Charles Vess, center, and Reilly Brown, left, discussed their careers and the comic industry Friday at one of several events launching the $750 million Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history.
<br>Photos by Thomas Kojcsich, University Marketing.

‘It’s going to completely alter your entire thinking’

Alumni comic artists Charles Vess and Reilly Brown explain how they were drawn to careers as illustrators

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Charles Vess remembers the moment he fell in love with comic books. He was a boy, maybe 10 or 12 years old. His father would take him and his brother to a barbershop once a month. That’s when Vess first laid eyes on Fantastic Four, Vol. 1, No. 4.

“I read it and I had to own it,” Vess, the award-winning fantasy artist and comic-book illustrator, said Friday at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I spent a long time convincing my parents to take me down to a newsstand to buy it. And of course this one was long gone, but they had No. 6, and that was the first comic book I ever bought.” 

It was the beginning of a long love affair with comics and illustration, Vess said in a conversation with comic artist Reilly Brown and VCU communication arts professor Christopher Irving. 

“It was exciting, visceral, there was just something about the storytelling,” Vess said of Fantastic Four. “It was the perfect time. Sometimes you see the movie, read the book or buy the comic book at exactly the right age and it’s going to completely alter your entire thinking.”

Vess and Brown, both VCU alumni, discussed their careers and the comic industry Friday at one of several events launching the $750 million Make It Real Campaign for VCU, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history. VCU Libraries has amassed one of the country’s most significant collections of comic books and comics-related materials, an accumulation of more than 175,000 items. Brown and Vess are two of several alumni who have gone on to notable careers in the comic arts.

Like Vess, whose award-winning work has appeared on the covers of Marvel Comics and DC Comics publications and in books and art galleries for the past four decades, Brown was first drawn to comics as a young boy. Today he is best known as a writer and artist on comics including The Amazing Spider-Man and Deadpool.

“X-Men was starting to come out in the early ’90s, when I was a kid. Jim Lee was the artist,” Brown said. “He had awesome composition. The characters were all tall and sexy and strong. Lee created a whole new level of detail and for the next 10 years every comic artist was trying to draw like him. At 13, I was no different.”

Irving, a comic book expert, led Friday’s discussion by looking at a range of works from the versatile artists, including Brown’s first comic while he was at VCU — the story of an intergalactic caveman kidnapped by aliens — and a 16-page project Vess put together a few years ago on the history of Istanbul.

Vess and Brown discussed their methodology during the 90-minute event. They charmed the audience with their anecdotes. In one lively exchange, Vess remembered working on an adaptation-gone-awry of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream." 

“The publishers wanted me to do a graphic novel in 100 pages. So I’m with the script of the play, with my yellow marker, editing Will Shakespeare,” Vess said, laughing. “And I said, ‘No.’ The story is pretty goofy and if you get rid of that beautiful, beautiful poetry, you’re just left with a goofy story. So I called the editor and I managed to get them to do it as an illustrative book instead.”

I felt like the critiques I had in class really taught me a lot about how to talk about art, how to think about art.

In a more moving story, Brown recalled his big break with Marvel, when he was tabbed to work on the 2005 holiday special a little more than a year after graduating from VCU. 

“It took me a minute to realize this was a Marvel comic, that these were the characters I had been wanting to draw my whole life,” he said.

Brown said he learned a lot about constructive criticism at VCU, and that it made him a better artist.

“That’s one of the biggest things I learned here,” he said. “I felt like the critiques I had in class really taught me a lot about how to talk about art, how to think about art.”

When talk turned to Deadpool, Brown offered advice to aspiring comic artists in the room.

“It’s a comic I’ve always enjoyed working on,” he said. “When you’re working on a project … you have to make sure it’s a character and a storyline you enjoy — that you feel like it’s worth the effort.”


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