up in some kind of Victorian Science Fiction outfit is better than not having them in any kind of VSF outfit at all, and I look forward to seeing whatever comics and figures come out of a possible new franchise.

The sticker price for the full set is $195 and includes the individually-carded Donald, Minnie, Goofy, Daisy and Ludwig Von Drake pins (which go for $12 each) as well as exclusive Mickey and Pete pins in a storybook box. According to Disney's pin trading site, the current run is a 2500 piece exclusive to Disneyland USA and Walt Disney World but may go into "open edition" after that. This makes it a little too expensive for me to justify, but I might show up for a Mechanical Kingdom event at Disneyland if one materialized from the aether. It shouldn't be too hard: a Mike Sullivan signing, extra giveaways for people in costume, a Mechanical Kingdom scavenger hunt around the park, and topped off with a showing of 20,000 Leagues in the Opera House. Right, Disney?


Kathryn O'Barr said...

"People who are into Steampunk because they think it makes them cool dudes are worried about losing their status."
I remember the Goth Scene in Toronto back in the Late 80's,early90's,and what you said here in reference to Steampunk, it was a flashback to the same "I'm Gothier than thou" whining and misplaced outrage that occured when Goth was picked up by the cool hunters of Hot Topic...And even though I tried to explain to those around me that Goth was the child of the Bohemians, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Beatniks...well let's just say that no one wanted to hear that because they were so wrapped up in this idea that they were somehow new and original. I see the same scenario happening now with Steampunk. Bravo - thus was a throughly excellent article and it said what needed to be said.

Jha said...

Come now, I'm one of the punks of steampunk, and I rather actually like this new development. But then, I am a postmodernist at heart, maybe that's why I think Disney steampunk is pretty fun.

I do definitely see the parallel that Kathryn O'Barr is talking about with the goth (and American punk) scene. It's sad, but with such a large and varied group, inevitably the poseurs are going to whine.

I can't wait to see what Disney comes up with next in the Mechanical Kingdom!

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

Great post and a dead-on description of elitist dopes who become worse than whatever it is they're claiming to despise. The "politicization" of one's interests, creating "factions" is trite and takes away from the love of this stuff. It's something that these young(?) people will eventually(?) grow out of...

I'll be in Walt Disney World at the end of April!

Cory Gross said...

Thanks Kathryn, Jha and C.K.!

C.K., WDW in April? Consider me jealous! I'm hoping to get to Disneyland in autumn, barring a Mechanical Kingdom event ^_~

Gotthammer said...

I concur completely, but you already knew that!

ArtSnark said...

Well said!

Off to the big WDW next month too- will be looking out for steamy touches now

JoeZer said...

Thank you for posting this. Being a fan of Disney and somewhat newly fanned of Steampunk (or at least no longer a closet-steamer) I was suprised to hear of even the smallest gripe against Disney producing the pins. I guess I'm from the ranks that are open to most any idea while refraining from being xenophobic about "others playing with my toys". A friend linked me to your article and we found that we both thought as you did: listing off all the things we could think of where the Disney company has made things in the genre and were perplexed at the reaction of the whingers. Also...recently, the pin set's price has come down to $67.95 if you wish to chase it down via Disney Parks mail order. The SKU# is: 163383 and the number to call is: WDW 407-363-6200. If available after May 1st they'll be happy to let you purchase it over the phone.

All my best,

~JoeZer (of WEDWayJoe/blogspot)

Cory Gross said...

Thanks for the info Joe!

The biggest irony is that the people complaining about Steampunk going mainstream are the mainstream. These punk, DIY, alt-culture people who found out about it in the last 4 years are the very ones making it popular and feeding off that popularity. They have no one to blame but themselves. If they want Steampunk to stop being popular, they should stop being Steampunk.

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

I saw four of the pins at WDW but only at the Emporium on Main Street. I couldn't fin an entire set. The pins were $9.95 each. They were nice but seeing as I'm not a collector and if I were, I'd want the entire batch.

Anonymous said...

I know this is old, but
"For some people, Steampunk is about being Punk. Which is to say, Steampunk is about being cool."
Hahaha, are you serious? Go to Google image search and type in "Steampunk cosplay". As much as I love it, Steampunk is the FURTHEST thing from being cool.
And last time I checked, punk wasn't about being cool either.

With all this talk of "being cool", it sounds like this blog is more about jumping on the SP bandwagon than Disney is.

Cory Gross said...

On the contrary, there is a definite ideology running through Steampunk - inherited from Punk - about not being like the "mainstream sheep". That is simply a synonym for being "cool". The whole point is to appear "cool" rather than "mainstream", and "authentically" cool rather than the mainstream idea of cool.

As for me jumping on the Steampunk bandwagon, boy have you not done your research. For the sake of clarification, I was talking facetiously of Steampunk being cool. That is why, for the remainder of the article, I went on to bash Steampunk and complained ahout Disney lowering its standards to reach the Steampunk trendwhores.

Good job totally missing the tone of the article before you replied to it.