Shawn Martinbrough didn’t write the book on noir, but he did write the book “How To Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling.” In the pages of comics like “Angeltown,” “Punisher MAX,” “The Losers,” “Luke Cage Noir” and his long run on “Detective Comics” with writer Greg Rucka, he demonstrated why he was able to write masterfully about the use of shadow and light and storytelling. It’s also clear why Martinbrough was asked to draw the crime book “Thief of Thieves,” which launched in 2012.
When “Thief of Thieves” was launched by Image Comics’ Skybound imprint, much attention was paid to the “writers’ room” that series creator Robert Kirkman assembled where each arc would be written by a new writer, but the artist from the beginning has been Martinbrough — and it’s easy to see why. He’s as masterful at depicting the action sequences as he is at the intimate moments between characters and he recently took time to talk with CBR News about 25 consecutive issues, working with multiple writers on one long form story and more.
CBR News: Shawn, we talked about “Thief of Thieves” when the book first launched and now we’re coming up on 25 issues. After over two years, how has the experience of working on the book changed?
Shawn Martinbrough: The experience of drawing “Thief of Thieves” has been, and continues to be, a fun ride. Professionally, working with Robert Kirkman and all of the writers on the series — Nick Spencer, James Asmus and Andy Diggle has been amazing. Both the former and current Skybound Editors-in-Chief, Sina Grace and Sean Mackiewicz, and the entire Skybound staff are great people. Creatively, it has been very fulfilling. When you work for Marvel and DC, it’s a blast drawing characters that you grew up reading and creating new additions to those established universes. For example, it’s trippy to see a character I co-created with writer Greg Rucka, Crispus Allen, appear on the Fox series “Gotham.” With “Thief of Thieves,” Kirkman has given me free reign to create a new and diverse cast of characters and co-create a universe from the ground up. You can’t beat that level of freedom.
Artistically, I’ve settled more into a groove and become more comfortable building onto the main characters. There have been so many different characters created over the course of 25 issues that my biggest challenge is making sure each new character is distinct and has a different look. Visually, I try not repeat myself.
The book has had a couple writers from one arc to the next — what has having this “writers’ room” been like from your perspective?
I think the way Robert Kirkman has run this “writers’ room” with regard to “Thief of Thieves” has been very successful. The transitions from the opening story arc written by Nick Spencer to the second written by James Asmus and the third by Andy Diggle have been seamless. However, with each arc focusing on different character relationships, the series organically lends itself to having different tones for each arc. What makes this dynamic work is that each writer is adapting their own unique voice to reflect the tone of the series. One of the smoothest transitions was when Asmus passed the writer’s baton to Diggle between arcs two and three. This was a cliffhanger where Conrad and his son Augustus were held hostage by the new villain, “Lola,” who made his debut in the series. It was a great team effort by Robert, James and Andy.
Andy Diggle has been writing the current arc, “The Hit List,” and also penned the one before it. You two worked together briefly when you filled in for two issues of “The Losers ” at Vertigo, but what has it been like working on “Thief of Thieves” together?
Working with Andy has been a pleasure. The guy is so talented, and a writing machine. When I illustrated the two-issue arc for “The Losers over at Vertigo, I don’t think we had much contact beyond a brief e-mail or two. On “Thief of Thieves,” there’s a much closer collaboration. Andy trusts my storytelling abilities so he gives me a lot of room to figure things out visually. I really appreciate his economy of the spoken word in the scripts. It’s always great when the writer gives the artist room to breathe and flex his or her visual muscles.
How much research is involved in the book and for you, and what are the most important things to research and to make sure you have down?
I spend a ton of time and effort researching locations and designing the looks of the characters. Whenever I get a script, I read it at least twice and figure out the pacing with thumbnail layouts.
The next step is assembling photo reference. It’s important for me to bring the writer’s script to life to the best of my ability. I try to make things look convincing but not photo real. More often than not, what slows me up with regard to drawing the book is deciding on the different looks and locales that are going to be featured in the story. I’ve been told that a special edition of “Thief of Thieves” has been in the works which would feature tons of “extras” such as layouts, unused character designs, and the like. If that happens, it would be cool for the fans to see.
You’ve said that while you know the artwork is going to be colored, you want the pages to work in black and white. Has that changed or is that still important for you?
I always see the book in black and white. After finishing pages, I hang them on a bulletin board in my studio. This allows me to constantly monitor the visual progression of the story, balancing out the amount of shadows I use here, the amount of light I use there, the variation of camera angles, and applying other editing techniques. Since my view of the artwork is strictly in black-and-white, it’s always a bit of a shock when I get the colored pages from our colorist Adriano Lucas. It’s fascinating to see his color choices and to see the artwork take on a different form. Adriano is a really talented artist.
Not to give anything away for people who follow the book in trade, but the current arc has taken a turn from the last one and I’m curious if plot aspects like that affect how you approach the artwork and choices you make as designing the pages?
Not really. I think my approach to the storytelling in “Thief of Thieves” is consistent. My goal is to visually build on the dramatic tension on every page of the script. As Andy intensifies the story, I try to keep up with him.
So where are we when #24 ended?
Conrad continues to settle old scores, taking out a major character who has put him and his family in harm’s way. Issue #24 ends on the cliffhanger of Conrad being captured and tortured by Lola, the ruthless crime boss who has been pulling the strings for the past three story arcs. Conrad’s only hope: his ex-wife and son.
“Thief of Thieves” is obviously your main gig, but you always seem to be in the midst of a few other projects.
“Thief of Thieves” is a monthly series so there isn’t a lot of extra room in my schedule. Unfortunately, I’ve had to turn down a number of interesting projects from other publishers. I do appreciate the offers and as a freelancer, it’s a nice position to be in. I did manage to squeeze in a very interesting project for a real estate/architectural firm based in New York. That project should be unveiled in early 2015. I am co-writing the Harlem Renaissance based graphic novel, “The Ren” for First Second Books.
I was going to ask about “The Ren.” Does the book have a release date yet?
The initial plan was for the book to come out in 2015. However, my co-writer Joseph Illidge and I are still in the writing phase on “The Ren.” When working on a graphic novel project of this size and historical significance, nailing down the script is key. It has been a real challenge to get all of the themes that we are excited about to fit into the two hundred page structure. Some of our characters are so developed and their plotlines so complex that they became too big for the main story. Actually, they deserved to be spun off into their own stories, which is something we’ve discussed with our editor at First Second Books, Calista Brill.Â We’re working on publishing the best work product possible and hope to see some momentum in 2015.
Without spoiling anything, I have to ask, is anybody safe in “Thief of Thieves” #25?
Issue #25 wraps up four story arcs so no one is safe!
“Thief of Thieves” #25 is on sale now.