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Steampunks Raise the Costume Bar at Comic-Con

Steampunks wait outside the conference room for Comic-Con's steampunk meetup.

Photo by Angela Carone / KPBS

Above: Steampunks wait outside the conference room for Comic-Con's steampunk meetup.

It was Saturday at Comic-Con, historically the busiest day of the convention, and I was headed to the panel I'd been looking forward to all week. I was going to step back in time with a group of elaborately dressed guides known as steampunks.

Steampunks are members of a subculture that takes its inspiration from the late 19th century, primarily its Victorian-era dress, technology and spirit of invention. It is the period before electricity was invented and steam engine technology ruled the day, as did an attention to craftsmanship and innovation.

Steampunks are hobbyists and lifestyle enthusiasts dedicated to this period. They dress in period garb (corsets, goggles, gloves, hats, hairpieces, vests) and retrofit or "mod" items (like their computers) to look like they were made in the late 19th century. They invent things. They build weapons, pipes, instruments, and mechanical boxes in the period style. They often incorporate gadgetry, gears, and the materials of the period like brass and copper ("a time before plastic!"). There's a DIY philosophy behind the movement, with the costumes often assembled from thrift store items and recycled materials.

Real period items are prized and incorporated (like goggles), but the invention of something brand new but still distressed and period-looking, is widely praised. The fiction of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are sources of inspiration, as steampunks often incorporate present day technology and reinterpret it in the context Victorian times.

As I approached the conference room for the steampunk panel, I was immediately glad I'd left early (the fact that I was early will shock some of my readers who know me well). The conference room held 100 people, and the line was at least 200 strong (it would grow to an estimated 400!).

Looking down the queue, it was as if everyone stepped out of a Victorian tintype and time traveled to Comic-Con. Steampunk culture is growing in popularity, and Comic-Con has long been a welcome home for its aesthetic and imaginary universe. Hollywood films and Comic-Con fare like "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" (based on Alan Moore's graphic novel), "Steamboy", and the new Tim Burton produced "9", all feature steampunk aesthetics and themes. Steampunks show up at Comic-Con because of this affinity and the opportunity to show off their latest costumes, which draw photographers from every corner of the convention center.

Scott and Gail Folsom drew lots of attention for their attire. Scott, who goes by the name Professor Jager, is a founding member of the League of S.T.E.A.M. (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), also known as the Steampunk Ghostbusters. According to the website, they are "an organization comprised of Inventors, Scientists, Adventurers, Craftsmen, Monster and Creature Hunters, and Paranormal Researchers." Gail goes by R.O.S.E. (Reanimate Optimized Search Engine) and she was "created" by Professor Jager (Scott) as a weapon in their arsenal.

Photo by Angela Carone

Scott and Gail Folsom at the Comic-Con Steampunk Meetup.

Gail looked very constricted as she moved about, so I asked her if she was uncomfortable. She said she can only wear the dress for about four hours. I assumed it was the neck piece that was uncomfortable, but she said it's actually the corset and box strapped to her back that are the problem.

Photo by Angela Carone

The "mechanical" box fastened to Gail's back is part of her character R.O.S.E.'s power source. It was built by her husband, Scott Folsom.

Photo by Angela Carone

The front of the box "powering" Gail.

Check out the photo gallery of other steampunks at Comic-Con. I was mesmerized by the attention to detail and the little quirks in many of the costumes. I was also surprised to learn how big steampunk culture is in Southern California and San Diego. The San Diego group holds social gatherings throughout the year, like midnight croquet at Balboa Park, an absinthe tasting during the holidays, and has just started a club night featuring DJ's and steampunk bands, a growing facet of the culture. Now I can't wait to see what they're wearing next year.

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