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With his latest Animated Adventures trailer for Firefly sparking flames of rekindled love for the short-lived Joss Whedon sci-fi western, artist Stephen Byrne has gotten a bit of a pop culture visibility boost with a multitude of websites praising his work while demanding his trailer become a reality. He takes it well, though, celebrating the outpouring of love with his own earnest gratitude and humility. A man of many fandoms (aren’t we all), Byrne infuses heavy doses of joy and energy into his work, bringing smiles even to the grimdark worlds of some more notable characters we’ve seen grace the big and small screens. I reached out to Byrne recently and he was kind enough to answer some questions about his work, fandom, and the “infamous” kiss.
Maniacal Geek (MG): For those out there who may not be familiar with your work (i.e. those living under rocks and in caves), could you explain a little bit of your background as an artist and animator?
Stephen Byrne (SB): Sure, I studied animation in Ireland at the Irish School of Animation. I’m from Dublin originally. I studied there for 5 years and then did some work in the animation industry, before falling into games and now moving more into the comics industry.
MG: What was the first fandom that inspired you to make fan art? Was it the world itself that inspired you? The characters? Both?
SB: Power Rangers!! I was drawing Power Rangers comics at age 8. I think my tiny brain wanted to draw things and tell stories but didn’t really have the capacity to come up with anything new at the time, so I would draw out Power Ranger comics, which I was obsessed with at the time. I made like 60 of them! Still have them somewhere…
MG: The Animated Adventures of Firefly has gotten a huge response from fans, media outlets, the original cast, etc. What has surprised you the most about this outpouring of love for the trailer?
SB: Maybe Nathan Fillion retweeting? Although I was hoping for that because I know he’s pretty active on social media. Actually more the fact that he sent me a tweet that indicated that he found the whole thing quite meaningful. I look at it as a bit of fun, but the amount of comments and messages I got from people having intensely emotional responses to it was surprising, but that’s down to what Joss Whedon did, not what I did.
MG: You’ve done a few Animated Adventures trailers (and a tease for Harry Potter), but what’s the most difficult aspect of distilling such expansive worlds into videos that last less than a minute? What do you try to focus on?
SB: Uhhhhh it’s kinda all over the shop. I usually have a basic outline of what I want to do overall. I want to put in a few time-consuming shots that will be challenging to do. But then it becomes more like ‘what can I do quickly that will look shiny?’. Because I work full-time, the whole thing is pulled off in evenings and weekends over a long period of time, so it’s easier to do a spaceship with some zoom lines flying past than it is to do River doing acrobatic insanity.
MG: Gushy statement: I love the way you use lighting and bold colors in your work! So much is captured in a page or a headshot with the moods and tones you create. Actual question: Do you like to challenge yourself with technique? Was there ever a project that pushed you to change how you approach your art? Or have your style and methods been pretty solid and steady?
SB: Thanks! Funnily enough, color used to be a trainwreck with me. I was like ‘grass is green, sky is blue’ and it all looked very garish. I was determined to figure it out but it developed over many years and is now probably the thing I get noticed most for. As for challenging myself with technique – always. Every thing I do is an attempt to improve on the last thing I did, in some small way. I’m always looking for improved approaches.
MG: Your fan art comics for Spider-Man, Star Wars, and the DC Trinity have caught a lot of attention as well, the Trinity comic especially for the “surprise” ending. Do you go in with the intention of subverting expectations or do these stories write themselves as you go along?
SB: The ending to Trinity changed halfway through. And it wasn’t even my idea. A friend in work said it would be funny if Batman was actually jealous of Wonder Woman. I was like ‘yep that’s way better’ and rejigged the story from that point, so it became a little longer, but better.
Star Wars Episode 7.5 was all built around the Jar-Jar reveal. That’s the whole reason I did it. I was thinking it would be fun to do something Star Wars-y. I had really enjoyed the new movie. And I was envisioning the story in my mind and I got to the moment when Kylo Ren turns around and I was like ‘wouldn’t it be interesting if it was some else?’. That was the moment I actually decided to go ahead and draw the thing. I have lots of ideas flying through my brain at any given time, but only a limited amount of hours to do them, so yeah, I do pick things that I think will get a reaction.
