Steampunk as a genre is a hard subject to trace. There are a number of works that have elements of steampunk, but all of them predate the word itself. Works by Jules Vern and H.G. Wells are often cited as some of the first “true” works of steampunk, but even that is an arbitrary outlook as they built upon ideas of the future present in other works. It is here that articles such as this often provide a definition of the idea they are discussing so that the subject can be narrowed down and looked at critically. However steampunk is a genre that strives to constantly defy definition and limitation. Most any attempt to say “Well you can’t have X or Y in something and call it steampunk because its not steampunk” falls apart in short order. Other “punk” genres exists that also incorporate steampunk elements Dieselpunk, Atompunk, Cyberpunk, the list goes on.
Point being that Steampunks gener cannot be limited and thus defining it is nearly impossible. I suppose you could look at it in terms of aesthetics, I.E. if it has copper, brass, steam engines and victorian dress its steampunk but even those limitations have been exceeded by works that are still thought of as steampunk. Ultimately looking at works that incorporate steampunk elements and then using them to build your own definition of what steampunk is, will lead to a truer understanding of steampunk. Accordingly I want to look at a few comics and graphic novels, some of which define themselves as steampunk others do not, to facilitate the making (or expansion) of a definition of what steampunk is.
(A quick note; I am not approaching these works or subject in a chronological order because of how unlimited and difficult it is to definitively say “this work is steampunk”. Rather you could look at the following list as being ordered from “most steampunk” to “least steampunk” insofar as each of the works defines/adds to/exemplify’s what steampunk is. Also these works are by no means the only ones just those that I have some experience with.)
Girl Genius is a great way to start looking at this subject, it has all the right prerequisites, victorian esque dress, lots of copper and brass, but the creators don’t call their work steampunk rather they use the term Gaslamp Fantasy. It started in 2002 and has been running continuously for 13 years and it has won a number of awards. As far as how it adds to the definition of steampunk it looks at the idea of ,ad science and inventors run amok,looking in part at how the industrial age shaped the idea of rapid technological advancement and the dangers it poses. As well as gender, relationship, independence, and social issues. Notable how science run rampant has affected all aspects of life and the responsibilities inventors have for the results of their creations.
Lady Mechanika is another look at the impact of science but it has a more narrow focus on the title character Mechanika as she works as a private investigator and searches for the mystery of her own past. It brings in things like transhumanism and identity/sanity questions to the for through a steampunk lens. Ultimately it follows a more standard print comic book storytelling and print layout that is eeasier for readers to jump into and understand what is happening.
The rather unimaginatively titled Steampunk is just that but with a lot more punk. This series has a very busy art style and non linear storyline that makes it extremely confusing to read. In addition to stronger punk influences than the other works with more modern stylizeing and turn of phrase. It looks at london in the age of revolution and how the wealthy do their best to keep the lower classes poor.
Ignition City is a comic that blurs the lines between what is commonly thought of as steampunk and dieselpunk. This series looks at the results of space travel and how goverments control and regulate issues of space exploration. That said it has far less steam based tech, but could still be said to be steampunk.