Steampunk: Once Upon a Past That Never Was
Once upon a "past that never was," Mitch, Casey, and Ben Brose were members of a zeppelin crew, under attack by evil gremlins. The three brothers saved their ship with the help of Ruby the Ray Gun, a "gremlin incinerator" flamethrower they made from recycled paint canisters and brass.
But on the second Friday in October, the Brose Brothers are back on Earth — Main Street in downtown Mesa, to be exact — showing their detailed creations and telling their elaborate stories to the hundreds of spectators who came down for the city's monthly art walk.
Almost everything these brothers make is "steampunk," a style that takes the fashions of the 1800s and re-imagines them with an emphasis on steam power technology (and the occasional touch of science fiction). In this world, women wear goggles with bustle dresses, and men don frock coats and top hats covered in copper gears. It's a rustic but genteel look that suits the Brose brothers well.
The fraternal triplets look almost identical with their short, slightly curly dark hair and hazel eyes. They even have the same five o'clock shadow. The best way to tell them apart tonight is by their different costumes, each custom-made for their characters — crew members of said zeppelin, which they've named "The Elandora."
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Casey Brose, "the navigator," wears a white coat decorated with lapel pins made from small copper gears, and carries a brass cane with a telescope on the handle. Mitch, "the mechanic," sports stitched leather arm and shin guards and carries a small brass box with moving gears and an accordion-like mechanism he calls a "steam compressor." Ben, the "weapons specialist," gets most of the attention with Ruby the Ray Gun, a long, boxy prop gun with a pump-action tube for (theoretic) flame throwing. All night, kids in Halloween costumes run up to the brothers to take photos with them.
On a table behind the brothers are several sets of goggles, shiny gold gas masks, and retro-futuristic pistols. People keep asking how much various things cost. In general, the items aren't for sale — they're all props for the brothers' various characters — but eventually someone does talk Casey Brose out of one of his prop guns for $450.
Some people on Main Street tonight, like a tall man in a New Orleans Saints jersey who wanted to give Ben Brose $350 for his top hat, are fans of steampunk. Others just stop to marvel at the brothers' costumes. Ben, the most boisterous of the three, gives his enthusiastic explanation several times throughout the night, always starting with a big smile and the question, "Do you know what steampunk's all about?"
Steampunk is found in many forms — literature, music, fashion, film, fine art, costuming, and prop construction — and it's about many things. But at its core is a sort of philosophical nostalgia, imagining a life with limited technology and compulsory social interaction — in sharp contrast to our own times, in which everything's so high-tech that we hardly need to leave the house. For steampunk artists like the Brose brothers, it's a cerebral and creative challenge; they're like inventors who must work only with 19th-century technology. They dig the costuming and presentation aspect. For other local steampunk artists, like Daniel Davis of Steamcrow, it's a romanticized reaction to living in a Digital Age where people see more of each other on Facebook than they do face-to-face.
The ideas and aesthetic of steampunk have been around since the 19th century — in the works of such writers as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells — but they've only recently become a part of popular culture. In the past year, steampunk's exploded in Phoenix, and some truly exceptional things are happening here, from traditional steampunk to more extreme performance art involving power tools.
The local scene began blooming around the Evermore Nevermore gallery and store on Main Street in Mesa this past spring, and by mid-October, more than a hundred local artists had shown there. After convincing the Mesa Arts Council there was nothing really "punk" about steampunk and that the event would be classy, Evermore Nevermore co-owner Bob Leeper got the "Steampunk Street" theme approved for October's art walk. And more steampunk events are coming, including "The Steampunk Experience" in the West Valley in November, and the Wild Wild West Con in Tucson next year.
So many local artists are creating "steampunk" that there's a risk of oversaturation, but several are already ahead of the pack. Among them are Elvis Knievel, whose elaborate prop ray guns will be the focus of Evermore Nevermore's "Galactic Showdown" exhibit in November; Steamcrow, recognizable for cartoonish monster prints and mechanical Victorian motifs; and Xac Glover, creator of Grindwhore, which combines custom metal costumes and grinders to make sparks fly.
