Steampunk poised to become ‘the next big thing’

With hoards of sci-fi fans waiting to descend upon San Diego next week for Comic Con 2013, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with Fred Jeska, Steampunk craftsman extraordinaire and the proprietor of Kelly’s Heroes.

Fred Jeska aka Cmdr. "Whiskey Nick" Triton at the 2013 Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition. Credit: Clara Blackheart

Fred Jeska, a.k.a. Cmdr. “Whiskey Nick” Triton, at the 2013 Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition. Credit: Clara Blackheart

Jeska, otherwise known as Commander “Whiskey Nick” Triton of Her Majesty’s Royal Airship Service, spends his days deconstructing everyday items and magically transforming them into amazing one-of-a-kind custom steampunk creations which he sells exclusively at shows and conventions such as San Diego Comic Con and online at www.kellysheroes.webs.com.

I first encountered Jeska and his impressive array of handmade “gadgets, gizmos, goggles & gear” at SDCC two years ago when, amidst the cacophony of that ginormous pop-culture convention, I chanced across the Kelly’s Heroes booth, one of several at the convention offering steampunk-styled items.

Nautical goggles fit for Captain Nemo himself! Credit: Fred Jeska

Custom nautical goggles fit for Captain Nemo himself! Credit: Fred Jeska of Kelly’s Heroes

A member of the Sacramento Steampunk Society, Jeska takes particular pride in ensuring that each of his hand-painted and professionally crafted creations looks like it might have come straight out of the pages of a Jules Verne or H.G. Wells novel. Viewing his collection of authentic-looking “Turn of the Century” apparatus, elaborate timepieces and ingenious cosplay accoutrements, it was easy to see why his painstakingly intricate handmade creations were so popular with steampunk enthusiasts and cosplayers.

Next week the Kelly’s Heroes booth will again occupy its familiar spot (Booth D-07) on the San Diego Convention Center exhibit hall floor, and Jeska has been gearing up for SDCC with an even more fantastical selection of custom brass and leather contraptions and paraphernalia.

Batman Superhero Topper. Credit: Fred Jeska

Batman Superhero Topper. Credit: Fred Jeska of Kelly’s Heroes

In keeping with the current trend of cosplayers reimagining Marvel and DC superheroes in steampunk-style, Jeska will be offering a selection of neo-Victorian superhero-themed top hats, variously equipped with goggles and/or mechanical gadgetry perfectly suited to augment a retro superhero’s ensemble. Jeska is bringing a selection of his latest customized toppers to the San Diego convention in addition to all of the other inventive steampunk creations he fabricates.

The Captain America topper was the perfect addition to this cosplayer's outfit.

The Captain America topper was the perfect addition to this cosplayer’s outfit. Credit: Fred Jeska of Kelly’s Heroes

“With the Steampunk aesthetic expanding in every direction and superheroes being so prevalent at the pop-culture shows, marrying the two cultures was a logical transition for me,” says Jeska. “Steampunk superhero hats are the perfect topper for the many variations and interpretations of the characters who grace the cons. They also allow the con goer to proudly display their interest without the investment and encumbrance of the total costume ensemble.”

SDCC attendees who are fans of the neo-Victorian sci-fi aesthetic are encouraged to visit the convention exhibition floor as early as possible during the four-day event for the widest selection of these one-of-a-kind items.

Once considered just a science fiction sub-culture, steampunk seems poised to become the “next big thing” with mainstream consumers as well. During the National Retail Federation Convention held in New York this past January, IBM predicted that steampunk would be the next major trend to take hold of the retail industry. Big Blue’s prediction was based on its advanced supercomputer analytics, which measures trends across cultural domains, including billions of public posts on message boards, blogs, social media sites and news sources.

“From 2009 to 2012 the amount of social media chatter about Steampunk rose by an astonishing 11 times,” writes IBM consumer products expert Dr. Trevor Davison in the IBM-sponsored Smarter Planet Blog. “The aesthetics of steampunk are broad and diverse,” claims Davison, “Steampunk isn’t just about fiction any more, and it isn’t just for fans.”

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The Art of Steampunk: Fred Jeska of Kelly’s Heroes

Wherein I meet Steampunk in person and am awed.

