On the Rise: Comic Book Hero

GAVIN SMITH can’t remember a time when he wasn’t obsessed with comic books. “If I was out with my dad, he would buy me comics at the drugstore,” the Peru, Indiana, native recalls of his childhood. “Also, we had a small specialty shop called Bears Comics & Cards. So I was just always picking them up.”

By fifth grade, Smith had become a serious collector. In middle school the idea of being an illustrator first crossed his mind. “I started recognizing people’s names on the covers, and I started following creators rather than characters,” Smith says. “That was a big moment for me, when I first realized, Oh, people do this as their job.”

 As an avid DC fan, the young Smith then tried sketching his favorite characters, from Flash to Green Lantern. While flipping through those comics, he noticed ads for The Kubert School, a technical college for cartooning that he would wind up attending a decade later.

“It’s this legendary comic book boot camp,” Smith says of the school, founded in 1976 by industry icon Joe Kubert. “I had to pack up my entire life and move to New Jersey. Looking back, I can’t imagine doing that over. It was really intense.”

After graduating from The Kubert School, Smith migrated to Indianapolis. With roots planted in the Circle City, he began his career as an independent comic book artist, conceiving an edition entirely on his own titled Human City.

“I took the only $300 I had to my name and self-published the first 100 copies,” Smith says of his foray into comic book creation. “When I ran out of those, I would print just 100 more.”

But run out he did, repeatedly. With the success of Human City under his belt, Smith was recruited by independent publisher Blue Juice Comics to work on The Accelerators series, which he illustrated for several years. Along the way, Smith and his friend James Maddox started a graphic novel, Dead Legends, which quickly caught the attention of independent book publishers. Dead Legends follows a woman who enters a martial arts tournament to exact revenge on the man who killed her husband.

“Word got around. We had three offers before we even tried pitching Dead Legends to anybody,” Smith says. After finishing work on Dead Legends, which did so well two follow-ups were ordered, Smith was in search of short-term projects. On a whim, he called an editor he was only slightly acquainted with at IDW Publishing in San Diego. “She came back with, ‘We don’t have anything one-off, but how would you feel about an eight-issue Star Trek series?’” Smith couldn’t believe it. “I stammered, ‘Of course! Let’s do it!’” he recalls. Smith had to try out for the gig, which was Star Trek: The Mirror War. He nailed it.

At the end of that assignment,  Smith was browsing in Fountain Square comic shop Hero House when he noticed that a different editor at IDW was credited in an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. “No harm in asking,” he reasoned. Indeed. Smith landed a subseries, The Last Ronin. A subseries doesn’t have quite the prestige of a franchise’s main series, but it was still a coup.

Then, it happened. Smith was approached by IDW at the 2022 New York Comic Con with the opportunity of a lifetime. “They came up to me as I was sitting at my table and said, ‘IDW is very high on you. We want you on the main series of Ninja Turtles,’” he recalls.

Smith says the work will be hard to top as a career highlight. It has taken him back to his grade school days in Peru, when he was first sketching Michelangelo and the gang for fun. “Of course, I really enjoyed working on Star Trek, but Turtles is something I grew up with,” he shares. “It just feels totally natural. It’s me.”

While it remains to be seen what’s up next for Gavin Smith, the new Indy comic star is hardly idle. “I try to keep a lot of balls in the air,” he says. At the end of the day, that juggling act is proof that with passion, confidence, and a bit of patience, childhood dreams can come true.

An Indianapolis native, Seth Johnson loves all things music, especially of the local variety. His other passions also include comedy, social justice, and the Indiana Pacers.

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