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How Gabriel Picolo Went from Fan Artist to NYT Bestseller

Gabriel Picolo has the kind of career you could make a comic book about.

A love of comics inspired the young Brazilian artist who crafted a career from fan art he shared on the internet only to become a New York Times and USA Today bestseller with his first ever graphic novel, Teen Titans: Raven. The cartoonist just replicated that success with the follow up DC book, Teen Titans: Beast Boy. He can barely believe that he’s finally shaping the characters that made him fall in love with art as a kid in Brazil. “I started drawing when I was a kid,” Piccolo told Nerdist. “But then I came back to it when I was in high school because I was starting to follow manga, cartoons, and comics. I loved those stories! I wanted to create something like that—to create the same excitement I was feeling when I read and watched those characters.”

Covers from Gabriel Picolo and Kami Garcia's Teen Titans stories

DC Comics

But Picolo wasn’t sure he’d be able to follow his dream of becoming an artist. “I really wanted to do something with it when I was leaving high school,” the artist said. “But I knew that wasn’t a career path here in Brazil, because we don’t have art schools. We don’t have an industry here. We can have illustrators here, we have Brazilian artists, but it’s way, way, way tougher to get jobs. It’s better now, but it used to be even worse.” So instead Picolo went into an International Relationships course at college. He left his dream of becoming an artist behind.

Growing up in Brazil also meant that comics weren’t easy to find. Picolo recalled that it was nigh-impossible to get his hands on a single issue. Instead, he made do with collections and manga. The latter truly got him into comics; he didn’t discover the joys of Western superhero stories until later. “I remember I had read The New Teen Titans because of the Teen Titans cartoon. That was really my first connection with superheroes and Western comics,” Picolo related.

“I wanted to create the same excitement I was feeling when I read and watched those characters.”

Teen Titans hugely impacted Picolo. The show represented the types of stories that he wanted to tell within the world of DC Comics. These weren’t fully formed heroes solving massive interplanetary problems; the Titans were young heroes still learning how to become the best versions of themselves. Those themes echo in every iteration of the characters Picolo would become well known for drawing from his fan art to his bestselling graphic novels with writer Kami Garcia. “I’m just more attracted to those kinds of stories,” he explained.

In 2013, the artist decided to try to pursue his artistic dream. Living and working in a hostel after quitting his college course, Picolo found himself with a ton of time on his hands. But he realized that since joining college he’d barely drawn at all. “I used to love drawing! But I was just not feeling inspired. So I made this New Year’s resolution to do one drawing a day for the whole year next year—which was 2014—and that’s what I did.” The personal drawing challenge he set himself was a decision that would, without hyperbole, change Picolo’s life.

sketch of Teen Titans' Raven by Gabriel Picolo

Gabriel Picolo

If you’re a fan of Gabriel, it’s probably due to his incredible art featuring the Teen Titans dressed in a casual style, which first came to life during his 365 day art challenge. “I started putting all of that progress online,” Picolo laughed. “Not to become famous or anything like that because I wasn’t into that. I just wanted to keep track of it just to call myself out if I missed a day.” The artistic marathon began as something for his own creative growth, but when Picolo started posting the pieces on Instagram daily it quickly became something much, much more. People realized they could come to his page and see something totally new each day; something special was born. An online movement of Picolo diehards grew from there.

2016 was a huge year for DC Comics as a relaunch reshaped the DC Universe in more ways than one. Not only did the massive event streamline the publisher’s output, but it also put Picolo on a creative collision course with the company. “I remember I started really, really, really getting into DC when the Rebirth era started,” Picolo reminisced. With his love for superhero comics cemented and a desire to work in the industry, he decided it was time to revisit the stories that had first made him fall in love with the characters from the comic book world. “I started rewatching the 2003 Teen Titans show and around the same time someone from DC contacted me about sending in my portfolio to be reviewed for their talent workshop.”

Teen Titans Beast Boy sketch by Gabriel Picolo

Gabriel Picolo

Though DC didn’t end up picking him for their annual talent showcase, they did give him some inspiring advice. Despite the fact Picolo didn’t make it through that time around, he was “almost there.” But what DC Comics really wanted to see in his portfolio was more of their own characters. Those words along with his Teen Titans rewatch gave him an idea. “I can do something with this because I love these characters. So then I did this reimagining of the Titans as actual teenagers more than superheroes,” he explained. “And then people responded really, really well to it.”

Picolo’s remarks are a massive understatement. If you were on the internet between 2016 and 2017 you likely saw his cutesy and romantic Teen Titans reimaginings. The character designs went viral within months of Picolo posting the first sketches. Fans fell so in love with his sweet teenage designs that they made costumes based on Picolo’s character illustrations. He enthused, “That’s the best, best thing—the connection I created with so many people. It always blows me away to this day. People create these complex photo shoots, get all their friends together, and take all this time to emulate the drawings that I did.”

Titans Starfire sketch by Gabriel Picolo

Gabriel Picolo

His creations arguably caused more excitement than whatever Teen Titans book was out at the time. DC Comics noticed. They saw the huge potential audience for young, fresh takes on superheroes and got in touch. But when Picolo first got the email in 2017 requesting he do the art on a Teen Titans graphic novel he didn’t respond. He said, “I was like, ‘Nah, this is a prank. This is super fake.'” Reader, it was not super fake or a prank. In fact, DC asked bestselling author Kami Garcia to pitch a young adult graphic novel for the publisher’s new DC Ink line—now known as DC Young Readers—and she suggested Picolo as the artist.