My first encounter with the high-tech Victorian aesthetic of Steampunk was several years ago when I chanced upon online images of modern electronic gadgets like laptops and iPods re-tooled with a clockwork, wood- and brass-enhanced 19th century style. As an artist myself, I was immediately intrigued by the blend of technology and antique charm. From that point on I became aware of Steampunk influences in an ever-growing variety of new places, such as clothing and jewelry ads, print and film, and even video games.

Fred Jeska, aka Cmdr. "Whiskey Nick" Triton

But my first real opportunity to actually see Steampunk in action was at San Diego Comic Con last July. A cadre of corset-clad, walking cane-carrying fans ambled across the convention floor before me, their neo-Victorian era outfits and retro-futuristic accessories definitely standing out from the mix of spandex-clad superheroes and villains. I was soon trailing after them with my camera and asking questions about their costumes and accessories, when I suddenly found myself in front of a booth offering all sorts of ingenious hand-made contraptions for sale.

Dressed entirely in character as his Steampunk alter ego Cmdr. Whiskey Nick Triton, artist Fred Jeska was doing a brisk business at the Kelly’s Heroes booth, but kindly took a few minutes to chat with me and pose for some photos. It was impossible to not be fascinated by the obvious care, imagination and craftsmanship in the goggles, gadgets and other merchandise that he had on offer, so I later contacted Jeska to learn more about his creations and about this alternate universe of Steampunk in general.

I was amazed by your ability to fashion such exciting Steampunk accessories and gadgets. Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?
I’m a model builder from way back. Working in plastics is second nature and painting and weathering them is my favorite part of the procedure. I love taking something brand new and making it look old, rusty or neglected. If I can take that 3-ounce plastic pipe wrench and make it look like it weighs 3 pounds, even better!

© 2012 Fred Jeska

Camera Box © 2012 Fred Jeska

I’ve heard Steampunk described as “the merging of technology and the Victorian era,” and also “the intersection of romance and science.” How would you define Steampunk for the unenlightened, and how popular do you think it is in America today?
There are paragraphs and volumes written on what Steampunk is. I’m sure not everyone shares the same interpretation but, come on! It’s Victorian Science Fiction! Simple enough. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has been around for decades before anyone called it Steampunk. Today it influences art, fashion, music and film. It’s growing slowly and not everyone will latch on. There’s no big blockbuster film to burn it out and not everyone “gets it.” I think (I hope) it will be around as a subculture for a long time, just as it was when I was growing up. I don’t think it will ever dominate pop culture. It’s not a Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings. It’s another flavor of the same great ice cream!

© 2012 Fred Jeska

What originally drew you to Steampunk and what keeps you interested in fabricating new gadgets?
I’ve always loved the Victorian era. It sets the stage for all the classic monsters! The American West was in full swing! The fashions were classy and impeccable! Wild Wild West, Captain Nemo, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein…the list goes on and on. The cool gadgets don’t have to be ultra modern, just clever and convincing. They DO have to be believable and Steampunk allows you to harness all forms of energy from steam and electricity to unconfirmed sources of energy. Even mystery power is acceptable, and if you believe these devices have to work to be steampunk, brother, you jumped in the wrong time machine.

How long have you been creating and selling items?
I was asked to design and build several dioramas for the debut of Dreams & Visions new line of 1/6th scale figures at Comic Con. As a bonus I got to attend and set up the scenes. I continued to offer my services, vending each year, and 4 years ago took note of the growing Steampunk influence sprinkled throughout the waves of pirates and pirate wannabees. The next year I offered my own one-of-a-kind Steampunk goggles and wrist mount disruptors as part of my product mix. I sold out of my coolest stuff by Friday and had nothing I felt was spectacular to offer the weekend attendees. It didn’t seem to matter, though, as they bought everything. I’ve kept the same table number for seven years and stay pretty current on the trends. Steampunk is still on the rise.

