How Dieselpunk Works

Dieselpunk combines pop art and aesthetics of the 1920s through 1950s with an element of science fiction.

Nostalgia can be powerful. It inspires daydreams, it can propel a politician into power and it may serve as the foundation for an entire artistic movement. That's the case with dieselpunk, which is both a subgenre of speculative fiction and an artistic style that roots itself in the aesthetics and technological sophistication of the past.

Dieselpunk is similar to another movement called steampunk. But while steampunk draws its aesthetics from the Victorian era of the late 19th century, dieselpunk traces its roots to the early 20th century. In general, dieselpunk draws inspiration from the 1920s to the 1950s. Everything from that era's architecture, art style, music preferences and pop culture shapes dieselpunk. Influences come primarily from the United States and Europe, though you might find some Japanese culture as well. Artists like Georges Barbier and pulp fiction writers like Raymond Chandler are the jumping-off point, much like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne serve as steampunk's foundation.


Like steampunk, dieselpunk marries these trends of the past with the capabilities of today's technology. One work of fiction set in a dieselpunk universe is the film "The Rocketeer." Set during the late 1930s, the story follows stunt pilot Cliff Secord, who becomes a hero after donning a special jet pack. The film -- and the comic book it's based on -- take the popular Art Deco style as inspiration for character, vehicle and set design.

Connecting today's technology with yesterday's aesthetic requires a do-it-yourself attitude. Many of the people interested in the dieselpunk movement are artists of one kind or another. Some work in canvas, others may bend steel and iron. There are dieselpunk storytellers who create works of fiction on the page, stage and screen. And there are video games set in worlds that fit snugly into the dieselpunk genre.


Dieselpunk Inspiration

Dieselpunk borrows from many art styles, including Art Deco and Streamline Moderne.

To really understand dieselpunk, you need to look at the artistic styles that serve as the aesthetic foundation. These styles include pulp fiction, film serials, film noir, Art Deco and World War II art and propaganda. Dieselpunk enthusiasts construct their artistic creations on top of these building blocks.

Pulp Fiction

Long before it became a quotable Quentin Tarantino film, pulp fiction shaped literature and sparked imaginations. Printed on cheap paper and featuring stories in genres like adventure, romance and mystery, pulp magazines provided readers with a sense of escapism. Famous pulp fiction authors include Cornell Woolrich, whose novels and short stories are best known to modern audiences through films like Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window." Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler are both famous for their dark, gritty tales. Dieselpunk borrows both from the spirit of pulp magazine stories and the art you'd see on the covers of the magazines themselves.


Film Noir and Serials

Films from the 1930s and 1940s play an important part in the dieselpunk style. Film noir is a style of crime and detective cinema that became popular in the early 1940s. It gets its name from a French film critic named Nino Frank, who used it to describe the dark and bleak nature of such films. These movies often featured a cynical hero in a corrupt world. Plots involved mysteries, double crosses and unhappy endings. While the protagonist might be a realist, he or she usually would struggle -- in vain -- against an unjust world. Examples of film noir cinema include movies like "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Maltese Falcon."

Movie serials were episodic, much like modern scripted television. You wouldn't watch a movie serial play out from start to finish in a single visit to the theater. Instead, you'd come back week after week to find out what happened to your favorite characters. Each episode would end in a cliffhanger. Movie serials don't belong to a single genre. Science fiction and adventure films were popular and mirrored the pulp fiction found in magazines and other publications. Some creators invoke movie serials in their own work -- George Lucas and Steven Spielberg cite movie serials as inspiration for both the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies. And authors like Dan Brown punctuate their novels with cliffhangers at nearly every chapter, creating the literary equivalent to a movie serial.

Art Deco

Also known as Style Moderne, Art Deco is an architectural and interior design style that rose to popularity shortly after the First World War. It followed the art nouveau period and first appeared in France. The style has many archaeological influences ranging from ancient Egyptian architecture to Aztec temples. A related style called Streamline Moderne split off from Art Deco in the 1930s. This style focused on fluid lines and aerodynamic designs, as if the buildings themselves were meant to take flight. Art Deco buildings represented wealth and power as well as a sense of what the future would bring. The style crept into other types of design as well, including automobiles. Luxury cars featured streamlined curves and gleaming chrome. Dieselpunk works often follow suit.

