Saturday, 23 February 2013

Dieselpunk Manifesto: Some Examples of Dieselpunk.

Sometimes the easiest way to teach something is to show it. So here is some good mainstream examples of Dieselpunk – and Dieselpunks – in action. 

With one big exception – music. 

Music is by far and away the easiest form of Dieselpunk to point people towards because the Diesel era was where popular music began (as we know it, anyway). There always has been, and always will be, bands and artists who will look back to the era for inspiration, and the examples of their creativity are legion. So rather than go for the low hanging fruit I’m going to delve into some of the other Dieselpunk examples kicking around.

Star Trek: The Next Generation - Holodeck Punks.

If you’re a geek then there’s nothing more mainstream than Star Trek. Less so if you’re not, but you should at least know that out there somewhere is a sci-fi television series called Star Trek where they ride around in spaceships etc. Well, one fancy part of the USS Enterprise ‘spaceship’ is the holodeck, a room where tangible holograms are used to recreate environments that the crew can then hang out in for recreational or educational experiences.

The holodeck provides some of the most blatant examples of Dieselpunk in mainstream media because the captain of the Enterprise, one Jean Luc-Picard, loves the old hard-boiled detective pulps of the 30s and 40s. So when he goes to the holodeck he ‘punks out in fedora and suit and sets out to solve a noir mystery with fellow crew members in tow.

Picard’s love for Dieselpunk goes so far that he wants to live the era, something most Dieselpunks can only pine for. Dressing up and speaking like he was from the era, what the captain does is straight up Dieselpunk. About the only thing preventing this from being the ultimate expression of Dieselpunk-itude is that they visit the past but can’t actually bring the past back out with them into their everyday lives (the literal message of this particular episode).

But it does go to show that a holodeck would probably be on the top of every Dieselpunk’s Christmas list.

Jessica Rabbit: One Femme Fatale to Rule Them All.
"I'm not bad. I'm just drawn that way."
 Jessica Rabbit is the distillation of everything the femme fatale represents, all in a caricatured, kid-friendly and fun package. Femme fatales are a dime a dozen in any thriller and there have been plenty of memorable renditions of the character archetype (Sharon Stone, we’re trying not to look at you). But the Diesel era was where this character emerged in its most well-known form, mostly because this was the era in which women started to emerge as individuals. Powerful but dangerous, the femme fatale heralds an historic gender shift and society’s nervous twitch in the face of this age of the single independent female.
But it’s the attitude of this powerful, cool and unapolagetically calculating – yet paradoxically sensuous and urge-driven – character that marks the archetype. Established in the early pulps that would later inspire what would become known as ‘noir’, it’s an attitude still evoked today in every woman who vamps it up at a fancy dress party, wears that extra sassy dress out on the town or goes for the alluring and dark rather than the bright and fun. The femme fatale of the early 20th Century (what Americans would call the ‘vamp’, short for ‘sexual vampire’) is an idea of sexual danger, coldness that gets what it wants, and power. In its most stereotypical version it references those early noir examples in the true spirit of Dieselpunking. And in its fun, playful guise that Dieselpunking is Jessica Rabbit.

The Mask

He's wearing a Zoot Suit. Enough said.

Chrysler PT Cruiser

Here’s another easy one. The Chrysler PT Cruiser:

It clearly takes its design cues from an earlier era of automobile. Something more like this:

Making a modern car in the mould of something from the 1930s? That’s Dieselpunk baby.

And just because I can: the Maybach Excelero. This is what I imagine a Dieselpunk Batmobile would look like:

 <Sigh with longing...>

Finally, we’ve bypassed music, glanced at attitude, noted character, gloried in design... it must be time for fashion.

I could go straight to the Ultimate Example of Dieselpunk fashion but I want to do an in-depth exploration of the character in question a little later on (maybe next week) but if you’re talking Dieselpunk fashion then you’re talking this guy:

Bond. James Bond.
Bond isn’t just about fashion, he’s the one stop shop for most things Dieselpunk. I mean this guy was ‘punking the Diesel era just after the Diesel era finished. He dresses the lifestyle when all others around him are casualwear slobs, he takes his cocktails seriously and, although he can punch on like the best of them, he prefers to do everything with a truck load of class, from the sly wit and sharp banter to the classic cars. He was evoking aspirational deco-punk long after it was popular, proving that it would always be cool. 

But I want to do a much more in-depth expose later on so we'll pass for one of the many examples inspired by Mister Bond-James-Bond. One such recent character is Neil Caffrey from the tv series White Collar.

