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Party like it's 1899: TeslaCon brings steampunk culture to the masses
Lord Bobbins leads a sepia-toned sci-fi journey.
Credit:Michael Baird

Eric Larson wasn't at this summer's Renaissance fair for five minutes before strangers started approaching shyly, undeterred by his four-person "security detail."

"There was an older couple, probably about mid-50s," Larson remembers. "He was straightening his hair, and I could tell he was very nervous. I turned, and I said, 'Can I help you?'"

"A-a-a-a-are you Lord Bobbins?" the man asked. Ever magnanimous, Larson allowed that he was. "Oh, sir! It is such an honor!" Delighted, the couple bowed and curtseyed.

"We are so excited," the man told him. "We are so excited about going to the moon!"

Larson - better known to admirers as Lord Hastings Robert Bobbins III - is the chief architect of TeslaCon, which has become one of the country's preeminent steampunk conventions in a mere three years. The latest event takes place Nov. 30 to Dec. 2 at the Madison Marriott West in Middleton, with the theme "A Trip to the Moon."

Maybe you already know what steampunk is, in which case, feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs. If not, peruse this brief primer.

For the sake of convenience, let's call steampunk an offshoot of science fiction that re-imagines the Victorian era (1837-1901) as it might look and sound if everyone had access to futuristic technology. Gentlemen wearing top hats, tails and monocles, and also carrying laser pistols. Ladies flaunting corsets, parasols and a cyborg arm.

That gives you a rough idea. The trick is that steampunk has myriad subgenres (gothic horror, Wild West, Civil War, etc.), and the whole point, really, is for fans to let their creativity run wild. This makes it difficult to hammer out prescriptive parameters for steampunk, because in all likelihood, someone will come up with something outside those strictures that still seems to fit. It's best simply to apply Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous definition of pornography: You know it when you see it.

"I think my favorite thing about it is that there really aren't rules to it," says Laurie Rossbach, 39, who dug the 19th-century aesthetic long before she heard the word "steampunk" a few years ago. "It's not like some of these historical reenactments where it's really policed, like, 'Oh, you don't have the right buttons for that historical period.'"

Rossbach teaches art at a private elementary school and has a background in textile design and fashion. That puts her in good stead with plenty of other steampunk fans: The genre attracts makers, the sort of folk who don't want to just buy an awesome costume and props. They prefer to whip up something themselves.

She certainly falls into that camp. For a steampunk-themed fundraiser last year at the Madison Children's Museum, Rossbach came dressed as Steampunk Santa Claus, wearing a jetpack she built herself. At present she is working on a fortune-telling machine, a large brass contraption with a mechanical head inside that she hopes will eventually spew forth Delphic utterances in exchange for quarters.

And for last year's TeslaCon, she and her husband showed up in "grubby worker outfits" displaying patches signifying their membership in the Airship Workers of the World, a union of their own invention. (Dirigibles are a popular mode of conveyance in steampunk, even more so than velocipedes.)

Of course, the uniforms were a nod to goings-on in present-day, real-life Madison (the patches featured a raised fist superimposed over a clockwork gear). "But it was also prompted by seeing a lot of people dressed as very aristocratic characters and wanting to just query that a little bit, in the spirit of making a little mischief," Rossbach says.

If this sounds highfalutin, well, that is common in steampunk. But every fan isn't a hardcore intellectual. Their interests are often a bit more accessible than debates about whether the Millennium Falcon could outrun the Enterprise-D. And when imagining the future, they look to sepia-toned relics of the past, not the bright lights and bold colors of modern cartoons and videogames.

"It's not anime, that's for damn sure," Larson says. Not that he has a problem with anime - media inspired by Japanese cartoons - but the average age of that fandom skews younger. "They have the wild hair and the bright colors and everything. Whereas us, we look like Grandma and Grandpa, or Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa."

The average TeslaCon attendee is between 32 and 35 years old, and lots are a couple decades older. They're "adults who have jobs that make, on average, $50,000 a year," in Larson's words.

"We have a lot of Ph.D.s and master's degrees coming in and teaching this year," he says of the TeslaCon schedule. The con will offer almost 100 panels, many rooted in real-world history and science. For example, "Memento Mori" will provide a look at Victorian death rites, delving deep into the specific reasons a widow had for wearing each of many particular pieces of mourning garb. There will also be much to learn about dressmaking, stitching and so forth.

Philanthropic dress-up

That more mature sensibility, as well as the emphasis on fashion, renders steampunk more palatable to audiences that might not eagerly embrace other science-fiction or fantasy mythoi.

For one thing, you don't need any special knowledge to appreciate steampunk. The children's museum benefit featured a séance at a spiritualist tea room on the roof, which makes for perfect entertainment but doesn't require that you know what a Dalek or Nazgûl is.