And then there are the Brose brothers, who recently formed Brose Brothers Productions to showcase their sets, costumes, and characters. They are so skilled and creative with carpentry and costuming that for the past two years, they've built and run haunted houses for the Phoenix Zoo's annual Howl-O-Ween event. They were honored at this year's San Diego Comic-Con International, when True Blood costume designer Audrey Fisher awarded them the Costumer's Guild's Best Hall Costume Award for their zeppelin crew outfits. Not too shabby, considering there were reportedly more than 140,000 people wandering the halls at the San Diego Convention Center.
Evermore Nevermore owner Bob Leeper says the Brose brothers are the epitome of steampunk, now a full-fledged scene here. Leeper says before the brothers came into his store a year ago and proclaimed their mutual love of steampunk, he had to go out of his way to find local artists. "Now, we have more than enough that contact us. In a year's time, we've gotten established and now they come to us — sometimes more than we can handle," he says. "So we can be picky."
The term "steampunk" wasn't coined until the late 1980s, but the idea was born more than a century earlier, four leagues deep in the ocean, on a spectacular submarine called The Nautilus.
The Nautilus, as imagined by French author Jules Verne in his 1869 science fiction novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was a mechanical marvel — a nearly 754-foot-long beast of bronze and copper, propelled by electricity from mercury and sodium batteries. It could reach speeds of 50 knots, destroy boats with a tap collision, and dive freely even in the deepest ocean depths. Submarines were relatively new during Verne's time — the first commercially successful one (also called The Nautilus) was built in 1800, by Robert Fulton, who later invented the first successful steamboat.
Captain Nemo, the scientific genius anti-hero of 20,000 Leagues, lives his life underwater on The Nautilus, surrounded by both Victorian luxuries and revolutionary gadgets. The setting is half high society (huge library, plush parlor, gallery with big bubble windows) and half rustic, weird science (clanking metal, hissing steam clouds, giant moving gears).
This mesh of Victorian fashion and industrial innovation is a hallmark of steampunk, in general. The steampunk period falls in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, but before electricity was standard. It can be historical (a "past that never was," in which more modern inventions are re-imagined as they might have occurred much earlier) or it can be fantasy steampunk (a "future that never arrived," with more fantastical or imagined inventions). Costumes and fashion blend the corseted gowns and frock coats of the late 1800s with such features as brass mechanical arms, goggles, and pocket watches. Circular copper gears of varying sizes, like those found in old clocks, are used to decorate everything from monocles to top hats.
The term "steampunk" is believed to have been coined in 1987 by author K.W. Jeter, who used the term to describe his novel Morlock Night in a letter to science fiction magazine Locus. Because of its frequent focus on a mechanical utopia, steampunk was considered a variant of cyberpunk, which centers on a high-tech dystopia.
In 1965, CBS helped pioneer a new "steampunk" look with the television series The Wild Wild West (the 1999 movie starring Will Smith was based on the show). It was a western, sci-fi spy thriller conceived as "James Bond on horseback," a combination of cowboys and clever gadgets. The show aired only until 1969, but the "Wild West steampunk" look remains popular. It will be the theme of the largest steampunk convention to date in Arizona, the Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios next March.
The organizer of Wild Wild West Con is a new Phoenix-based company called Voltage Entertainment, which began as a joint venture last fall between members of a local costuming group called Arizona Costumed Revelers and a group of Valley steampunk enthusiasts called Steamhub. Ryan McMann, who helped found Steamhub and Voltage Entertainment, says he was inspired to have a steampunk convention in Arizona after going to the first Steamcon in Seattle last October. About 1,300 people reportedly attended.
Although steampunk has been around for decades, it's really just starting to emerge from the underground in the United States. There are currently a dozen or so steampunk conventions around the states — including Seattle's Steamcon and the Steampunk World's Fair in New Jersey. Neither is more than two years old, and two more, the TeslaCon in Wisconsin and the World Steam Expo in Michigan, will debut next month and next May, respectively. Even the California Steampunk Convention's a mere three years old.