Neil Caffrey, the Debonair (but sort of reformed) Art Thief/Forger/Con-Man/etc etc etc...

 White Collar is a tv series about an FBI agent in the white collar crimes department who finally takes down one of the world’s most successful art thieves, Neil Caffrey. What results is one of the best odd-couple heist procedurals on tv where the everyman Peter Burke has to show the world that Neil has reformed his ways by setting him to task catching the sort of people he used to be. Neil does not make this easy for Pete.
He likes his hats. Always a good sign.
The Dieselpunk aspect of the television series comes mostly from Neil’s sense of style and the house he rents. Neil has a thing for hats, suits and the finer things in life, refusing to use a gun because his wits are enough on their own. He’s charming, he’s debonair and he’s also appalled by Peter’s lack of refinement. However, his Dieselpunk credentials are made possible thanks to the house he stays in. It belongs to June Ellington who, along with her late husband, was often into the same trouble Neil is today. A talented jazz vocalist herself, June is a connection to the history of New York's underground and therefore a direct link to a lot of Diesel-era related stories. A recent example would be their attempt to prove the brother of a jazz club was illegally selling taxi licenses. June is brought in to sing at the club while the agents are dressed up as sexy cigar vendors and forced to prove how much they know about real jazz. As always it’s a great episode and illustrates how the series creators draw on the (late) Diesel era in order to provide the necessary cool and class both Neil and the show are famous for.

So there you go, Dieselpunk everywhere. Hope you enjoyed these examples and no doubt I’ll get round to discussing more in the future. Who knows, maybe next week I’ll get to discussing Mister Bond-James-Bond. Stay tuned...


  1. Very cool blog.

    Perhaps your(?) term Dieselpunk is better than my(?) term Art-Decopunk, which I used to describe First Avenger and the Rocketeer.

    But your definition of Dieselpunk is much broader than I expected. Seems like you're using the phrase to mean merely "retro."

    Here's how I thought it all broke down:

    First came Cyberpunk. It was set in the future, after technology had begun to take over (or perhaps replace) humanity. Like the Terminator flash-forwards or The Matrix.

    Then came Steampunk. Like "Space 1899." Set in the days of the steam engine, yet with anachronistic technologies which from our present-day perspective are still science fiction.

    Same concept with Art-Decopunk, except set in the time period of Art Deco of course (which coincides with the ascendance of the diesel engine to replace steam power--so the two could be synonomous, though "diesel," again, fits the descriptive pattern better).

    In your examples, though, I don't see a consistent presence of anachronistic technology. Just sayin'.

    In any event, Tommy Thunder sounds super-cool and I'ma' go look for it. I'll put this blog up on my blog roll, too.

  2. Decopunk is actually another name people use for Dieselpunk. There's a few :)

    The anarchronistic technology usually becomes more or less important if you're making a political statement or just using it as a 'look'. It's like steampunk - most people just think that putting gears on their original cosplay costume is cool. For Dieselpunk it's wearing a fedora or dressing up as a flapper or a rocketeer. They're after the look of Diesel or Steam punk so the go for the most outrageous versions. But that's different to the political message other people are trying to make which rejects the present by invoking the past.

    For example, Neil in White Collar doesn't wear a rocketpack but he rejects the world around him by 'having style', a style that is more native to the 20s and 30s than 2013. It's more subtle, although wearing a rocketpack would make a statement...

    When people are using crazy technology to reinforce their political message it's usually something along the lines of pointing out the potential there is in going back to old ideas and developing THEM instead of the contemporary versions e.g. going back to zeppelin technology and clinging to the wonder of these giant air whales instead of the crass efficiency of contemporary jetliner travel. But that usually requires sci-fi. And people don't always like sci-fi.

    Other people just want to draw zeppelins and gangsters :)

    Thanks also for the blog roll link. I was going to ask for a swap when I finished reading and reviewing your book but I haven't had a chance to read all week. It's still happening! But I need to find a free gap for reading time...

  3. So basically you've revealed to me that I've unwittingly been a dieselpunk fan for a long time, what with loving Bond, and 9 year old me telling my parents I wanted to be like Jessica Rabbit when I grew up (I wanted to be a singer, pity I'm tone deaf).
    Also, I love White Collar. Since watching it fedoras have magically appeared on both my husband and son's heads ;p

  4. If you pine for an era of old-school aspirational art deco style and sophistication with your action, or have no qualms walking all over men in your quest to make it to the top then, yes, you may very well be :)