Student illustrator discovers personal style, plans for career

Gray Gibson has developed ideas for original characters, including “The Comeback Kid,” a boomerang-wielding cowboy. Photo by Jon Mirador.

Andrew Ringle, Spectrum Editor

Within the pages of a small black sketchbook, illustrations of cowboys, dinosaurs and aliens come alive with vibrant colors and careful lines. On the cover, a bright red sticker in the shape of a futuristic ray gun arms the little book, guarding its bounded pages.

The drawings belong to VCU sophomore Gray Gibson. He has mimicked famous illustrators since elementary school, but he recently started drawing original characters. As he explores his own style today, his future and the reality of drawing for hire looms ahead of him.

“It’s just something that came naturally to me,” Gibson said. “As a kid I never thought, ‘I want to be an artist.’ It was just something I did.”

Both of Gibson’s parents are artists, and his sister recently graduated from VCU with a degree in graphic design.

“I remember my dad giving me this book about the art of ‘Batman: The Animated Series,’” Gibson said. “I still have it today, but that’s when my interest for comic books was launched. Around the end of elementary school, I realized this could be what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Today, Gibson immerses himself in the style of comic books to create a personal escape from the real world.

“Nothing against the more mundane subjects, but in science fiction and fantasy there’s more imagination,” Gibson said. “You can really do anything with it, and there’s so much creativity poured into the characters and creatures of the genre.”

Photo by Jon Mirador

Gibson finds inspiration from a collection of comic book artists, including Chris Samnee, Darwyn Cooke and Ryan Heshka. But he said many of his recent ideas have spurred from collaborating with his classmates.

“I found myself really paying attention to the stuff my friends have been doing,” Gibson said. “That’s motivated me to do art more than these professional, big-time artists I’ve been following.”

Because of the environment Gibson enjoys at VCU, he said his focus has shifted as an artist. While he still wants to be a comics illustrator, he no longer wants to work for big names such as Marvel and DC.

“I want to do my own stuff,” Gibson said. “My style has heavily been influenced by vintage and retro aesthetics. I’ve been digging into old comics and pulp magazines, because the stuff in there is so unique. Comics from the ‘50s have such a unique perspective on the future, and it’s just fun.”

One of the characters Gibson has created is called “The Comeback Kid.” The cowboy wields a boomerang as a weapon against his primary foe — the stingray that killed Steve Irwin.

This summer, Gibson wants to take his work to the annual Richmond Zine Fest. While he has personal concepts, he said he wants to adapt them for the comic marketplace and make them more accessible for readers.

“Basically, it’s to make money,” Gibson said. “If this is going to be something I want to do as a career, I need to figure out what people are going to buy and what the cost of that will be.”

Gibson said he struggles with the capitalist reality of making art, but he wants to find ways to make money from his own style.

“For a while before college, drawing was really stressful,” Gibson said. “But I’ve gotten used to doing art that isn’t for myself. Whether it’s for the school or eventually for a company, it’s still an escape for me.”

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