Over the past six months in Phoenix, there have been numerous steampunk events around the Valley, including this month's "Steampunk Street" art walk in Mesa and the "Steamcroween" event at Red Hot Robot. Next month, there's a performance by Grindwhore at the Firehouse's monthly "Singe" event in Central Phoenix, "The Steampunk Experience" at Bliss Show Club in West Phoenix, and the "Galactic Showdown" at Evermore Nevermore.
Locally, the movement pretty much started at Evermore Nevermore. Proprietors Bob Leeper, his wife Debbie, and their 25-year-old daughter, Amanda Tucker, first saw steampunk costumes and props at San Diego Comic-Con a couple years ago. They saw more and more of it at various out-of-state conventions but couldn't find a steampunk source in the Valley.
So Tucker decided to seek it out. She went to the First Friday art walks along Roosevelt Row in downtown Phoenix, attended raves, and scoured websites like etsy and Facebook for local artists who were doing steampunk-type art. She found a handful of artists to show their art at Evermore Nevermore for the gallery's first "Steampunk Spectacular" exhibit in February. "We found a really good collection of steampunk artists — all from Arizona," Tucker says.
And now? "I think we're up to 117 different artists in our shop alone."
Those artists include "intergalactic arms dealer" Elvis Knievel, who makes detailed, futuristic-looking guns from things like vintage radio tubes, glue guns, drills, flashlights, and bike parts. He's got five guns on display in the window of Evermore Nevermore, as well as pieces for sale at Red Hot Robot in Phoenix and Level 9 Gallery in Cave Creek. Knievel, a former ski shop manager, sells about a gun a month for anywhere from $175 to $1,200. He won second place in the Fine Art Sculpture category at this year's Arizona State Fair.
Steamcrow, the collective name of husband-and-wife artist team Daniel and Dawna Davis, recently had a booth near Evermore Nevermore on the Mesa art walk for the first time, but Steamcrow's work — comical monster prints, steampunk beer mugs with gear-heavy art — has been available at Red Hot Robot for months. "Steampunk's a total reaction to living today. We have these plastic computers, and we live these kind of lonely, anonymous lives," Daniel Davis says. "The thing I like about steampunk is, it's the opposite of that. It's a little bit romantic, it's a little bit people acting gentlemanly, and everything's hand-wrought."
Some local artists, like Xac Glover, take a less genteel, Old World approach to the idea of steampunk. Glover, an installation specialist at the Phoenix Art Museum by day, founded Grindwhore in November 2006. Basically, Grindwhore's a group of people who don custom metal costumes and use grinders on themselves and surrounding metal sculptures to make sparks fly. The visual is an imagined post-apocalyptic past, Mad Max-type stuff — dominated by rust and dusty goggles. "I've often thought of this as grindpunk," Glover says. "That's why it fits with a steampunk feel — it's being creative with punk. I like tearing things up and making things I know will be destroyed, which is antithetical to most art."
Though Glover's power tool-driven art is on the more futuristic end of steampunk, the Brose brothers try to pretend plastic and electricity don't exist yet. In theory, all their moving, mechanical props are supposed to be steam-powered (but they usually have to cheat with electrical wiring). They also sometimes use computer programs when creating 3-D models of their sets, but in the end, everything at least looks authentic to the period.
There are many talented steampunk artists in Arizona, but the Brose brothers are getting the most recognition. Their massive sets can be seen only on their parents' lawn and at the Phoenix Zoo, but they frequently wear their costumes and props at conventions and art walks. Sometimes, they act out parts of their stories on the streets or in convention halls.
"Those guys are the epitome of steampunk," Bob Leeper says. "They do steampunk robot gizmos and uniforms, and all kinds of stuff. They have a whole backstory to their characters. They're great. I'd consider them our headliners."