World War II Posters

The Second World War had nearly as much to do with psychology as it did with weapons and armies. Both the Axis and Allied countries used propaganda to encourage people to support the war effort and to cast aspersions on the enemy. Dieselpunk artists draw inspiration from the art style of these posters, including pinup girl art.


Dieselpunk Fiction

Dieselpunk shares a common ancestor with its cousin cyberpunk. Cyberpunk fiction is all about the dark side of human nature, technology and how the two intermingle. One of the earliest works in the genre is William Gibson's novel "Neuromancer." Gibson also wrote a short story that may be the earliest example of dieselpunk fiction. The story is called "The Gernsback Continuum." The narrator of the story is a photographer sent to capture images of famous Streamline Moderne buildings, statues and artifacts. As he travels around taking pictures he begins to hallucinate an alternate present day. The parallel universe he glimpses is one based off the vision of the future conjured up by Streamline Moderne architects and artists. What if the Streamline Moderne style became the basis for all our architectural and design decisions moving forward? The world would look very different today, covered in chrome and marble.

Gibson wasn't necessarily setting out to define a new genre. But his story is an example of what dieselpunk artists strive to do -- take the design aesthetics of a bygone era and apply them to modern applications and gadgets. What if today's world were based on the styles of the 1920s to 1950s? What would computers look like? What about jets, televisions, houses and weapons?


There aren't as many examples of dieselpunk novels and short stories as other subgenres of speculative fiction. But you can find dieselpunk aesthetics in films like "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and "The Rocketeer," modern adaptations of pulp series like "Flash Gordon" and "Doc Savage" and video games like "Bioshock." Flash Gordon and Doc Savage are pulp heroes who first appeared in magazines in the 1930s. Later adaptations of the characters could arguably fit into the dieselpunk genre. The "Bioshock" games are set in an alternate Earth in which fantastical cities exist in the sky and underwater. As you play the game you encounter numerous environments that rely heavily on Art Deco and Streamline Moderne styles.

While dieselpunk may not have a lot of representation in fiction, it has become a popular subculture among costumers, prop designers and other enthusiasts. Next, we'll take a look at the types of tools and materials these people use to create their dieselpunk works of art.


Dieselpunk Art Projects

Costumes based on pinup art during the World War II era are popular in dieselpunk circles.

The key to building a good dieselpunk project is education. Learning about the military, architectural and artistic styles prevalent during the 1920s to 1950s is key to designing a compelling piece of dieselpunk art. There are many artists who create sketches, drawings and paintings that evoke these styles that you could categorize as dieselpunk art. Some combine the styles of the past with today's technology while other artists strive to recreate the style itself without applying it to the modern world.

Dieselpunk costumes tend to be less reliant on gadgets and gizmos than those you'll find in the steampunk movement. A steampunk outfit usually starts off as a costume that would fit in the Victorian era. Steampunk costumes often incorporate bulky contraptions made out of copper and brass. They may include goggles, masks and gauntlets. By contrast, a dieselpunk outfit may simply be one that you could imagine seeing in person if you were alive during the World War II era. Dieselpunk costumers might look like extras from a film version of "The Great Gatsby" or military officers preparing for a briefing.


Dieselpunk goes beyond the visual. There are bands that play music inspired by the World War II era whose work you can categorize as dieselpunk. Swing music, boogie-woogie music and close harmony singing are all examples of music styles popular in the dieselpunk movement. Groups like the Puppini Sisters, who use close harmony singing to cover modern songs as well as tunes from the early 20th century, share artistic interests with dieselpunk artists. Other bands align themselves more closely with dieselpunk, combining early 20th-century musical styles with modern ones.

Will dieselpunk ever be as popular as its cyberpunk and steampunk cousins or will it remain a niche subgenre followed by a relatively small audience? What do you think?


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More Great Links

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