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How the internet embraced a 'Simpsons'-'Akira' mashup

Four years, 2,146 pages, 700+ artists | The long road to 'Bartkira'

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.

Humphrey drew a bunch of additional Bartkira pages over the next few weeks. He experimented with different characters, casting Ralph as Akira and school bully Nelson as Tetsuo. Sometimes he would try a new mashup too, including Battle "Bartle" Royale, Alien and Hellboy. Before long, his Bartkira pages caught the eye of James Harvey, a writer, artist and illustrator. "I just thought they were powerful," Harvey says. "You see all kinds of shit now. You'll see Doctor Who, but he's wearing Dragon Ball clothes or something. And it never really does anything for me. But that one just genuinely, profoundly touched me."

Harvey had a passion for group art projects. At the height of LiveJournal's popularity, he ran various competitions that invited artists to express their individual styles and ideas. In one instance, he drew a picture and left a part blank to see how everyone else would fill it in. That interest stemmed from his work as an English teacher in South Korea, where he would often make art-based challenges to help children learn English. "And then I just started doing it with my own online following," he explained. "Making challenges for them. And all these weird, crazy drawings would come up."

"Ryan's art, it was almost like a blank slate. It gave me the freedom to imagine what other artists would look like doing this."

When Tumblr blew up, Harvey found it more difficult to attract interest in these strange, collaborative projects. But with Bartkira, he saw an idea that was so interesting and powerful that it could break through regardless. After all, the two underlying properties are well known, and almost everyone has tried to draw The Simpsons at some point in their life. As he poured over Humphrey's pages, an idea started to form: a complete recreation of the Akira manga, but with The Simpsons characters and drawn by people from all over the world.

"When you look at Ryan's pages, you're imagining what the rest of [Bartkira] might look like," Harvey explains. "And then I was imagining, what if we got professional artists involved? What if we got all of these different types of artists to contribute to this? Ryan's art, it was almost like a blank slate. It gave me the freedom to imagine what other artists would look like doing this."

So Harvey reached out to Humphrey and asked for his blessing. Humphrey had created Bartkira, after all, so it was only fair to ask for his opinion first. "I said, 'Yeah, do it. Do whatever you want.' Because back then, I was still unknown, still working in my bedroom," Humphrey recalls. That initial exchange set everything in motion. Harvey set up a new email address for Bartkira and created a spreadsheet to track the contributors and the pages they had been allocated. He then reached out to some friends in a private Facebook group to ask what they thought of the project and finalize the core cast.

Picking characters to represent Akira's heroes is harder than you might think. At one stage, Lisa Simpson was Kei, a resistance fighter and love interest for Kaneda. It didn't make much sense, however, because Bart was initially cast as Akira, and in the manga, Kei and Akira are enemies rather than brother and sister. Their personalities and dialogue would, therefore, be too jarring and removed from Matt Groening's cartoon, making it hard for readers to accept. Similarly, Homer was considered for the role of the Colonel, a towering man who runs the secret Esper program. But again, this would be strange, because the Colonel and Akira never address each other as father and son.

"We took it seriously," Harvey says. "It had to work as an extended episode of The Simpsons, and it had to make narrative sense." Bart ended up as the brave but impulsive Kaneda, with Milhouse playing off him as the introverted but ultimately arrogant and superhuman Tetsuo. Ralph was chosen as the otherworldly Akira while Laura Powers -- Bart's first crush in The Simpsons -- became Kei. Ned Flanders was cast as Ryu, a prominent resistance fighter, and Seymour Skinner became the Colonel.

"It had to work as an extended episode of 'The Simpsons,' and it had to make narrative sense."

Homer became the Birdman, a minor character who serves as a guard for Akira and Tetsuo. It was a curious choice that came from a curious place: Phil Fish, the creator of Fez, a critically acclaimed, perspective-shifting video game from 2012. He was a central figure in the award-winning documentary Indie Game: The Movie and left the industry in 2013 after criticizing Japanese game developers and becoming embroiled in a cacophony of internet arguments. "We kind of shuffled the parental figures off to the sidelines," Harvey explains.

