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...
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: 1954
- Man in Space and Man and the Moon: 1955
- Disneyland is built, including Gay Nineties-themed Main Street USA, Imperial Romance-themed Adventureland and Wild West-themed Frontierland: 1955
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea exhibit at Disneyland: 1955
- Mars and Beyond and Our Friend the Atom: 1957
- Swiss Family Robinson: 1960
- The Saga of Windwagon Smith: 1961
- In Search of the Castaways: 1962
- 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Walt Disney World: 1971
- Island at the Top of the World: 1974
- Return to Oz: 1986
- The Great Mouse Detective: 1986
- The Rocketeer: 1991
- Discoveryland, Les Mystères du Nautilus, Café Hyperion, and Orbitron, Machines Volantes at Disneyland Paris: 1992
- Space Mountain: From the Earth to the Moon at Disneyland Paris: 1995
- Begins distributing Studio Ghibli films, including Castle in the Sky, Howl's Moving Castle, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Porco Rosso: 1996
- Remodelling of Tomorrowland at Disneyland: 1998
- Tarzan: 1999
- The Legend of Tarzan: 2000
- Mysterious Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth at Tokyo Disneysea: 2001
- Atlantis: The Lost Empire: 2001
- Treasure Planet: 2002
- Tarzan and Jane: 2002
- Atlantis: Milo's Return: 2003
- Distributes Walden Media's Around the World in 80 Days: 2004
- Tarzan II: 2005
- The Mechanical Kingdom: 2010
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?