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This Photographer's Challenging What You Know About Comic Con

Andrew Boyle is no stranger to New York Comic Con. In fact, he’s gone the past five years, sans costume, to shoot everyone’s favorite characters—oftentimes with a clever twist. A photography veteran and comic book lover, Boyle has shot hundreds of images at the event and compiled the best ones into his new book Heroes and Villains, which hits stands in the US on September 12, and is already out in the UK and Australia. We talked to Andrew about gender-bending, breaking traditional comic book stereotypes, and that cliché “these are my people” feeling. Check the full interview below.

We’re all super excited for your new photo book, Heroes and Villains. All the photos are taken at New York Comic Con right?

Yeah, they were all taken there. Originally, I got up one morning and read that Comic Con was happening and thought, oh, cool, that sounds fun, but all the tickets were already sold out. I thought fuck it, I’ll take a camera out there and see what’s happening. I saw that there were lots of people in costume, so I started taking some shots of people off the street. I thought I’d come back the next year with a photo pass and actually shoot in the venue. I came back a year later and snapped a whole bunch of portraits of people in their costumes and tried my best to keep it consistent in their appearance, in terms of background and that sort of thing. I was giving the pictures to companies like Milk and people would love them. It became this thing each year where I would try to make the pictures better than before, and then all of a sudden it was four or five years later. I had hundreds and hundreds of portraits of these cosplayers at Comic Con. I didn’t know what to do with them [Laughs] They were running in editorial, but they were all shot within the confines of the Comic Con convention at the Javits Center.

Had you heard of Comic Con before?

I’ve been reading comic books since I could read, and just into superheroes, comic book heroes, cult films, that sort of thingI was really into Twin Peaks when I was a kid. I had no idea what was going on but it was weird and I liked it. I guess by taking in popular culture my love for it grew. I vacuumed up popular culture. I knew there was a San Diego Comic Con, but I didn’t know there was one in New York until I read about it in Time Out. I didn’t realize it was such a big thing, though, which makes sense now that comic book movies are the most lucrative thing at the moment. I didn’t know the scope of it, how big this thing actually was. Making my way there and seeing how huge it was, I didn’t know that I’d be coming back with a proper photo pass and tickets.

What about the event made you want to come back every year? Obviously, there’s this idea that you see the same characters every time at Comic Con, but what about it was so compelling that you wanted to keep photographing it for five years?

It reflects everything that I’m into. I shoot a lot of fashion, editorial, portraits, but Comic Con is something that I’m very comfortable at. It’s like that cliché “these are my people” feeling.

Is it that “people can be themselves there” kind of thing?

Yeah, I mean I don’t cosplay or anything. I don’t even dress up for Halloween [Laughs] The event itself is more or less the same format—it’s 3 or 4 days in October, there are panels, Q&A’s, and obviously the magnitude of the stars and the creatives there is quite big. The cast of the Walking Dead is there, the cast of Gotham is there. They drop all the big trailers, all the launches for new comic books, movies, etc. Although the format is the same and the cosplayers go every year, it’s different every year because people have a year to go away and be inspired by something else. There are new movies and comic books to draw inspiration from every year, so they think, oh, I could be that character next year. There’s also a lot of opportunities for people to remix what they want to dress as. People mash up a lot of things. In the book, there’s a really cool Batman-Joker mash-up, there’s a gender-bending in costumes. Males will dress as a version of a female character and vice versa. There’s a play on these traditional characters. They can be their version of it. Maybe there’s no black Superman, but you can be the black Superman at Comic Con. You can be the black Wonder Woman at Comic Con. It’s a similar format every year, but it’s so different every year as well.

Do you have a favorite cosplay in the book or one that really stood out to you when you were going through and choosing the photos?