With the basic preparations complete, Harvey went "nuclear" and announced the project on Tumblr. Anyone could be involved: They simply had to reach out with their email address and portfolio. At the same time, Harvey tried to reach out to people whom he admired or thought might be a good fit for the brief. Unsurprisingly, the roster of artists filled up immediately. Some had seen Humphrey's original images while others were hearing about the project for the first time.

"It went huge immediately, and I sort of knew that it would because I saw the traction that Ryan's images had," Harvey says.

Anas "Niami" Awad was part of the Facebook group that Harvey originally pitched to. He knew James and the other members "from the LiveJournal days" and a handful of art forums. As soon as the call went out for artists, Awad messaged Harvey to ask if he could be involved. "He was like, 'Yeah, of course!' He said he loved my work and would love for me to be a part of it, and that was basically it!"

The illustrator, who lives in Beirut, saw the spreadsheet and immediately picked some of the earliest pages, when Tetsuo, or rather Millhouse, crashes his motorcycle into the frail Esper Takashi. It's a crucial moment in the manga that grants Tetsuo his psychic powers and gives Kaneda the motivation to uncover the government's involvement with the Espers. "Without even thinking, I went straight to it," Awad recalls.

As the pages were near the start of the book, Harvey asked Awad not to go too crazy with his character designs. If Bart's appearance was too abstract, he thought, it might confuse readers who have never read or watched Akira before. "Originally, my version of Kaneda-Bart had black hair, and his eyes were more similar to Kaneda's," Awad explains. Harvey, however, felt the book would be better served if the look of the characters evolved and became more obscure toward the end. "That kind of saddened me a bit, because I really wanted to make these insane hybrids," Awad says.

So the illustrator went in a different direction. Pages 26 through 30 are covered in inky, red washes that morph into stunning shades of pink and purple. Together, they emulate the neon lights that typically soak cities in dystopian science fiction films such as Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. But here, they're a murky, borderline-surreal backdrop to a highway typically abandoned by Neo-Tokyo's citizens. "I felt like it made the scene look a bit more apocalyptic, but not too much," Awad says. "I didn't want to move too far from the poppy feel of The Simpsons."

The characters, while recognizable, are thin and wiry. Their faces are covered in stress lines, a reflection of their personal struggles and the societal decay consuming their city. "That's actually a weird perversion of mine," Awad explains. "With everything that I draw, even if it's an attractive young lady, I tend to add a lot of wrinkles to the face. A lot of smile lines, crow's feet, all of it." The style stems from John Kricfalusi, who drew the Nickelodeon cartoon Ren and Stimpy with a similarly twisted, occasionally grotesque look. "When I get a chance to do a close-up, I exaggerate the hell out of all that," Awad says. "Again, because it amuses me!"

Flick past Awad's pages and you'll eventually stumble on the work of Marigold Bartlett, an illustrator living in Melbourne. She found James Harvey and the Bartkira project through David Surman, one of her university lecturers, in September 2013. Keen to contribute, she fired off an email to Harvey asking if he was still looking for artists. By this point there was a waiting list; however, Harvey liked her work and agreed to keep her name on file. Not long after, he came back and offered her a couple of spare pages from "Volume 1."

There was a problem, however. Harvey wanted them done in two weeks. "And then it was about 10 days until the due date and I said, 'By the way, what are my page numbers?!'" Bartlett recounts with a laugh. "So I had to really rush what I was doing." She started by examining Otomo's original pages. They show Kaneda-Bart running after Kei-Laura through a crowded street while Ryu-Ned tries to calm one of the Espers in a back alley.

Bartlett was impressed by the detail in each panel and how consistent Otomo's style was across all six volumes. "That was the most inspiring part to me, to think about the hours he would have spent sitting at his desk, drawing and drawing to make something so wonderful."

Bartlett had no idea how other artists were interpreting the Bartkira brief. She stuck to Otomo's layouts and used near-identical ink marks, layering the faces of The Simpsons characters on top. She also "double-, triple-, quadruple-checked" that none of the background characters in her work had already been selected for other roles in the world of Bartkira. Finally, she added her own inking and coloring as well as a high-res, paperlike background texture in Photoshop.

