When I was a wee lad 'punk' was a term designed to generate raised eyebrows in my grandma as she cooly flicked past images of Mohawks and bogey chains in the Daily Mail. Then I learnt it could be used to describe any perp not fitting in with (a) Dirty Harry's concept of lawful conduct or (b) grubby muggers in superhero comics.
I can't remember when precisely I heard the term Steampunk. I assume it was around the time I heard of Cyberpunk, so probably a few years back. As a term it's really exploded and is seeping through the media into the mainstream now.
For those not au fait with it, it is essentially like retro-sci-fi, namely sci-fi stories set in the age of steam/clockwork. Generally this means Victorian, although I suppose it could apply to late Georgian and Edwardian periods too. In some cases it is a historical setting, in some it is an alternate world setting- perhaps where technology developed along steam/clockwork lines. It's replete with automatons, brass, cogs, airships and so forth.
The actual term was coined by Jeter in reference to his books Infernal Devices and Morlock Nights and, I think, about Anubis Gates by Tim Powers (an awesome book). But there were books that would fit into the genre description well before Jeter and when I first heard the term the first one I thought about was Bryan Talbot's The Adventures of Luther Arkwright.
I recall my first encounter with Arkwright (this sounds like a Yorkshire sit-com already). The RPG magazine Imagine ran an issue on him, with a Traveller adventure in it. We tried it two or three times and never got past some mutant dogs, but that didn't matter. The concept of alternate worlds hooked me and soon after Talbot began work for 2000AD and got the credibility he deserved.
Luther Arkwright started life in some small press mag in the UK and I read it later when they were collected then added to in the first Titan books volume. My mate Nik bought it and I followed suit. It was probably my first mature comic, except maybe for Sandman.
It tells a complex story of alternate worlds all put in danger by the existence of a doomsday device that is procured by a race called the disruptors. To flush the disruptors out, Wotan (the central advanced alternate) send Luther Arkwright, an agent, to an alternate wherein the English civil war has been perpetuated for centuries. The idea is for Luther to cause a hubbub and draw 'em out.
Luther is unique in his ability to cross alternates. Naturally this is due to a higher purpose which comes in later. The story is told in a very complex style of flashback, jammed with iconic imagery, stream of consciousness prose, symbolism etc. The art varies in quality, but still has sections that are breathtaking in their design.
The violence in it shocked me when I first read it, and even now packs a punch. The characters are great, especially Fairfax and Cromwell, and even the sexual content is well done (although Talbot was never great at drawing women).
The graphic novel is often brought up in discussions around Steampunk. So is it? Well it has some relation to the genre- it is sci-fi in an alternate world setting that is largely historical. Technology is mainly diesel-based (air-ships, motorbikes) but the feel, certainly of the European scenes, is very Imperial- with a Prussian Empire and appropriate attire. In the UK part everything is puritanical - monotone, austere, miserable. The book begins in a Victoriana alternate, which seems to be Arkwright's preferred home. So there are traces of Steampunk in there. Talbot credits Moorcock with a big influence - a tiny bit of Jerry Cornelius, a bit of Oswald Bastable (from Nomad of the Air series)- and the Bastable books were probably one of the pioneers of the genre.
In the end it is academic, and borne from a strange OCD desire of mine to categorise everything (too much reading the NME as a teen). Whether it's steam- diesel- alternate-headexploding punk or just bloody great, Luther Arkwright is one of the best examples of UK sci-fi of the Eighties and a great demonstration of what a graphic novel can achieve. Talbot went on to write comics on child abuse, Lewis Carroll and animals doing film-noir, all of which are amazing. He remains probably the most talented 'all-rounder' in the UK comic scene.
Time to put some Damned on the I-pod and have some ...er...punk-punk.