And you can dress up. That was the fun part at the Madison Ballet's steampunk-themed winter gala in February, where most of the guests were not fans acquainted with the genre, but "ballet supporters who got steampunkified," says the dance organization's general manager, Gretchen Bourg.

"We offered a costume concierge who could provide them with appropriate direction," Bourg says of working with the gala attendees, who all showed up dressed in theme, except for one couple coming from another event. Bourg worked with Larson and some of his TeslaCon actors to set the gala's tone. "We were so blown away by everyone's enthusiasm," she says.

The ballet is on a steampunk kick as it prepares for its March 2013 premiere of Dracula, which will draw on the genre for its aesthetic. There were practical and stylistic reasons for that decision, says artistic director W. Earle Smith.

"When I decided to use the Bram Stoker storyline, it's set in a period where, in particular, the female costumes are all long.... They cover a lot of the body, which is not really conducive to ballet. So I didn't want to go real period with it, but I wanted to stay within that flavor."

When he started working on Dracula about four and a half years ago, Smith had never heard of steampunk. Then an adviser mentioned it. "I started really delving in - the whole genre, from music to clothing to literature - and basically just fell in love with it, because there's such a broad range of styles you can go with."

'Simply over the top'

Given that broad range of styles, there is a steampunk look that will fit you. And if you're attending a steampunk event, you most certainly should dress up. Last March, I wore a navy-blue Gap sweater and jeans to the Inferno for the Darke Carnival, put on by Madison steampunk group Steam Century. I felt terribly out of place.

"They tend to feel out of sorts when they show up with street clothes," Larson says of TeslaCon attendees who don't dress up. "Everyone is in immersion mode."

"Immersion mode" is an apt way to describe Larson's raison d'être. Some of his fans describe him as "the Disney of steampunk" because his goal with TeslaCon is not simply to provide a venue where fans of the genre can enjoy a common interest, but to involve them utterly in a story that engages all their senses.

Calling it a theme-park ride rather than a convention wouldn't be much of an exaggeration this year. The "Trip to the Moon" theme will turn the Marriott into the S.S. SilverStar, whose journey will feature a launch sequence, emergency repairs, aliens and, naturally, a villain: the treasonous, mass-murdering evil genius Dr. Emanuel W. Proctocus.

"It's not over the top," Larson says. "It is simply over the top. Just when you think you've seen enough cheese, we put another pound and a half on."

Larson is straightforward about being the puppet master behind TeslaCon. It's his show, and that is just how the 49-year-old art and design instructor at Madison Media Institute likes it. He has put on more than 20 conventions in eight years and learned that making decisions by committee results in infighting and a decline in quality.

"This is my ballgame, and it seems to be working pretty well so far," he says.

It's hard to argue with that. The convention has sold out every year and moved venues three times now, from the Radisson to the Sheraton and now to the Marriott, to accommodate growth. This year's ticket sales topped 1,200.

The lucky folks who bought tickets will be treated to, among other things, posters and credenzas laden with antique steampunk photos painstakingly fabricated by Larson (soldiers firing maser cannon, vampire family portraits); "tea dueling," in which two drinkers sit down, and each attempts to dunk tea biscuits in his or her cup of Earl Grey with the most grace, careful not to allow any crumbs to spill onto the tablecloth; and the official debut of the "Bobbins Bob," a group dance requiring clockwork-precise timing.

If you were hoping to attend this year, you're out of luck. Even Lord Bobbins' magnanimity has its limits, alas.

"There will not be tickets at the door," Larson says.

You'll want to procure tickets for next year's TeslaCon ASAP - either Friday or Saturday at the Marriott, or as soon as they go on sale in January.

Getting 'Punked Out

"The inside joke is that if you don't have a top hat with goggles on it, it's not steampunk," says Jack Barker of Madison's Steam Century. But of course there's more to steampunk fashion than goggles. And your best bet to get the right look is to visit costumer Raven Albrecht at Raven Works in Westgate Mall.

"People can be anything from royalty to the chimney sweep," she says. She offers three levels of steampunk style, to meet nearly any customer's budget.

On the high end ($280-$320) are ball gowns for the ladies. For the gentlemen, there are full formal outfits with tailcoats, custom vests and cravats, and accessories such as hats, boots and canes.

Midrange ($180) options include a gent's outfit (stock cravat, vest, shirt, coat, hat) or a corset, shirt and skirt for the ladies.

"Steampunk on a dime" ($50-$80) may feature vintage or repurposed clothes, including safari outfits or pirate wear.

"No one should ever need to feel left out because of money," Albrecht says, reflecting the genre's egalitarian spirit. "Something can be put together with very little cash."

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