There's a vibrancy to her pages with punchy colors and bold, lateral lines to symbolize movement. The characters are drawn in the traditional style of The Simpsons, however; the pages could almost be a storyboard for a special episode of the show. The city and all the action, though, look like the original Akira manga. Some Bartkira contributors have taken a similar approach. Others made the characters look more like their Akira counterparts. Or set everything in a city that looks exactly like Springfield rather than Neo-Tokyo. It's a decision that goes to the heart of Bartkira as a concept. How far do you go in either direction? How much do you make it look like The Simpsons, and vice versa?

"I really thought about that," Bartlett says. "That was probably the biggest design-y problem going into it. Or opportunity, you could say, because I could have gone anywhere I wanted, and it still would have been fine."

Tobias Kwan

Harvey was elated as the first pages rolled in. Each one was "a new treat," he says, a different and oftentimes surprising take on the Bartkira ideas. Kaneda's iconic red motorcycle, for instance, is sometimes a bicycle or a skateboard. Some pages were drawn in black and white with nothing but a Biro pen while others were a kaleidoscope of color, mashing goopy characters together into a cartoon acid trip. "Every day there was a new, amazing thing that took me back and just reminded me why this was such a good idea," Harvey says.

Humphrey contributed some pages too. "James said to me, 'You made it,'" he explains. "You can do whatever pages you want, in whatever way you want.'" So he took five from "Volume 1," a single page slap-bang in the middle of the volume, and four toward the end, when Tetsuo-Millhouse is being chased by Kaneda's ally Yamagata, played by Nelson, and other motorcycle gang members. Humphrey deployed the same style used in his original drawings: just a pencil, some Moleskine paper and a splash of watercolor paints. "The way I draw lines is very wishy-washy, and I wanted to keep that," he says. "I wanted to keep my own way of drawing so you can tell this is my work, but also, you can tell there are still essences of the original manga throughout."

Harvey did a lot of editing with "Volume 1." He wanted it to read like "a real comic book" from start to finish, which meant ensuring a level of narrative consistency throughout. If characters suddenly swapped or were unrecognizable for some reason, he would make adjustments in Photoshop. "It was quicker for me to do that than to ask the artist to do it," he says. "Because it was either a minute in Photoshop or me having to email them and wait, and create of all this extra work for them."

But some artists weren't happy with the changes. At the time, Harvey thought his actions were justified -- he was technically the project's editor in chief, after all. In hindsight, however, he admits that was a "mistake." "Volume 1," he says, was an experiment that taught him some valuable lessons for the remaining five books.

Initially, Harvey thought the first volume would be completed in six months. But it ended up taking a year, by which point many of the artists had already shared their pages online. The numerous postings on Tumblr and Instagram were great for the project's reputation and attracting new contributors. But it meant the first complete edition landed with a dull thud. The project had already had its moment, and people were posting their own, original fan art with the Bartkira hashtag. "So it wasn't this huge moment as I thought," Harvey says.

"Flipping through the pages is exhilarating. It's like talking to a series of strangers at a house party."

Still, artists relished the chance to compare their work with the other contributors. At last, they could see and understand how their pages fit into the larger narrative and what it was like for the reader to flow from one artist to the next. "Flipping through the pages is exhilarating. It's like talking to a series of strangers at a house party," Matthew Smallwood, an illustrator and Bartkira contributor, says. "Transitions from one person to the next can be exciting, jarring, funny, even sublime."

Filippo Morini, another artist who worked on the project, adds, "The result is astonishing, schizophrenic and beautifully chaotic. It's like driving full speed through a super curvy road where you can't see what will come up beyond the next turn, but you keep riding full throttle because the landscape around you is terrific and your eyes want to catch as much as they can."

James Harvey inside Orbital Comics in London

For "Volume 2," Harvey took a different approach. To accelerate the production schedule, he started giving artists firmer deadlines. If they didn't submit in time, he would hand the pages off to someone else on the waiting list. It was a tough stance but a fairer one for all the people working hard to meet the original due date. He also expanded his operation, recruiting editors and friends to chase artists and check their work for mistakes.

