I just finished reading the first two volumes of Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series, Grandville and Grandville Mon Amour. Both are visually and narratively thrilling, not to mention intellectually titillating, reads. Imagine Sherlock Holmes style detective fiction delivered through the visual aesthetic of human-animal caricaturist J.J. Grandville, amped to the speed of a Pierre Morel thriller, and wrapped in an overall steampunk aesthetic. The story takes place in a dystopic alternate version of the present in which England, having lost to France in the Napoleonic wars, cultivates quasi-communist resistance groups opposed to the decadent late-capitalist French empire. The first volume partially and cynically allegorizes the various mobilizations of political rhetoric surrounding the 9/11 attacks. The second volume, on similar lines, moves towards revealing an extremely disturbing instance of high-level government corruption.  Both volumes use the narrative form of the detective story, structurally geared towards the revelation of (usually dark) truths, to reveal cynical contemporary political realities, which are only barely veiled by the fiction of an alternative history and by the use of anthropomorphized animals as protagonists. I should mention, purely incidentally, that the non-anthropomorphized animals that do appear (called “doughfaces”) are all loving references to classic Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (Bécassine, Spirou, Gaston). Talbot’s francophilia would be an interesting line of inquiry. All of the important questions Qiana Whitted asked in her recent PPP post on anthropomorphized animals, I believe, apply in spades to Grandville as well. There would be a lot to say about Talbot’s strategic choice of animals for each character. (For example the “Sherlock” type protagonist, Lebrock, is a badger who naturally “badgers” his interlocutors in order to arrive at the truth). This is an important line of inquiry. But I can’t get past one, perhaps overly broad, question. What is the steampunk aesthetic all about and why has it arisen at this particular moment in history? If I learned anything in graduate school, it is that aesthetic sensibilities can’t ever be separated from the material (political, economic, social, etc.) realities that produced them. It’s fair to ask, then, what material social reality does the steampunk aesthetic respond to?


I admit that I don’t have a huge amount of experience with steampunk. There’s a “steampunk” restaurant in my hometown, which I find unbearably pretentious, and which bothers me more than anything because it celebrates an aesthetic sensibility without understanding the critical edge that motivates it. To be blunt, the dystopic neo-Victorian universes that we find in works by authors such as China Miéville or Guillermo del Toro, don’t seem like ones I’d want to emulate uncritically. Steampunk writing is full of monstrous assemblages, human-animal hybrids, human-machine hybrids, and massive disgusting social inequalities. Steampunk seems to be there to remind us that our present reality is not different enough from the one depicted critically by Charles Dickens and Upton Sinclair. In short, I’d like to suggest that writers like Bryan Talbot deploy a steampunk aesthetic in their work because they find the Victorian era, with its gross social inequalities and naive technological optimism, to be suggestively close to our present historical moment. Bryan Talbot’s Grandville series is an example of steampunk in its most politically consequential mode. Highly recommended. Still, I would like to know, why steampunk, and why now?


About Michael A. Johnson

Michael A. Johnson is an Assistant Professor of French at Central Washington University where he teaches courses on French language and culture and Franco-Belgian comics. His research centers largely on questions of gender and sexuality, rhetoric, pedagogy, and psychoanalysis. With one published article on Fabrice Neaud's Journal ("Placing/Facing Fabrice Neaud") and another essay in the works on Lefèvre's and Guibert's The Photographer ("How Not to Orientalize the Afghan") his focus in comics so far has been on questions of autobiography, the ethics of alterity, and the face. He also keeps a food blog (http://letthespiceflow.blogspot.com) and is interested in the growing phenomenon of comics cook books and comics food blogs in the francophone world. His recently finished manuscript, The Medieval Erotics of Grammar, is currently under review.

3 responses »

  1. I appreciate learning about Talbot’s series, Mike, so thanks for bringing it up in your post. I don’t have much experience with steampunk, but your description of it brought to mind the old television series Wild Wild West. [After reading your post, I trolled around about steampunk on a variety of sites and got pretty clear confirmation of my gut reaction!]

    Why steampunk, why now? Two of your phrases really caught my eye: ‘monstrous assemblages’ and ‘naive technological optimism.’ It seems that the love affair our culture is having with zombies, vampires, and werewolves [and of course variations on these referred to as ‘hybrids’] is burning white hot, so it isn’t surprising that the monstrous occurs in multiple realms. I’m not sure about the technological optimism part. I wonder if high-tech hasn’t become so common in our world that it is less of an optimism than it is a taken-for-granted, foundational component.

    Mary Shelley gave a subtitle to Frankenstein that we sometimes overlook or forget about: The Modern Prometheus. Dr. Frankenstein assembled a monster through his uncritical use of “technology.” The striking combination of “old” and “new” in Shelley’s novel seems to have found its way into steampunk.

    Great post! I hope you can follow up on this in the future.

  2. What material social reality does the steampunk aesthetic respond to? Great question, Mike. Like Frank, I wish I knew a little more about steampunk (Does League of Extraordinary Gentlemen qualify?), although I’m not surprised to hear how cynical the story is in responding to the grim anxieties and political failings generated post-9/11. Likewise, the widening gaps between prosperity and poverty, excess and lack seem more pronounced in the last ten years on a global scale in ways that would make the use of a steampunk aesthetic in the dystopian world of Grandville timely. I’ll definitely be seeking out the series now, especially with my love of anthropomorphic characters. (Thanks also for reminding me to order the new volume of Blacksad!)

  3. roytcook says:

    Apologies for commenting so late – I am still out of the country!

    One aspect I wouldn’t overlook is the purely aesthetic aspect of steampunk. The stuff just looks cool. More importantly, perhaps, it is a complex and (reasonably) well-defined aesthetic within the segment of the science fiction community that cos-plays. To put it bluntly, regardless of how much you might like Star Trek, if you are going to spend months putting together a costume for a fan convention, doing a complex steampunk costume is going to be much more interesting, and much more unique, than doing one more Starfleet uniform.

    Of course, that point only pushes the point back a level, since we still have to ask why this particular aesthetic caught on at this particular time (and I certainly don’t mean the above to be a full explanation, or to rule out political, economic, or social explanatory explanations generally).

    One other thing to think about in this regard is the more general appearance of late-19th and early 20th century themes within various segments of fandom. This more general trend isn’t limited to steampunk, but also includes universes such as Firefly (described by Joss Whedon as the American Civil War combined with the Millenium Falcon) and Dr. Who (in particular, Captain Jack Harkness). So a full explanation would probably have to cover a wider class of phenomena than just steampunk itself.

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