Ryan McMann also booked the Brose brothers, for next year's Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios. "I love their stuff," McMann says. "They have a very high level of craftsmanship. We sought them out and invited them to the con because their stuff is so amazing."
Ben, Mitch, and Casey Brose were born August 6, 1986, in Los Angeles, fraternal triplets preceded three years earlier by their brother, Jim. "People often ask if there's a psychic connection between them," says their mother, Rhonda Brose. "I just laugh and say, 'No, they've just been together since in utero, and they were kicking and punching even then."
When the triplets were one, their parents moved the family to Arizona — first to Ahwatukee, and then to Flagstaff, where Richard and Rhonda Brose (both geologists) run a consulting company called Four Corners Environmental.
Like most siblings, the Brose brothers fought, but as they got older and started building things together, they became almost inseparable. They were encouraged to pursue music, science, and art. "We always made sure they had unlimited art supplies. They were always drawing," Rhonda Brose says. "They loved to draw any kind of dinosaurs and animals. Of course, the brontosaurus went over 3 1/2 pieces of paper."
The brothers all have an affinity for animals and were first taken to the zoo while still in strollers. Ben and Mitch Brose moved back to Phoenix several years ago and both work at the Phoenix Zoo now. Mitch has been there five years and works as a lighting specialist. Ben joined him about a year ago and drives tour trains through the zoo. "I love that, because when we were kids, our parents would never let us take the train," Ben says. "We had to walk. And now, I'm driving the train. Every day. Ha!"
Casey, who's in Flagstaff working toward a degree in biology (with an emphasis on zoology) from Northern Arizona University, hopes to join them there someday.
In addition to their mutual love of art and animals, Ben, Mitch, and Casey were all in band at Sinagua High School in Flagstaff and played percussion, concert violin, and wind instruments, respectively. Mitch and Ben also became active in the school's drama club, building sets for plays.
"I love building. I was always taking apart things and rebuilding them, just looking at every little working bit there," Mitch says. "I've done that since I was a kid. Mom and dad were like, 'Don't touch the lawnmower.'"
Mitch Brose describes their father as "one of those do-it-yourself types," and he taught them how to build houses — they assisted in the construction of the second story of the family home. Their mother taught them how to sew their own Halloween costumes. They used the knowledge to construct Halloween haunts on the lawn of their Flagstaff home. Their parents gave them permission to go all out, provided no nails or screws went into the house. It started with a mausoleum covered in dead juniper trees, and has escalated every year since.
One year, Rhonda Brose left her husband and sons for a weekend to do some environmental work in New Mexico. "When I came home, there was a full-scale ship in front of the house — 40 feet across and 30 feet high. It went above our house, which is two stories," she recalls.
Another year, the Brose brothers constructed "Sin Gulch," a Western set that included a saloon, an outhouse, a sluice box for gold panning, and a fully operational, 30-foot-high water tower. Of course, there was a story in Sin Gulch, too. "We basically play actors in this saloon world, who are hired to entertain the people and take their minds off the negative energy that haunts the town," Ben Brose says. "I have an arm cannon on my guy, because he loses an arm in the story. It's steam-powered, in theory."
The Brose family lawn became known as the annual Halloween hot spot in Flagstaff. "Our neighbors got used to the fact that this place was a zoo. We probably had 1,000 to 1,500 kids each time," Rhonda Brose says. "We loved it. We like creating thrills so scary that kids stand in place, stomp their feet, and cry."
Though they look alike, each of the Brose triplets has a distinct personality and skill. Mitch is the mechanical brainiac, and the only one who's right-handed. Ben is the boisterous one who likes to make big, loud things. Casey's the shy visionary who, at age 12, told his mom he could live in his head because all his friends were there. She encouraged him to put them on paper and bring them to life.
When the Brose brothers create one of their worlds, it usually starts with Casey's drawings. "Casey is basically the birthstone of all creations," Ben Brose says. "His artistry is amazing. It's unbelievable how well he can draw. Casey draws it, and then Mitch and I take it and put it in 3-D."