You never know what you’re going to get. If 150-170,000 people are there, at least half of them are dressed up. Some are far more elaborate than others, and it’s kind of similar to when I shoot at Fashion Week. I get quite picky about what I want to shoot. It’s not just “Oh that person looks cool, let me take a picture.” There’s got to be something about the composition of the outfit, the accessories, there’s got to be something interesting there. When it comes to Comic Con, it’s the same. There’s like 100,000 costumes to choose from, but when I walk around for hours and hours, it’s the humorous, clever interpretations of that character that grab me. There’s got to be something predominantly witty about it—it’s almost like that person is that character—they really become it. I like it when there’s been a lot of thinking behind the costume—there’s something a bit humorous and witty about it, rather than just a really elaborate, true-to-life version of the character.

Right. There’s a story there.

Exactly. There’s a girl in the book who dressed as the mother from Stranger Things. She was great—she had the wig, at least I think it was a wig [Laughs] She had the wallpaper with all the letters with the Christmas lights, it was just a really clever interpretation. I saw her and was like, I get it! You know what, that’s the thing about Comic Con, with everyone I’m shooting it’s that kind of thing where I’m like, I get it, I get what you’re doing.

It’s like you’re in on this inside joke.

Totally, you’re in on this little joke, and that’s what’s really cool when you see all these cosplayers come together. They’re all in on the same thing, the same conversation, they’re like, “I get it, I get it, I get what you did there, I get your obsession with this thing.”

People love superheroes, whether they be five years old or 50. Why do you think that is? What’s the draw?

People always say it’s part of your inner child, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. It’s something that’s resonated with them. Heroes speak to people. People want to be the best version of themselves. In times of crisis, people come forward as heroes, and everyone wants to be that. Everyone wants to be the hero. Also, sometimes it helps people relate to others if you feel like an outcast. Often, characters and heroes in anime and comic books are outcasts in some way. It identifies with that part of you that wants to be bigger than you are. A lot of people I spoke to for the book said it really helped them come out of their shell. Girls said it made them challenge body image and be more accepting of who they are, why does a person’s body have to be a certain way, that sort of thing. It encourages people to be like, this is who I am.

You’ve shot celebrities like A$AP Rocky, 2 Chainz—how do you compare those kinds of experiences with shooting every-day people like the ones in your book?

When you shoot celebrities, to a certain extent, they’re aware of being in front of the camera, how to hold themselves, that sort of thing. They’re aware of how their personality translates visually, and a lot of singers and actors understand that they’re representing a brand, or something other than who they are as a person. A lot of my inspiration for portraits comes from people like Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, who were very intricate in how they posed people. So, when I shoot these regular people, even though they’re in crazy costumes, I try to guide them into a certain composition. There’s a girl in the book who’s dressed as one of the supernatural characters in the film Crimson Peak. The way her dress fell, the way her hands were covered, maybe it’s the way I tilt her head that makes the photo work for me. You guide them saying do this, do that, and then you come away from shooting this everyday person and they become a hero. Everyone’s giving them attention because they look so amazing, and that’s how I try to portray them – that they’re icons. When you’re shooting celebrities, they’re icons. So why not, for these people who’ve tried so hard and spent so much time creating their look, to give them the air of being an icon, since they’re portraying these very recognizable icons.

The book comes out September 12 in the US and it’s already out in Australia and in the UK. What’s in the pipeline for the rest of the year?

It’s being published out of Australia by Smith Street books, so I’ll be doing interviews and some press for the book. People have asked me if I’m touring the book or doing appearances, but I can’t get the time off work and I don’t know if people know who I am or would want to come out [Laughs] I’m not sure I would be the biggest draw for a book signing. The pictures were all shot for editorial and then the publisher said it would make a great book and I was like, cool, sounds like fun! I was very flattered that they thought could see them as a collection of work and thought they would go well together in a book. Back to the touring—no book tours, I just want to keep the work going and keep shooting.

Are you going to Comic Con next month?

Actually, I just got booked for a shoot in October so this is the first one in five years I won’t be able to go to, which kind of kills me a little bit. Ironically, the year that a book about cosplay portraits comes out, I’ve got to fly out of town for a shoot that weekend. But then, do I really want to go and shoot portraits again?

Right, you’ve got nowhere to put them now [Laughs]

Exactly! It might be nice to travel to other Comic Cons and see what those are like.

Stay tuned to Milk for more interviews from NYC’s finest.

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