Standing near the entrance of Old Cowtown Museum on Saturday, Mikael Clear was the picture of past, present and future, of real and surreal, of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, “Mad Max” and “Wild Wild West.”
“I’m a time-traveling steampunk assassin,” Clear explained.
Strapped to his back was his time machine, an impressive contraption caged in glass and wrought iron. “It can transport me 200 years forward or back,” he said.
“In case I need to make a quick exit,” he added. “I’ve got steam-powered spurs.”
The rest of his ensemble included futuristic-looking assault rifles and sidearms, dark spectacles and a caged mechanical scorpion he calls “Mechel,” which is short for “mechanized hell.”
He and dozens of steampunk enthusiasts – or people who just wanted to get cool pictures of them – gathered along the dusty streets of Cowtown for its annual Steampunk Day, an event that included steampunk crafts, music and contraption demonstrations.
Steampunk is a growing movement that combines science fiction and romantic literature with classic costumes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a world where flying ships and time machines exist – along with “Star Wars” and comic book characters – and everything is powered by steam, hydraulics, gears, cogs and lots of imagination.
Deb Tharaldson and her daughter Laurenjoy Graves said they were drawn to the subculture because of its elaborate costumes and character play.
Tharaldson dressed as Lady Wilhelmina Wonka – “You may know my brother, William,” she joked – and her 22-year-old daughter was Sam VonSteam, builder of steamjacks and purveyor of alchemy golems.
“I like the genre just because I’m older, and it allows me to have fun with costumes,” Tharaldson said. “She likes to do anime, but that (costume) is way too short and way too skimpy for moms. So I like this because it lets me be creative and have fun.”
Her hair, normally long and blond, was tucked into a short black wig with a black top hat, adorned with black crows.
“No one even recognizes me today,” she said. “I’m walking by people that know me really well, and they don’t even know to stop and say hi.”
Costumes were the draw for the Smith family of Augusta as well, who saw a billboard for Steampunk Day a few weeks ago, researched the movement and decided to give it a try.
Ten-year-old Olivia wore a gold jet pack fashioned from pop bottles, and her 9-year-old sister, Paisley, wore round goggles made out of jar lids and screen. Older sister Ellis, 15, carried a parasol and adorned her face with tiny silver cog wheels.
“We heard about it and thought, ‘Why not? That sounds like fun,’ ” said their mother, Heather.
The steampunk movement features subgenres such as dieselpunk, junkpunk, dustpunk and sky pirates. Some enthusiasts spend lots of money on costumes and props, while others pride themselves on frugal creativity.
“Kansas is different, because we have lots of armor, lots of cowboys, lots of people making things. We make all of our own stuff,” Graves said. “It’s really weird, because in the north, they’re like, ‘No, we buy everything.’ They’ll buy $1,000 costume pieces. Here, we’re like, ‘That $1,000 piece? I can make that for $50.’ ”
Clear, the time-traveling assassin, said he compiled his elaborate costume over several years. His favorite thing about steampunk?
“No rules,” he said. “It’s just whatever appeals to you. If you’re mechanically inclined, you can make a lot of odd objects. You have to have an imagination.”