SB: Naw it wasn’t too bad. There were some commenters that were like ‘WTF? GAY.’ Very astute people. There were only a couple of vitriolic hateful comments, which I will delete or block or whatever. But I enjoy negative responses generally, because they are either rooted in some sort of fan outrage, which means they care about what I’ve done, or they are constructive criticism (less often) which means you can learn from them.
MG: You seem to live and breathe superhero and sci-fi genres with a good portion of your work, but is there a genre you haven’t really tackled that you’d like to?
SB: I’m a superhero comic nerd. That’s my jam. I could see myself doing an indie ‘real world’ comic but I think you can say more about the world and speak more honestly through a genre filter. I may get tired of it but it hasn’t let up in the last 20 years.
MG: Your first of two Green Arrow issues came out last week, so congratulations! What challenges and triumphs do you find working on mainstream books vs indie or creator owned projects? Any other DC characters you’ve always wanted to tackle?
SB: Challenges and triumphs: With mainstream books the schedule is tighter and the money is… Existent. Which is great. Lots of DC characters I would love to draw yes. Watch this space 🙂
SB: Nope I can’t say anything about that at all! Sorry! Except that it is gonna be AWESOME.
I’d just like to say thank you, again, to Stephen Byrne for being gracious with his time despite his busy schedule.
Links to Stephen Byrne:
So, as you may have guessed, I was a bit…let’s go for disappointed with Batman v Superman. While there were kernels of a good movie in there, the main characters that I as an audience member was supposed to root for felt wrong in how they were presented. In my search for a palate cleanser, I turned to the one corner of the DC Universe that rarely fails me – animation. With a few series and a smattering of movies to choose from, I compiled some of my favorite Batman and Superman moments.
Feel free to add your own as well!
The Batman/Superman Movie or “World’s Finest Parts 1, 2, & 3”, October 1997
Still the best “meet-cute” between Bats and Supes.
Justice League: Doom, February 2012
Batman trusts the Justice League to take him down and Superman trusts Batman with the one thing that could truly kill him
Justice League “The Savage Time, Part 3”, November 2002
Look how happy Clark is to see the real Batman!
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, September 2009
If it isn’t fighting Metallo, then it’s surgery in an open grave!
Superman/Batman: Supergirl, September 2010
I think Clark still owes Bruce $50,000 plus interest.
Justice League: The New Frontier, February 2008
Hanging out in the batcave like they do!
Young Justice, “Schooled”, February 2011
Parenting! Also their choice in deserts is spot on!
I have a lot of opinions and thoughts about the emerging DC Cinematic or Expanded Universe and readers can agree or disagree all they want. We like what we like and just because I didn’t care for or enjoy Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (BvS) doesn’t negate your feelings for it. If you liked it, loved it, then bless your heart for being so open to this movie universe they’re building. If the blatant plot holes, or the nebulous motivations of the characters, or the lack of character development, or the choppy editing, or the bleak tone doesn’t bother you, then congrats this movie was clearly meant for you. And if the only investment you had in this was to see Batman and Superman fight each other, then by all accounts you are winning when it comes to Spring/Summer blockbusters.
But here’s the thing, there are those of us who didn’t like it for all of the reasons you probably did like it. That doesn’t mean your opinion is any less valid but it also doesn’t mean that my criticisms or concerns are intended to insult you. Art has and will always be subjective and everyone is coming at this movie universe from different perspectives and experiences involving these heroes.
That being said, my overarching concerns for the DCEU has been their character development – or lack thereof – because I could actually accept a ho-hum script if the characters made sense or had any consistency in who they are and what they stand for. Unfortunately, DC’s Big Blue remains a blank slate, which is problematic when you stack him up against other heroes in the DC Universe. Superman’s attitude, his moral code, remains ill-defined after the mixed messages of Ghost Dad Jor-El and Sacrificial Lamb Dad Jonathan Kent in Man of Steel. Hero or God? Man or Superman? All of the above? It’s still unclear how Clark actually feels about being Superman since his decision to put on the suit is forced upon him instead of being a decision he makes out of an innate desire to help people.
