Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday diversions: Genre as fashion statement

It's been a while since I did this. Don't know how I let it slip.

There have been a few interesting mentions of me and my work recently. First, the New York Daily News has a nice bit previewing the cover of my upcoming Heart of Darkness and some of the art right here. The three illustrations they posted will be part of a small set of four postcards, similar to the postcards my publisher Tin House Books created to promote Moby-Dick in Pictures. I'm really looking forward to those.

Second, the site HTMLGiant has an interesting "25 Points" piece about Robert Kloss' novel The Alligators of Abraham, which I did the cover and three illustrations for. You should read the piece here, it's a strange but compelling look into the novel. About my illustrations, they wrote "Matt Kish’s drawings are toothy reptilian sprawls of overlapping flesh and machine, gaping mouths in the process of being perfected." That pleased me a great deal.

Finally, this post by Yvonne Malone at her blog Playing With Fabric had some very kind words about my Moby-Dick book and how it inspired her. Thanks Yvonne.

As you probably know, I recently completed 16 illustrations for the book The Desert Places by Amber Sparks and Robert Kloss. It will be out this fall from Curbside Splendor. Amber has also recently written a story called The Kingdom of July which is very visual and full of knights and strangely moving and I really loved it. You should read it, and you can find it at that link.

I love the stark, graphic, brilliant and brutal art and comics of Eamon Espey.

His newest graphic novel Songs of the Abyss is available from Secret Acres and Eamon will actually be in Columbus in mid-April for S.P.A.C.E. so I hope to meet him. Best yet though, he is taking his puppet show Ishi's Brain, co-created with sculptor and puppeteer Lisa Krause and musician Stephen Santillan on a national tour. This is very exciting. However, they are undertaking this vast endeavor, a trip of thousands of miles in one car with equipment and puppets they've created themselves, entirely independently and could use your help. They'e started an Indiegogo page to raise $1000 for the tour. Thankfully, they raised that already, but could always use more. There are many great rewards for all levels of donations, from pins and comics to shirts and art to puppets and more. Take a look, spread the word, and help Eamon, Lisa and Stephen out if you can. This will be a truly unique performance and needs to be seen.

This morning, on the 90 minute drive to work (only 2 more weeks of this!) my wife and I were discussing "steampunk," a term and genre that, admittedly, we have only the most basic knowledge of and experience with, and why even that brief exposure to it left us a bit disgusted. Interestingly, in doing a bit of reading about steampunk (honestly, I am beginning to feel a bit silly typing that over and over) I was shocked to discover that some of the artists that are very dear to my wife and I - in particular Mervyn Peake and Remedios Varo - are considered forerunners of the genre. I'm not sure I agree with that. The basis for that contention seems to be that any kind of art or writing that contains elements of technology and any kind of non-contemporary clothing is labeled as steampunk. Using that benchmark, just about everything becomes steampunk, from Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Who to some Conan adventures to everything Michael Moorcock ever wrote to all of Grant Morrison's Invisibles and so on. Is it really a genre then, if it applies to almost everything?

The aspect of steampunk that has the most negative impact on us though is the manner in which it has expanded from a literary genre or artistic movement into a lifestyle. I know that most, if not all, who choose to attend cons and shows and make and wear steampunk attire are as socially well adjusted as the average person. I'm under no illusions that somehow this particular group of fans is somehow any worse off socially than others. But, on a personal level, I don't understand how a genre becomes a fashion statement. I am fond of Moby-Dick. And the comics of Jack Kirby. And the character Judge Dredd. And Tolkien's Nazgul. But I've never ever had even the smallest desire to dress like Ahab or Mr. Fantastic or Dredd or the Witch-King. The idea is so foreign to me, and the occasional zealotry of those who seem to dive into a genre so thoroughly and so wholeheartedly as some (not all, but some) of the steampunk enthusiasts I've met is alarming. Ultimately, it all plays far too well into the hands of crass commercialization and marketing. Once a genre has a uniform and a toy line, most of the creative possibilities have been stripmined out and the thing just limps into a long and unpleasant twilight.


  1. Forerunner... I think I can see Mervyn Peake as a forerunner of steampunk in the same way I can see Jules Verne as a forerunner of science fiction. There's a thin tendril there, but it's really hard to think of Peake as a sort of foundation upon which steampunk is built. Really hard.

    As for your last, I can't add anything more insightful that 'right on!'

  2. Were you and your wife, by chance, watching last week's episode of Portlandia? :) There was a steampunk convention sketch.

    Glad to see all is going well!

  3. Thank goodness someone's finally explained what steampunk is in a way I can understand! I've seen it bandied about in writers circles for a couple of years but, to be honest, I had no real desire to find out just what exactly it involved. I'm afraid a name which suggests steam engines and The Sex Pistols does not have the slightest appeal to me!

    By the way, I certainly don't object to this blog being about you and your art - that's what it's for! If I came over here and found yet another article about the Kardishians I would be mortified - unless of course it was a comedy caricature picture in which case I would probably delight it. Now there's a thought...:)

  4. Buck, that makes sense. With Peake, I can see how "Titus Alone" might be considered a forerunner due to its anachronistic combination of apparently medieval settings and science fiction elements (helicopters, factories, and so on). I think what bothers me most about trying to shoehorn "Titus Alone" into that genre is that the trappings are really just rather unimportant. It's the ideas which matter so much more and, if anything, the ideas Peake was exploring in "Titus Alone" would seem to be a direct and effective critique of both steampunk and the thinking that elevates genre above all else.

  5. Hannah, no, we hadn't actually see that episode of Portlandia. I am trying to remember why the topic of steampunk came up, and I can't. We have so much time to while away in the car that we end up talking about anything and everything, so it was probably one of those really odd conversations where certain ideas sparked other seemingly unrelated ideas until we had strayed quite far from where we originally began.

  6. Jane, steampunk just seems to keep getting bigger and bigger and bigger all the time, crossing all age lines and vaulting from a literary genre to a fashion choice to a lifestyle. It's all just very strange to me. I don't imagine it will be going anywhere soon, although now that it has become so completely mainstream, it will be interesting to see it divide into bitter factions of posers and old-schoolers who snipe at each other about who is more "real."


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