NORMAL – The man who inspires adventuress Athena Voltaire to greater globetrotting glory is firmly rooted right here in the Twin Cities.
While Athena is off battling aerial Aztec gods (“Athena Voltaire and The Feathered Serpent”), crashing secret sects (“Athena Voltaire & The Brotherhood of Shambala”) or crossing swords with warrior skeletons (“Athena Voltaire & The Immortal Power”), Steve Bryant is safely ensconced in his home on Normal's west side.
There, in the inner sanctum of his downstairs studio, the pen is, if not mightier, at least as mighty as, the sword.
Not to mention the sundry other weaponry being pointed, thrown and/or fired Athena's way, all the better to deter the former aviatrix and Hollywood stunt woman who runs a Depression-era air charter service specializing in getting to far-flung places and very tight fixes.
As the author and artist behind Dark Horse Comics' most progressive female hero of the 1930s, Bryant is tapping a lifetime's inventory of influences and interests.
Those interests are as both meticulous artist and unabashed fan whose own muse is the great pulp adventures of the 1920s and 1930 — traditions forged in imaginations as disparate as Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (“Tarzan,” “John Carter,” etc.).
Give Bryant a Zeppelin, some rabid Nazis, a lost vine-covered temple, an occult sect and a Ray Harryhausen dueling skeleton (or three) and he's ready to pack Athena off to high adventure ... just like the kind that comprise Bryant's new volume, "Athena Voltaire Compendium," released over the holidays by Dark Horse.
Beautifully bound in hardcover and sporting a collection of five high-style adventures played out over hundreds of dynamic panels and 240 pages, it's the perfect primer for Bryant's chosen aesthetic: exotic adventures in a world Bryant clearly would love to inhabit himself, with its witty banter, high-style deco architecture, great clothes and a sense of the world still being a place of mystery ... and much, much bigger than our incredible shrinking world of the cellular now.
Growing up in Pekin during the '70s and '80s, Bryant had already discovered a love for both drawing and serialized fiction, via the Hardy Boys books, and, later, the Marvel Comics worlds of Captain America and the Avengers.
Then, he "grew up" in high school, "and I left behind the superhero stuff," recalls Bryant. "I copped to the pretension that comics are neat but what I wanted to do was more 'serious'."
Then along came the boundary-busting likes of Frank Miller and his revisionist "Dark Knight" and DC's "Watchmen" series of the mid-'80s ... and suddenly, Bryant didn't feel quick so strongly about putting away the things of his childhood.
"They seemed to be doing really inventive things with the way the stories were told ... it was the gravitas of the content," Bryant continues. "Then I started to look at movies more closely, too, and I could see the similarities in visual storytelling. It reignited my first love."
Also redirecting his creative life back to its roots was his encounter with Indiana Jones via 1981's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" ("I was at the perfect age to be blown away"), followed by his discovery of the late Dave Stevens' retro-loving "Rocketeer" comics, which were turned into a movie in 1990.
To Bryant's eye, Stevens' synthesis of '30s style, banter and escapism just about sums it all for him and his approach to Athena. "That really is my touchstone," he says.
As he grew older, he encountered actual films of the 1930s, including, "more recently," the great screwball comedies and "Thin Man" movies with William Powell and Myrna, which instilled in him a love the kind of snappy, authentically witty movie talk that has become a lost art.
He also came to the original 1933 "King Kong" a bit later in life than usual, and was profoundly impacted by its sense of high/far-flung adventure.
Before Bryant could make good on expressing his love for these traditions through his art, he began working, doing freelance work in the role-playing game industry, and working for a company that had the Indiana Jones license.
"Lost cities, rotting temples, vine-covered ruins and Spanish moss ... all of that stuff started to seem very cool and evocative to me," he says.
Through his friendship with then-Bloomington-based comics artist Tim Bradstreet ("The Punisher"), Bryant became involved with downtown Bloomington's busy Game Designers Workshop, where Bradstreet freelanced.
Upon his recommendation, GDW hired Bryant, and he worked there four years, until a staff downsizing sent him to Chicago to work in graphic design, followed by a return to the Twin Cities when his then-wife was transferred to State Farm Insurance.
The birth of Athena Voltaire was a joint effort between Bryant and a writer/artist friend, Paul Daly: Bryant coined her name (originally "Athena Voltaire, Space Ranger") and set up the framework of a flyer heroine's exploits during the 1930s, while Daly provided some of her back story, based on real-life Florence "Pancho" Barnes, a pilot, sharpshooter and trick rider.
The series debuted in 2002 as a weekly Web comic and earned a 2005 Eisner Award nomination as best digital comic before transitioning to the printed page, then went a new direction when Bryant and Daly parted company, with Bryant retaining rights to the name, while Daly kept the back story.
The stories in "Athena Voltaire Compendium" involve Bryant re-scripting some of the earlier stories to conform to her revised back story as the daughter of the great vaudevillian escape artist Voltaire.
Now both writing and drawing the adventures, Bryant begins his process with thumbnail sketches that are then scanned into his computer and blown up. They become the basis for the creation of the final digital renderings, which are then turned over to his Chicago-based colorist, Jim Nelson.
Her adventures are set to resume in a stand-alone release, "Athena Voltaire & The Volcano Goddess," and, if the fates decree, make the leap, a la Dave Stevens' "The Rocketeer," to the big screen.
"I see Athena as my guide through a period I'm extremely fond of," says her creator. "And I get to have a lot of fun along the way."