So when we come to the ethical dilemma at the heart of BvS – that of power and accountability – we’re still in the dark about who Clark is and how he feels about his position as Earth’s protector. Where the movie could have given Superman the ability to express himself and by extension relate his worldview to the audience is squandered for a plot point surrounding a jar of Lex Luthor’s piss.
Yeah. You read that right.
The jist is Superman (Henry Cavill) has arrived at a Senate committee hearing to discuss his actions in Africa involving a hostage Lois Lane (Amy Adams), a warlord, and a group of mercenaries hired by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to make it look like Superman went ballistic and killed everyone. During the hearing Senator Finch (Holly Hunter) begins her opening statement about democracy being a discussion, but is distracted by a mason jar labeled Grammy’s Peach Tea, which is filled with urine – a callback to a conversation she had with Lex after denying his request to import Kryptonite from the remains of the World Machine. Right as she starts to freak out, she looks over at a gentleman sitting in a wheelchair provided by Luthor, notices Luthor’s absence, and then the wheelchair blows up. It takes out a good chunk of the building, killing everyone inside except Superman.
It’s worth noting that Luthor’s personal assistant, Mercy Graves, is among the dead, but that’s a rant for another day.
Much of this is built from a few previous scenes (as stories are wont to do), but it’s the nature of those scenes that inform Clark’s attitude when he stands before the committee. Prior to Superman’s arrival at the hearing he somewhat emphatically tells Lois he didn’t kill anyone (though that’s hard to believe considering he flew that warlord through a few walls) and follows up by saying he doesn’t care what the outside world thinks of him. Later, he’s back on the Kent farm with his mother who tells him he doesn’t owe the world anything. This is important because Superman’s attitude during the whole ordeal is a sour-looking frown that clearly shows he doesn’t want to be there and the whole thing is an inconvenience. This is a Superman who regards a government hearing, in the country he lives no less, as a fundamental waste of time. This is a Superman who was raised to hide himself from the world and yet somehow develops a chip on his shoulder big enough you can see it from space. This is a Superman who cried his eyes out after snapping Zod’s neck, but when a building full of people blows up around him he has this look on his face like he’s just bummed out.
It’s a disturbing disconnect because throughout the entirety of the scene Clark never speaks. From arrival to explosion, Superman is silent and sullen. And it’s a wasted opportunity to give Clark the platform he needs to talk to the world. The hearing is being recorded, he essentially has the stage, but he never says a word. In the cartoons, comics, and previous Superman films whenever Clark finds himself being broadcast to the entire world he uses it to convey his message of hope, peace, and, most importantly, his desire to help. He is a force for truth and justice but he isn’t above the law. He’s a citizen of the world and he knows he must answer to it. If anything, Superman should have been the one to request a Senate hearing instead of the other way around. Or, at the very least, have Lois conduct an “exclusive interview” that gives him the ability to speak for himself.
The purpose is twofold: we get to hear Superman talk about his personal philosophy and it gives us something to contrast with Batman. Clark and Bruce represent two sides of the same coin. Their methods are different on every level, but their goal is ultimately the same. It’s what opens the door for a begrudging respect to develop into friendship. It’s what makes these two black-haired, blue-eyed, muscle-bound men different in the eyes of comic book readers. BvS doesn’t blur the line between Batman and Superman, it erases it entirely. There is no difference between the two where their ideology is concerned. Yes, we get some clear statements from Bruce that set the tone for this universe’s Batman, but Superman never gets the chance. People talk about Superman and to Superman but the actual Superman never talks about himself.
Man of Steel had the same issue, though I’m fairly sure Henry Cavill had more lines than in BvS. Clark has a lot of people tell him who he should be but he never definitively expresses who he is or who he wants to be. He just is and that’s not a character you can relate to or identify with. Batman v Superman could have used the Senate hearing as a means of course correction, letting Superman speak for himself and giving the world (and Bruce Wayne) at least an iota of insight into the man behind the S. As it stands, Clark’s silence speaks volumes about how achingly wrong this universe is shaping up to be for the big blue boy scout. Hopefully his inevitable resurrection will result in a new attitude and outlook on his place as a hero.