The extra help made a difference. "Volume 2" came out in October 2014, less than four months after the first installment. "Volume 3" arrived in July 2015, alongside a fan-made Bartkira trailer. Like the crowdsourced comic, the video was a collaborative effort involving more than 50 artists. It showed Tetsuo-Milhouse's collision with Takashi, the bar where Kaneda-Bart and his friends hang out, and the underground facility holding Akira-Ralph -- small but distinct glimpses of the landmark film.

While the animation was new, the original Akira soundtrack and voice work remained underneath. "To hear the voices and the theme song of Akira," Humphrey recalls, "I thought, 'Oh, my god, this is so crazy. It's great when you see people's pages, because you use your own imagination, but to see it all animated is a different story."

The project was coordinated by Kaitlin Sullivan, an animation producer and contributor on Bartkira, "Volume 1." "I wasn't about to tackle the whole movie, so I found a trailer I liked and pitched the idea to Ryan and James as a failed FOX concept stuffed on a 'Do the Bartman' VHS," she explains.

Sullivan had organized a similar project in 2014, recreating an episode of Sailor Moon with over 250 animators. Both projects made a huge splash online: At the time of writing, the Bartkira trailer has 320,000 plays on Vimeo and 775,000 views on YouTube. It was picked up in the press too, drawing more attention to the rest of the project.

"Two things are certain in life: You're going to go through the whole production convinced you're a failure and it'll never work and everyone will hate you for it, and when you're done, every single piece of positive feedback feels like the greatest gift you've ever received," Sullivan says. "Whether it's from Le Monde or a stranger on the internet, I just couldn't stop smiling. It was worth every second of work."

Mike O'B

In April 2016 "Volume 4" was released. That same day a physical art book called Bartkira: Nuclear Edition was published by Floating World Comics. It was a collection of art and pages that Harvey and the rest of the Bartkira organizers had been accumulating since 2013. "I needed one book that was an accurate cross section of all the amazing stuff that was coming out," Harvey says. The book isn't, however, a complete volume of Bartkira that you can read from start to finish. That was by design: The project sits in a legal gray area, using characters and stories that were clearly created by other people.

The team needed to tread carefully. Harvey knew that Otomo and his son, Shohei Otomo, were fans of Bartkira, and for a while Shohei was interested in getting involved with the project. James Stacey, a friend of Harvey and the owner of Tokyo, Japan-based comic publisher Black Hook Press, had been in touch with Kodansha, the company behind Young Magazine. Eventually, he received a letter that said Kodansha would never be able to endorse the project but was aware of its existence. A Bartkira book could be printed but never with the pages in sequential order, because this would create a direct competitor to Akira and give readers another, potentially cheaper way to consume Otomo's story.

"Which was, I feel, forward-thinking of them," Harvey says.

It was a similar situation with Matt Groening. The Bartkira organizers knew that he had seen a copy but to date have never received a cease and desist order. As an extra defense, Harvey decided to donate all of the book's profits to charity. Some went to the OISCA Coastal Forest Restoration Project in Japan's Miyagi Prefecture, where Otomo grew up. The rest went to Save the Children, a charity preferred by the late The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon.

Giving the proceeds away made sense logistically too. Harvey didn't want to get rich from other people's work. He also knew that splitting the profits among hundreds of contributors would result in tiny, almost insignificant paychecks for everyone. Charitable donations solved all of these problems at once. "It was just an idea that solved a lot of problems and gave me more of a clear ethical conscience," Harvey says. "And made it so the project was definitely a force for good, which is what I wanted."

Humphrey feels conflicted about Bartkira and its success. He's contributed more than 20 pages across six volumes but has always kept some distance from the project and its organizers. "There have been moments where I have despised it," he admits. "I don't know why. I think it's that -- I didn't want to be known for just that."

