Raygun Gothic Retrofuturism and Raypunk in Art Deco Context

Raygun Gothic Retrofuturism and Raypunk in Art Deco Context
© Illustration by Herbert S. Greene

In keeping with my previous research and developments in Retrofuturism, I have discovered a new genre, Raygun Gothic, and a subgenre, Raypunk. I am instantly enthralled by the mixture of vintage imagery with sci-fi, and as such, I really want to explore this further.

The general style of Raygun Gothic is a fusion of Art Deco and science fiction, resulting in bold lines and patterns, bright colours, and a general “space age” feel.

The term was created by William Gibson in ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), a sci-fi short novel, to describe a style observed generally between the 1930s and 1960s. The genre for me has a distinctly fantastical, almost comic book style, although often also has a subversive humour.

To me, this is subtly but distinctly different to Retrofuturism, which seemed more to be about “selling” a particular lifestyle or mentality.

Raygun Gothic by comparison seems more playful and whimsical. To put it another way, Raygun Gothic seems to emphasise an “out of this world” quality, whereas Retrofuturism seems to be grounded in a “this could be the world” point of focus.

The style spans a variety of mediums, mainly in science fiction related propaganda such as illustrations for movie posters and book covers. Bold typography is a key feature, often in a comic book style format for high impact. This is paired with bright, pastel tones, often in clashing colours. Mostly, this is shades of blue, teal and lime green, with pops of warm colours for emphasis. Distinct, angular lines and spherical forms are a key feature, showing the style’s links to Art Deco.

Another key feature of Raygun Gothic seems to be a clear sexuality. Women are commonly seen as nothing more than blonde bimbos, damsels in distress, who need a dashing hero to rescue them, usually from the grasps of a vicious and somewhat comical space monster.

Figure-hugging gold mini-dresses which highlight an ample bosom are a theme. Perhaps 1950s science fiction catered to an almost exclusively male clientele? Alien babes for our hero to beguile were also not uncommon. That is about as far as racial diversity goes in this genre though, it would seem, as I have distinctly struggled to find any non-caucasian representation in my research, with the notable exception of the Star Trek franchise, which came a little later (1966) and was groundbreaking in its cultural diversity.

Generally, I really enjoy this style. It is fun, bright and campy, and does not take itself too seriously. In an era where most sci-fi focuses on realism and tends to be darker and more “gritty”, the Raygun Gothic era was about being fun, sexy and imaginative.

This style has been reintroduced and reimagined for a more modern audience in recent years, most notably in Gucci’s 2017 Fall/Winter collection campaign, which heavily features the 1950s and 1960s inspired prints and styling, catalogued to pay homage to science fiction cinema and tropes, complete with alien babes and Robby the Robot!

Then, we move on to Raypunk. What Raygun Gothic had as key themes, Raypunk takes and further subverts. A combination of vintage found artefacts and newer works, “Raypunk” is a contemporary term, used to define a style more rebellious.

The typical dashing protagonist is often converted into a reluctant antihero, usually creating chaos in his escapades. Sexual undertones tend to become much more upfront, even parodied, and themes generally might be a little bit darker, although they still retain a lot of the “bubblegum” presentation style of Raygun Gothic, with allusions to Art Deco shapes and pastel colours.

The level of parody and sexuality is never more apparent than in the 1968 film ‘Barbarella’. The lead characters overtly sexual nature and countless costume changes throughout the film, both exemplify and somewhat challenge the role of women in science fiction.

While ‘Barbarella’ is a reasonably hapless heroine, and needs saving by her male counterparts numerous times, she is the titular character of the film. Of its time, ‘Barbarella’ was not intended to be particularly satirical, and garnered mediocre at best reviews at the time, the film has later been adopted as a cult classic.

While ‘Barbarella’ was not precisely a continuous piece of cinema for its era, it did stir up a real conversation about the function of women in science fiction and looking back at it now; it is a hilarious example of sexism at it is finest.

This article about Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981) makes some good points about both genres. The article’s author quotes Christopher Bulter’s ‘Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction’ (2013), stating: “For many postmodernist, we live in a society of the image, primarily concerned with the production and consumption of mere ‘simulacra’. Information, by now, is just something we buy” (Butler, 2013)

The author goes on to essentially state that the book’s 1930s heroine, Dialta Downes, is somewhat delusional, and relies on the fantastical, Americana imagined world to distract from the reality of the 1930s, something the book’s narrator does not agree with. Gibson himself contrasts Downes ideals with that of Adolf Hitler’s “perfect society”.

Could it then be said, that the bright, saturated colours, heroic space travellers and sexy caucasian ladies of Raygun Gothic are a depiction of “perfect society”, whereas the grit and subversion of these in Raypunk are a more authentic viewpoint?

Many of these concepts seem not only dated, but offensive, in modern contexts, but in the era many of these pieces were conceived, society tended to much more “traditional” views, which some of these themes easily relate to.

Finally, the main Raypunk website has thrown a word at me that I am not sure I had seen before in this context, but I really like — “speculative”. What Retrofuturism, Raygun Gothic and Raypunk all deal with are “speculative futures” and “speculative worlds”.

Speculative itself literally means something based on “conjecture rather than knowledge”, and can also be associated with a high risk of loss. When we think of digital data, it could be considered speculative in nature — it is not a concrete thing that we are able to touch or pin down, and can also be subject to loss alarmingly easily. Perhaps our existence online as a whole can be viewed as speculative? Something to come back to later, maybe.

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