When Travis Gray was a little boy, he’d plunk down in front of the TV set like most kids. But unlike most his age, he didn’t passively absorb the images bombarding him.
“Whenever I was home, I would just be with my sketch book, and I would always sit in front of the TV and draw whatever I saw,” he says. “Mostly because I wasn’t satisfied with the stories and I would want to learn to draw them to place them in my own stories.
“Gargamel always wanted the same thing all the time; Brainy Smurf always got catapulted out of the village at the end,” he says. “I’d draw the characters in Laser Tag trying to kill each other. I had a comic book drawn where a bunch of animals tried to live on their own in their magic transforming car-boat-house.”
Gray is the creative force behind Mito Band and Mito Comics, and although he’s in his late 20s, it’s hard not to see an element of childhood in his work.
It’s not that his art—visual and musical—is childish. But it applies a child-like bafflement toward the adult world. In Gray’s work, societal structure and convention are rendered absurd, pointless, goofy. You remember why you didn’t want to grow up and simultaneously why being a kid was so horrible.
Tomorrow night Gray and his band will release Mito XIII, a witty and eclectic collection of comics, in varying styles. It’s accompanied with a five-song CD, which also includes a soundtrack to the comics.
There’s a rule in journalism that you’re not supposed to write about your friends, but the line gets blurred when you’re writing about musicians in a small town like Knoxville. The fact that Gray and I are good friends makes him suspicious of the attention.
“It makes me wonder whether the ‘zine and the music is worth doing,” he says. “People seem to really like us, but your friends never tell you what they think. I usually tell people what I really think. But I don’t have any friends anymore.”
Of the two arms of Mito, the ‘zine was born first. Gray got the idea for the sporadic publication in ’93, when he was at community college near his hometown in Nashville.
“This girl showed me her ‘zine, and I had never seen one before. I thought, ‘This is great.’ Except it was all about herself,” he says. “And she totally stole the art, and I thought that was cheating.”
The first Mito ‘zines were consisted of made-up stories, a reaction against the confessional style of many self-published mags (“mito” means “myth” in Spanish). He put out several copies of it before moving to the Knoxville area in 1997 to attend UT. He’s embarrassed by most of the early Mitos and refuses to show them to anyone.
Regarded one of the better designers in town, he worked for three years at Robin Easter Group. But increasingly bored with graphic design, he quit his job, intending to go to graduate school for printmaking. When his assistantship fell through, leaving him without any financial aid, he scrapped those plans.
Since then he’s held a couple of clock-punching jobs, spending his creative energy on drawing and music.
In Mito XIII, Gray draws in many different styles. Some of it is composed on his computer, but most of it’s drawn freehand. The wit is dry and sometimes sinister, but always playful. It’s not easily described. Often the humor lurks in small details or the characters’ expressions—lonely, terrified, devious, snooty looks.
A pumpkin-headed man attacks Santa Claus. Little kids roast a baby (or maybe just doll) over a fire at Pancake Lake, an illustrated ditty of summer camp. Much of the humor is self-mocking, ridiculing the band and book.
Gray and Daniel Moore formed Mito Band in 2000, and enlisted Jesse Wagner (who also plays in Ibrahim) to play guitar and Lauren Ray on bass. Moore plays on the forthcoming CD, but has since moved away, with Dugan Broadhurst taking his place on drums.
The music is keyboard-driven pop, gleeful and silly. The songs sound like they could be from a cartoon soundtrack, and the band is completely unique to Knoxville. One song on the new CD is called “Catch the Crook,” and is about fictional childhood sleuths the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, et. al.
“It’s not like we’re trying to make kids’ music. It’s a lot of fun to play, but it’s repetitive. Our songs are way too short. But I figure once you get the idea, why go on about it,” he says.
He recorded music and dialogue for each of the comics, which you can listen to as you read them. He worries it sounds stupid or amateurish. A week before the show, he was contemplating scrapping them from the final product.
But he says he feels more confident in what he’s doing, musically and artistically.
“I don’t think it sucks. But it could be a lot better. Over the past year, I’ve noticed a huge difference. I’ve started to understand what it is I’m doing. I feel like I know what I’m doing now, as opposed to the first eight years of my art life,” he says.
“Plus I’m a lot more serious about it because I actually enjoy it, now that I’m not doing it for a living. The fact that I can do whatever I want to makes me very happy.”