© 2012 Fred Jeska

You have your own iconic character and look. What is Cmdr. “Whiskey Nick” Triton’s background?
The Commander character has been evolving for 2 years. Originally based on the look of the toymaker’s toy General in Blade Runner and with a touch of classic British nation builder influence, the outfit now sports just the right amount of ceremonial ornamentation and uniform regalia. Cmdr. Nicholas Winston Triton, or “Whiskey Nick” to the lads of Her Majesty’s Royal Airship Service, is a retired airship Captain. He still serves the Queen on special assignments and covert missions and takes command of his royal airship one night each month serving the Black Watch and keeping the Empire secure and the skies free of smugglers and air pirates. When asked about his mechanical leg he shrugs off the concerns, blaming the injury on a reoccurring bout of “knee-monia”.

© 2012 Fred Jeska

What was your first Steampunk creation? Do you think your work has evolved over time? Out of all the items that you have made do you have a favorite object or category of objects? And do you have a “dream project”?
I tried to keep a photo record of my creations, but alas, they became too numerous to continue. As most any Steampunk costumer can confirm, a good pair of goggles is practically a necessity. I began with several models of goggles, but each became its own unique work and no two were really the same. That philosophy continues to this day with very few items replicated exactly. The whole concept of Steampunk is that it must create and evolve, especially if you are a vendor. No one wants to visit a shop where they find the same thing each time.

The Commander's Mechanical Knee Brace © 2012 Fred Jeska

I try to always have a new creation at every show. It may not appeal to every enthusiast but it’s always fun to introduce and demonstrate that fresh creation and its novel functions whether its a “Fairy in a Bottle” or the “Decimator IV.” My favorite creation to date is the Cmdr.’s mechanical Knee Brace with Plasma Cell Generator. My customers seem to like the Wrist Mount Molecular Crossbows. These have recently taken favor over the Wrist Mount Disruptors (WMD). I’ve yet to develop my prototypes of jet packs and total arm replacement devices, but hope to before the summer show season is underway. My dream project would be to build a scaled-down version of the Harper Goff design Nautilus or perhaps an airship gondola as a parade float.

© 2012 Fred Jeska

Do you make your creations from scratch or do you prefer modding pre-existing objects into Steampunk creations?
I’ll do both. It really depends on the creation. If an existing item will do as a base I will use it but it has to be compatible with the materials I want to use and techniques I know. If something is not already available I have a knack for finding ordinary items that lend themselves to become new devices. If I can make them unrecognizable in their original form I’ve usually got a winner!

© 2012 Fred Jeska

Are there any particular authors or films that inspire you the most in your creations?
I’m actually not a big reader so part of my inspiration comes from movies. With Steampunk elements inserted in so many films it’s hard not to see the possibilities there. It’s tough to ignore Leagues, Wild Wild West, City of Ember, Island at the Top of the World, or City of Lost Children. More often than not, I’ll see the Steampunk potential in common items like a plastic fishbowl or PVC plumbing rather than try to actually duplicate a piece from a film.

You are a member of the Sacramento Steampunk Society group. What is it like when a bunch of Steampunk creatives get together?
There are varying degrees of involvement in these groups. Not everyone costumes regularly or often but the planned events usually bring the best to the table. Our group has some great amateur photographers as well as a professional or two. Everyone seems to have something to offer whether it’s creative input, technological savvy, or just that heart that is willing to help any way they can. Our laws are pretty loose, but we still manage to get a few projects done each year and stage some fantastic outings like tours of Old Sacramento, cemeteries, Zoo safari, event “invasions”, plays, and various parties throughout the year. I’m really looking forward to our Murder Mystery Night this fall. I can tell you right now, Whiskey Nick didn’t do it!

© 2012 Fred Jeska

What are the next few events on your calendar where we can see your items in person? Can people get your items online?
This is my first full year selling at exclusively at shows. I still do mail order and online purchases but rarely take on commissions. All of that new research and development cuts into the time I spend on what I already know, love and is expected at my venues. My next venue will be Gaslight Gathering in San Diego, Fanime or Clockwork Alchemy on Memorial Day weekend, Anime Expo (AX) in Los Angeles and Comic Con in San Diego (SDCC) both in July. This fall I’ll show at Comikazi in Southern California and SteamCon IV in Bellevue, WA. My work can be viewed online at kellysheroes.webs.com, where many of my one-of-a-kind items are pictured. Although it is a fraction of what I usually have at my show venues, the site presents a wide range of costuming accessories and decor creations.

Multiposted with SciFi4Me.com.

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