Artist and author Brendan Powell Smith grew up, creative and curious, in Norwood. He decided he was an atheist at around 13. His fascination with the matter led him to Boston University, where he graduated in 1995 as a philosophy-religion major, although, he said, “I had no idea what I’d end up doing with that.”
What he did was decide to present Bible stories as they were written — including the sex and violence — and illustrating them with LEGO bricks and elements. The Brick Bible project started as a website, then evolved into books aimed at mature readers, then titles for children.
His first non-Bible project, “Assassination!,” came out in November and details, again with LEGOs, the attempts on the lives of US presidents. His take on Jonah and the whale, for the Brick Bible for kids series, comes out in April.
“I’m very lucky to be living in this age when you can self-publish so easily and get a really big audience if you’re doing something really cool,” he said on the phone from his San Francisco Bay Area studio.
Q. How did you get from the Bible to John Wilkes Booth?
A. I was really fascinated by history and I had particular interest in presidential history. I knew a little bit about some of the stories of assassination attempts on presidents, and it just seemed like the more I read about them, the more interesting they became, the more fascinating little details there were in the story. I think the audience is teens and adults and older children — and that meaning with parental supervision, kind of like a PG-13 movie.
Q. Were you surprised by what you discovered in researching the assassins and their attacks?
A. I knew the basics of the [Lincoln] assassination story, but I was really fascinated by the idea it was almost this Al Qaeda-like simultaneous three-part terrorist action where they were attempting to assassinate not just Lincoln, but also the vice president and the secretary of state, and, originally, Ulysses S. Grant all on the same night. They don’t teach that in grade school, but it’s really fascinating stuff.
Q. Have the folks from LEGO been a help or hinderance?
A. Fortunately I really haven’t had any dealing over these books with the LEGO lawyers. With those first books, I knew we were running somewhat of a risk of running afoul of LEGO lawyers, but I just tried to take steps to not do that. I really tried to stay on their good side, and what happened was everything’s been OK. I applaud them for supporting the builders, both the children and the adults making amazing things with their stuff and sharing it with others in various ways.
Q. In “Assassination!” are all of the LEGO pieces that you use out of the box or are some handmade or manipulated somehow?
A. Just for comparison, with the whole Brick Bible project, I had a very high purity level where really everything you saw was strictly out-of-the-box LEGO except for the backgrounds [like cloudy skies]. For “Assassination!” I decided to be slightly less strict, particularly for the weaponry. I’d say that still about 98 percent of the faces you see in the book are stock LEGO characters out of the box and my art is mostly building characters by choosing just the right hairpiece from say the “Harry Potter” set and a face from “Star Wars” or LEGO pirates, or something like that. It’s pulling parts from sets that have come out any time in the last several decades to make just the right characters and just the right scenery. For the first time, I hired an artist to custom-make eight or 10 presidents’ faces. I could have just chosen the stock LEGO face that’s closest, but in some cases, with like an Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan or Richard Nixon, I wanted them to be instantly recognizable.
Q. Are all the mini-figures so deconstructed that people won’t know which set they came from?
A. I’m thumbing through “Assassination!” here now and I’m like: Oh that’s Obi-Wan Kenobi’s face here on this character. Even better than me in picking this stuff out, I’ve done some LEGO conventions and book shows and 10-year-old kids come up and thumb through the book and they’ll just point out to me, “There’s Dumbledore from ‘Harry Potter.’ ” They know this stuff better than I do.
Q. How do you feel about “The LEGO Movie” coming out?
A. I’m excited because it’s producing all sorts of new LEGO sets and that’s always exciting to me, especially when they come out with lots of new characters. It means new faces, it means new hairstyles, new clothing, new parts, and stuff. I’m much more excited about the sets related to it than actually seeing the movie.