It was an easy choice for the writer. “Gabriel’s work is modern and fresh,” Garcia told Nerdist. “But it still has a relatable quality that makes his characters feel like old friends. It’s amazing to work with someone who shares my vision for Teen Titans.” But it would take a lot more persistence from DC publishing before the young cartoonist realized he was truly in demand.

“I was like, ‘Nah, this is a prank. This is super fake.'”

Michele Wells, vice president and executive editor of DC Comics, noted what it was about the artist that spoke to the publisher so much. “Gabriel’s contemporary, relatable style was a perfect fit for not just for our Teen Titans series, but for DC’s YA line as a whole,” she explained. “His expressive artwork takes these stories to another level, and his humor, compassion, and thorough understanding of the essence of our characters shines though. It’s clear just how much he loves these characters—they just radiate pure joy at every page turn!”

Art from Teen Titans: Beast Boy

Teen Titans: Beast Boy, DC Comics

After around ten emails, according to DC Comics, Picolo finally got back to the company and that led to Teen Titans: Raven. It was the first full graphic novel for both Garcia and Picolo. “I think we both learned a lot through the process together,” Picolo shared. “I was learning a lot of stuff. Time was a very complicated issue for me because the pages have to be delivered so fast. Publishing deadlines are insane.”

Taking on one huge project was enough, however, Picolo launched his own graphic novel crowdfunding campaign at the same time. It literally broke the internet. Picolo’s popular webcomic, Icarus and the Sun, reimagined the iconic myth about a young boy who flew too close to the celestial body. He reshaped the story into a beautiful and heartbreaking romance that visually leans towards Studio Ghibli and the manga that molded Picolo’s comic fandom. The webcomic attracted an ever-growing fandom since 2016, so the artist was sure people would want to read a full book. But he had no idea just how many people. “I knew there was already a huge audience for that, but I wasn’t expecting it to crash the website. That was really, really surprising,” he laughed.

Icarus and the Sun graphic novel cover

Gabriel Picolo

Not only did Icarus and the Sun crash Indiegogo—locking Picolo out of his own record-breaking campaign—it raised $596,541, becoming one of the most successful comics in the platform’s history. It also meant he now had two books to draw: the rest of Icarus and the Sun as well as the newly announced sequel to Teen Titans: Raven. The two juxtaposing experiences shaped Picolo’s idea of his dream career going forward. On the one hand, Icarus gave him full creative control. But he also had to letter the book and do all the production himself. His work with DC Comics, though, gave him security and plenty more time to play around with his art. “[With indie publishing] you’re on your own, so you don’t know if you’re doing it right. That’s super scary,” Picolo said. “To be honest, I think I would rather draw somebody else’s script.”

“I never expected it to get so big in the first place.”

It’s an understandable choice. Indie publishing is incredibly tough going, with all of the onus and responsibility on the artist. That’s especially true as Picolo created Icarus and the Sun in a unique way, drawing the entire thing as layouts (rough panels and sketches) while scripting. But on Raven he had a collaborator, editors, and of course the huge support of his fans who turned out in droves for a nationwide book tour when Teen Titans: Raven debuted. He remarked, “That was the ultimate reward, I think. The tour was so much fun.”

Teen Titans: Beast Boy cover

DC Comics

Almost immediately after Teen Titans: Raven hit shelves fans started asking what other heroes would be getting the Picolo treatment. The announcement of Teen Titans: Beast Boy, a sequel centered on Picolo’s favorite member of the team, quickly answered their questions. And even now after the reveal of the upcoming third book fans are desperate to know if Picolo will reimagine their faves like Starfire and Robin.

“I’m so happy to be doing what I’m doing right now.” 

It’s not surprising that Picolo and Garcia’s Teen Titans are so popular. Not only do both members of the creative team have huge followings but they’ve made the often overwhelming world of comics accessible. “A lot of people send me messages saying, ‘Hey, this is the first comic that I ever bought or this the first graphic novel that I’ve ever read,'” Picolo said. “And that’s really cool because that was what we were going for. You don’t have to know these characters or their legacy or the previous comics; there are so many. You just have to pick up this book and you’re fine.”

Teen Titans: Beast Boy Loves Raven cover

DC Comics

With Teen Titans: Beast Boy recently hitting the bestseller lists, the pair is onto their next collaboration. And it just happens to be Picolo’s dream project: Beast Boy Loves Raven. The ship launched his career; he longed to draw this kind of book. “I love working on this book. I just sent an email to my editor this morning saying, ‘Hey, I just love being on this book.’ I will never shut up about it,” Picolo laughed. “I’ve loved these characters ever since the Teen Titans cartoon. I’ve been shipping them for a long while and you can see in my art that I love putting them together because they’re so much fun together.”

Picolo could talk for days about the pair’s ship dynamic. He even taunted DC about making the ship canon in a now infamous—and prescient—tweet to the publisher on Valentine’s Day 2020.

A page from Beast Boy Loves Raven A page from Beast Boy Loves Raven

DC Comics

Picolo is truly living the dream. He hopes to keep creating new Titans titles for DC Comics as well as focusing on more IP-based work. He’s incredibly excited about Beast Boy Loves Raven and can’t quite believe his life has taken the trajectory it has. “It’s just too surreal. I like to think that at some point at the end of 2017 I got into an alternative timeline. My life has been so different from then to now,” Picolo said. “And I know that we have all had an awful year, but I am still so happy. I’m so happy to be doing what I’m doing right now.”

Featured Image: DC Comics/Gabriel Picolo