He's also uncomfortable with some of the praise Harvey has received as the "creator" of Bartkira. "There have been parts of me throughout this whole project, especially the early stages, where I thought, 'I hate this project.' Because, and this sounds like I'm being a bitch, but James getting all the recognition ..." he says, trailing off for a moment. "And I follow news sites that are saying, 'He did everything. He's done all of this.' And there are close friends of mine saying, 'Well no, Ryan, you did this. This was your idea.'"

Humphrey isn't sure what kind of recognition he wants, if any. Regardless, he's proud of the art and what people have produced. "Looking back on it now, because this is a chance to look back at Bartkira ... I kind of feel like 'Yeah, it's good!' It's a good thing, it's really good."

Harvey is thankful for everything Humphrey has done. Coming up with the idea, all the pages he contributed -- none of it would have been possible without Humphrey. "Ryan's creation has changed my life. It made me a better person and is the catalyst for some of the proudest professional accomplishments in my life so far," Harvey says. "Because of him, we were able to make a lot of people happy all over the world."

Chris Pyrate

Over the years, there have been many Bartkira art exhibitions around the world. On June 22nd, the French animation blog Catsuka posted a news story about a new exhibition in Paris. It was to be held inside an art gallery on Palais-Royal, less than five minutes from the Louvre, between July 12th and 30th. The blog post also claimed that the last page of "Volume 6" would be drawn live by French artist Marion Chombart de Lauwe.

All of this was news to Harvey. "This happens to me over and over," he says. " I'm always like, 'Wow, that sounds amazing, I had no idea! I guess that's what we're doing? OK, cool!'" So he went along with it, agreeing that it would be a fitting end for the project. And while a page was painted live, it didn't end up being the final one. When the date rolled around, Harvey was still chasing a few stragglers. But he kept that information to himself, not wanting to ruin the jubilant atmosphere inside the gallery.

Instead it was Humphrey, fittingly, who drew the final Bartkira page. On August 10th, the project creator tweeted, "Tonight I will draw the last ever page of Bartkira. Stay tuned." Later that night, an image appeared on his personal Tumblr. It was Ralph, or rather Akira, woven into the crumbling remains of Neo-Tokyo. The caption underneath read, "The last page of Bartkira."

All six volumes are now online and available to read -- more than 2,000 pages, drawn by hundreds of different artists. For Harvey, it marks the end of a quite extraordinary period of his life. "It felt like something I started when I was trying to run away from my life, and run away from responsibilities," he says. "As it's ending, I can feel my life beginning. I got married, and I'm moving to a new town. It just feels like -- and maybe this sounds corny -- but it genuinely feels like a chapter page or a big page is turning in my life."

"I'm glad it's ended, personally."

For Humphrey, it's closure. Bartkira has ended, and everyone, himself included, can finally move on. "I'm glad it's ended, personally," he says wearily.

But Bartkira will, on some level, continue. The six volumes have been completed, but anyone can still contribute to the fandom by posting art or a photo of some homemade merchandise with the Bartkira hashtag. Likewise, anyone can view the completed work at any time, either through the Bartkira website or by searching for the tag on Tumblr or Instagram.

"There are still people making new content, even though the whole thing has been released," Bartlett says. "There are people doing fan art of the fan art." For young artists, that sort of interest and community are invaluable. When you're just starting out and don't have any paid gigs coming in, it's projects like Bartkira that provide some much-needed direction and inspiration. "Anything online that makes you think, 'Oh, I'm going to draw that tonight,' or 'That's what I'm going to work on for a little while' is great," Bartlett adds.

That inclusiveness has always been at the heart of Bartkira. The idea was born on Tumblr and grew naturally through word of mouth. There was never a professional publisher or a juggernaut marketing campaign trying to force its success. Bartkira was simply an idea so clever and well executed that it attracted hundreds of artists on its own. It's hard to imagine how such a global, collaborative project would have been possible before the world wide web.

"Bartkira is a beast that could have only been spawned in the fertile soil of the internet," Rodrigo Bravo, an illustrator, designer and Bartkira contributor, says. "An idea that blew up beyond what anybody could have imagined back when Ryan Humphrey did those drawings. Tumblr is a great place for these ideas to foam up to the surface, grow and become alive, much like Tetsuo's fleshy expanding cyber-lumps."

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