In the spring of 2013, Ryan Humphrey was lying on his bedroom floor, searching for inspiration. He had been looking for a way to contribute to the Simpsons Drawing Club, a blog on Tumblr dedicated to unofficial fan art. Run by a tight-knit group of illustrators, it featured colorful, funny and occasionally terrifying depictions of Bart, Homer and the rest of the Springfield populace. Humphrey wanted to be a part of it.
He had, at one point, considered an original story about Ralph Wiggum and a dead body that could somehow talk back to him. But he didn't see himself as a comic book artist and slowly cooled on the idea. Suddenly, he spotted a copy of Akira, "Volume 1" in his room. Inspiration struck like a thunderbolt. He would redraw parts of Akira, the iconic Japanese manga series written and inked by Katsuhiro Otomo, but with characters from The Simpsons. By blending the two worlds, he would create something not only truly bizarre and unexpected but also stylish and instantly recognizable.
"I just thought, 'This will be funny. This will be such a laugh,'" he recalls.
Akira is an epic, sprawling comic that ran in Japan's Young Magazine from 1982 to 1990. It spans more than 2,000 pages and tells the story of Kaneda, a rebellious teenager and motorcycle gang leader, and Tetsuo, his childhood friend who inherits psychic powers and is slowly consumed by madness. The pair live in Neo-Tokyo, a city reeling from the effects of a nuclear explosion that triggered World War III in 1982. As Tetsuo's powers take form, both characters are entangled in a desperate war involving the government, a resistance movement and numerous street gangs.The complex narrative and beautiful artwork have earned Otomo many awards, and the manga was adapted into an equally beloved animated movie in 1988.
With a large Moleskine sketchbook and mechanical pencil, Humphrey sketched the "awakening," a pivotal scene in the manga that depicts Takashi, a psychic child, being shot in the head by Nezu, the leader of the resistance. His death causes Akira, a godlike Esper and the series' titular character, to scream and unleash a psychic blast that destroys most of Neo-Tokyo. Instinctively, Humphrey drew Bart as Akira and Millhouse, his best friend, as the dying Takasaki. In that moment, Bartkira was born.
"I wanted to maintain the originality of Otomo's drawings, but I also wanted to do them really rough, in my own way."
Humphrey's art style is rough and sketchy. He uses a pencil, typically an H, to mark out characters and, in the case of Bartkira, the comic book panels they reside within. For the awakening, he applied a touch of watercolor paint to highlight clothing and The Simpsons' trademark yellow skin tone. Humphrey embraces imperfection, frequently coloring and shading outside the lines. "I wanted to maintain the originality of Otomo's drawings, but I also wanted to do them really rough, in my own way."
With nine or so panels completed, Humphrey looked for a submission page on the Simpsons Drawing Club website. But he couldn't find one, so he decided to post them on his personal Tumblr instead. Living in Farnborough, England, Humphrey knew that the best time to upload them was around 9 PM, when both the East Coast and West Coast of America were awake. He threw in a few simple tags such as "Simpsons," "drawing," "illustration" and "Akira" before publishing the post and falling asleep.
The next day, he woke up and flipped open his laptop. "I thought, 'Oh shit, this is really blowing up.'" People were liking the images and posting comments such as "I'm screaming, this is great" and "these could [make] for a real cool mashup story." Humphrey was taken aback. He was an avid Tumblr user and posted new drawings almost every day. By riffing on famous people and characters, he had started to build a reputation already. But none of his previous works had spread quite like Bartkira.