The Brose brothers' attraction to steampunk, like their love of animals, began early. "The guys have always loved the time before electricity," Rhonda Brose says.
These days, they spend about 60 hours a week developing story lines and characters, and building elaborate sets and costumes. "We are always working on something. Always," Mitch Brose says. "And if we ever do have 'down time' from some things, it's because there's a big construction project going on."
Lately, that big construction project has been their latest haunted house for the Phoenix Zoo's Howl-O-Ween event. They recently formed Brose Brothers Productions to create interactive entertainment for people, like their haunted houses. They'd ultimately like to have a line of products, from children's books to films. They're also thinking about building custom props to sell for money for materials.
They frequently get inquiries from people wanting to purchase their props. Casey's hand-stitched, braided leather backpack is a particularly popular item. "We had a gentleman come up and ask how much he'd be willing to sell that backpack for," Ben Brose says. "And he said he'd purchased a similar one for well over a thousand dollars, and it wasn't near as good quality as Casey's."
"That's the kind of craftsmanship we love to do," he says. "We like to make it different from everything else. You can make something that somebody else has done, but we like to take it to the next level."
For Mitch Brose, the appeal of steampunk is all in the limited technology of the Victorian age. "No digital, no electricity, none of that stuff whatsoever. There was an article I read where somebody explained steampunk, and now, in the year 2010, we would actually be doing a lot of mechanical, steampunk stuff if the guy who created plastic wasn't around," he says. "When he popped out plastic, that's when everything went to that. If we didn't have that, we'd still have mechanically driven stuff."
"Oh, I wanted that to happen!" he says. "Oh, dang it! I would love to have this stuff all the time."
The biggest problem with flying a steampunk airship like The Elandora, the Brose brothers' zeppelin, is all the damn gremlins. The mischievous little creatures have been wreaking havoc on airships in English folklore for years. But to crash The Elandora, they'll have to get past Ruby the Ray Gun and Broc Trappit, created and portrayed by Ben Brose.
"He's basically an ex-con from the British Empire. He was put in Australia, where all the convicts went, and he decided to go back to England after his term was served and become the weapons specialist for the zeppelin crew, hence all the weapons," Ben says, lifting Ruby off his shoulder. "On all of our crews, there are a lot of gremlins that need to be extinguished. They chew on all the cords and eat all the piping."
Casey Brose's character, Brixsby Sandpiper, is the navigator and helmsman of The Elandora. "I go down with the first mate and trek around and make sure everything's all right," Casey says. "I'm not the most dashing hero, but a simple navigator."
Mitch Brose portrays an Irish mechanic on the zeppelin, which has been conceived but not constructed yet. The story is that The Elandora was made in Ireland in 1827, and handcrafted by Mitch's character. Mitch is currently drawing the zeppelin, and then Ben will add texture and lighting in Adobe Photoshop, before the three begin constructing the full-size 3D model.
While they're still finalizing the details of the zeppelin crew story, the Brose brothers' steampunk cowboy characters, introduced at Evermore Nevermore this past February, remain popular around Arizona. They'll be reprising them for the Wild Wild West Con next March.
"There's the good, the bad, and the politician," Casey Brose says. "Typical Wild West."
For their costumes, they'll be decked out in various custom leather chaps, gun belts, eye-catching brass weapons, handkerchiefs, and goggles under the brims of their cowboy hats. "[Our characters] have a human side and, soon, an android side," Ben Brose says. "Like I said, I want to take it a step further with Brose Brothers Productions. I'm excited."
And they don't plan on leaving Phoenix anytime soon. "California's kind of like our big step, and finding a studio, possibly," Mitch Brose says. "But we've heard that a lot of studios have been opening up down here, especially in Mesa."
Besides, Ben adds, where else but Arizona can you find so much open desert and so many real ghost and mining towns?
"It's a great setting for steampunk," he says. "We like the cowboy aspect. The Wild West just blows our minds."