If you've ever attended Walker Stalker Con or Heroes and Villains Fan Fest in New Jersey, you may recognize the colorful stylings of illustrator Mike Brennan. A self-described continuing learner, Brennan has spent the last few years adding to his art school education at FIT and the School of Visual Arts by experimenting on his iPad. And he's not just a fan artist — you can commission a Brennan-original portrait of your pet, and he's even down to sketch you while you practice aerial yoga.
In Brennan's pop culture riffs, Captain America is as much of an American icon as, say, Abraham Lincoln, and the two can easily be conflated into a single, arresting image. Edgar Allan Poe, too, can be mischievously stuffed into Poe Dameron's suit from The Force Awakens, resulting in one of Brennan's signature visual puns. His art style is freewheeling and clever — a tone that the artist attributes to a lifetime reading comic strips and enjoying science fiction.
Brennan corresponded with SYFY WIRE via email about his art, his geeky interests, and why New Jersey has a unique and bustling fan community.
Let's start with your Captain America / Abe Lincoln illustration. How did you originally develop that idea?
My brain is weird sometimes. Stuff just comes to me. It usually starts with some kind of play on words (like my Edgar Allan Poe Dameron piece) or mash-up that seems interesting to me. With mash-ups, I think that's when you grab someone's attention with taking what is familiar and twisting it slightly to being surprise and delight. I find it helpful to keep collecting ideas when you don't need them, so you have a resource to draw from.
If I remember correctly, I created that piece a few years ago around the Fourth of July. I was thinking about how Lincoln is one of the most loved presidents, and with America's independence day, then Captain America — it just all came together. There might have been a subconscious Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter influence to a certain point too.
Have you had formal training as an artist, or are you self-taught?
A bit of both. I have had formal training going to art school at Fashion Institute of Technology and the School of Visual Arts for graphic design. But beyond that, there's been a fair amount of continued learning around whatever particular skill or method I was trying to obtain. I think it's a mistake to think you are ever done learning. Be curious about things, get in there and figure them out.
Can you describe the process of creating one of your fan illustrations? What are your favorite materials to use?
Most of the time it comes from a place of inspiration. If I'm watching a certain movie or TV show, or if an actor posts something on Instagram, I get drawn in. I'm really looking to do three things with my fan art: 1. Express my interest and excitement as a fan. 2. Offer the art as a way of saying thank you to the actors and those involved in creating the shows/movies and 3. Looking for the art to be a connection point with other fans so it adds to a sense of community.
I typically create my art in digital format, using my iPad Pro and an app called Procreate (and sometimes put finishing touches in Photoshop.) I've come to love digital media because it bridges my graphic design world of layers and undos, with the analog sensation of drawing and getting textures and a variety of tools.
What geeky TV/movies/comics were you into as a kid? Do you remember the first time you were really transported by science fiction or fantasy?
I started out with a love of Saturday morning cartoons — Looney Tunes, all the Hanna-Barbera stuff, then was also influenced by strips like Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County. Then made my way into comic books. I'm pretty sure my first ever comic book was The Thing vs. Ghost Rider. I also loved watching the old-school Batman series from the '60s, Buck Rogers ('80s TV), some Star Trek (original series).
But the one that topped them all was Star Wars. I lived for Star Wars. The action figures, books, the comics, anything I could get my hands on. That was the movie that transported me. It wasn't just the special effects, worlds, and story, but the characters. The original trilogy will forever be it for me.
Why do you think you love superheroes so much?
The superheroes that are the most powerful for me are the ones who are struggling with their powers or identity. Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Wolverine … They are trying to figure things out like how to do the right thing, who they are in light of these powers, and what that means to them and the world around them. I love heroes because they cause us to not only get caught up in their stories, but to ask questions of our own.
Who are your favorite illustrators and artists?
Surprisingly, I'm not one to really follow comic book artists. I was too caught up in the characters and stories. Outside the comic book world, the top two artists that influenced me the most were Andy Warhol and Vincent van Gogh. I love Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes, and Bob Camp's work with Ren & Stimpy too.
I'm drawn to bright vibrant colors (I LOVE color) and a sense of comedy or quirkiness.
Have you presented your work at fan conventions? What's the geek community like where you live?
Yes, I love fan conventions! I've done cons mostly local to NJ where I live, like Heroes and Villains Fan Fest and Walker Stalker events. The community is great because everyone is there to celebrate their love for characters, shows, and movies. You automatically know you are around the right people.
As superheroes and sci-fi crept more into the mainstream over the past decade or so, I think it really broadens the appeal. People get passionate about their shows and love to connect over it. I love seeing more bridges being built and a coming together on common ground. Especially in today's polarizing society. We truly do need heroes. Sometimes to save us from ourselves.