Dandyism, vice, and revenge! Review of Grant Morrison’s early steampunk comic ‘Sebastian O’

Ask most Steampunk fans for an example of a true Steampunk comic, and no doubt you’ll hear about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, perhaps Hellboy, or for the truly astute, just about anything by Warren Ellis. These are all great comics, and incredibly popular, but they weren’t the ones to kick off a true Steampunk series. That honor falls to the obscure but delightful Sebastian O, a Vertigo title by famous superhero scribe Grant Morrison.

Sebastian O, by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell

One of the first Steampunk comics, Sebastian O came into being in 1993, quite some time before the explosion of Steampunk into mass media and culture.  Hellboy was close; Mike Mignola and John Byrne had a small promo comic in August of 1993, at SD Comic-Con. DC/Wildstorm didn’t publish The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen until 1999, and  FreakAngels, Ellis’ first Steampunk comic, didn’t hit shelves until 2007. By comparison, Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell brought Sebastian O to the masses in a three-issue miniseries beginning in May of 1993, collected into a trade paperback in 2004. Only Brian Talbot’s Adventures of Luther Arkwright predates, coming out in 1990. It seems that these British writers were ahead of U.S. writers, as Talbot, Ian Edginton, and Morrison gave us Yanks the first great Steampunk comics.

Sebastian O’Leary is a dandy…but not just any dandy. Born in Britain’s Machine Empire in 1867, during the height of the Steam Wars, Sebastian in his early years escapes a workhouse in a prototype submersible Water-Oscillator, helps apprehend Springheeled Jack the Phantom Red Ripper, and forms an elite group of frock-coated dandies set to remake the world in their image. And that’s just the introduction.  Sebastian is a perverted, psychopathic dandy assassin. Raised to be the consummate killer, what sets him apart from the mundane murderer is his motto: “It is the duty of the Dandy to embody that platonic ideal to which Nature ever aspires in vain.” He’s a killer, but he keeps to the Victorian stricture by making sure that his clothing is perhaps bloody from time to time, but never out of place. Fans of Victorian literature may notice that Sebastian himself is based loosely on Oscar Wilde, especially in references to his published works and the scathing reviews of them. Like many of the comics Vertigo published in the 1990s, Sebastian O is adult-themed and cleverly worded. It’s set in an alt-history Victorian-era London, one more technologically advanced than the one in our history books (like any good alt-history London!). With such wonders as a palm scanner used by prison guards, a fantastical Mechanical Garden full of clockwork automata that resemble English trees and flowers, and Sebastian’s own home, where clockworks move entire rooms around to foil intruders, Sebastian O depicts a Steam Age as we’ve never seen

The inclusion of the technology aspects is seamless, and works well in the story rather than being a ‘character’ by itself, as it sometimes becomes in other Steampunk comics.  This comic is definitely an example of ‘early’ Steampunk. There are a few dirigibles, and a fantastic computer operated by wearing a good old-fashioned dive helmet, but there’s not a pair of goggles to be seen, or a hiked up petticoat…not even an elaborate laser gun–a regular pistol fits the bill just fine. The standout part of the story is Sebastian and his cohorts.  He’s been framed for writing horrifyingly bad poetry, there’s a madman controlling the Queen, and someone has betrayed a dandy. The plot is fun, vicious, and doesn’t pull any punches.  Literally.  Cutting a bloody swath through the city, Sebastian rights the wrongs done to him, but stumbles upon a truth that affects his entire reality.

The art in Sebastian O recalls early Sandman interior artwork, by artists such as Sam Keith and Mike Dringenberg, as comics in the early 90s were still usually hand-drawn and colored, rather than cleaned up with computer programs. It’s very rough (ah, good old hatch marks for shading and ‘speed lines’ for movement), but what it lacks in fine lines, it makes up for in fast pacing and truly gritty scenes. The biggest drawback to this comic is the size.  Only three issues long, it needed more fleshing out. Much of the history covered in the ‘timeline’ that Morrison included in the trade edition would have filled a dozen more books, easily. Its pacing often feels rushed, and the end leaves the reader wanting more.  Of course, there are worse things to say about a comic!  Given a longer run, Morrison and Yeowell could have turned Sebastian O into a series as elaborate and fantastic as their notes suggest. They clearly had lofty goals in mind, but most of those goals remain in the introduction prose, rather than in the comic itself. Ultimately, it’s refreshing to look back at where Steampunk started in comics, when its technology was more bare bones and it touched upon what a true Steam Age mystery might be. The ending’s inevitable twist is chilling, and entirely believable, leaving the reader wondering where the characters might go next. I really would have enjoyed seeing a bit more of Sebastian in the future, but Morrison and Yeowell moved on to other things–though I won’t say greater, as this comic was pretty great.

Sebastian O came out as a three-issue miniseries and was collected in a single trade volume in 2004. It’s no longer in print, but can usually be found online for roughly $20. Vertigo labels it as “Suggested for Mature Readers,” and this comic includes some graphic violence, brief nudity, and subtext about homosexuality and pedophilia. It is definitely not for the faint of heart, but then, Steampunk itself usually isn’t, either.