Longform

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."

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.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea