Though he’s probably best known for his work on superhero stories such as Astonishing X-men, writer Warren Ellis has dipped his comic-scripting toe in a wide range of genres, from history to crime to science fiction. So it’s hardly surprising to find that he’s written some steampunk, and that it’s really rather good.
Words by Andrew Knighton
Captain Swing and the Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island
Captain Swing is the most completely steampunk of Ellis’s books. Illustrated by Raulo Caceres, it tells the story of Charlie Gravel, a policeman in 1830 London who finds himself on the trail of a criminal with baffling and powerful technology.
This is steampunk living up to punk’s anti-authoritarian roots. Though the protagonist is a policeman so are the antagonists, and power structures are shown as dangerous and corrupt. The electrical pirates of the title are freedom-loving technologists on the side of right.
This is a great adventure story about heroism and the fight for a better future, while playing with the abandoned technological possibilities of the past. There’s mystery, gunfights and glowing goggles, as imaginary and real elements of London’s divided Victorian society collide. And who doesn’t want an electricity-firing flying pirate ship?
Aetheric Mechanics, with art by Gianluca Pagliarani, is a shorter story that plays meta-fictional games with existing literature. Again set in London, this time in 1907, it stands at the boundary between steampunk and dieselpunk, revelling in the joy of technology. Early on a character says of a flying ship ‘The whole ship sings quietly, like a gently struck tuning fork’ – a poetic view of what could be an ugly machine.
This story again celebrates off-beat technology and challenges the society within which it sits. From the start the dark militaristic tendencies of 19th and early 20th century Europe are on display. As Britain fights a long war with Ruritania, dead and crippled servicemen pay the price.
Once again detective work drives the story, with Dr Watcham and Saxmundham Raker standing in for Dr Watson and Sherlock Holmes. But there is more to this fictional London than just a Sherlock Holmes story, and there thrilling investigation delves into the very nature of their world.
Into other punks
Aside from these two stories, Ellis has written others that might appeal to steampunk fans. Ignition City is a slice of retro-futurist science fiction in which a post-war generation of space adventurers find themselves stuck in a muddy, run-down city amidst the ruins of their ships. Frankenstein’s Womb plays with the origins of one of the great characters of Victorian science fiction. And Planetary, Ellis’s tribute to all that is best in genre fiction, delves back into various parts of the modern past.
There’s a lot for anyone to enjoy in Warren Ellis’s comics, and that includes steampunk fans.
About the Author:
Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. His collection of steampunk stories, Riding the Mainspring, is available through Amazon and Smashwords and he is planning a science fiction collection for later this year. He blogs about science fiction, fantasy and writing at andrewknighton.com and can be found on Twitter as @gibbondemon.