Artist Shawn Martinbrough may not have written the book on noir, but he did write a book on the topic in the form of “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling.” Martinbrough is perhaps best known for his superhero work as a penciler and inker. Recently at Marvel Comics he’s drawn books including “World War Hulk: Front Line,” “Punisher: Hot Rods of Death,” and most recently “Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive,” but it’s moodier noir stories that are his true passion, whether superhero tales like run on “Detective Comics” with writer Greg Rucka or the “Luke Cage Noir” miniseries or the more realistic detective series “Angeltown” written by Gary Phillips, which was released in a collected edition last year.
Martinbrough’s current project is “Thief of Thieves,” the new ongoing series from Image Comics and Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Imprint. CBR News spoke with Martinbrough, who provided us with an exclusive look at the second issue which comes out this week.
CBR News: How did you end up on “Thief of Thieves” and what about the project appealed to you?
Shawn Martinbrough: Last year Robert Kirkman reached out to me, expressed how much he liked my work and was interested in working with me on a new project for his company Skybound. To work on a new project and help build it from the ground up was really exciting. Once Kirkman sent over the premise of “Thief of Thieves,” I was hooked. After illustrating back to-back-superhero projects such as “Luke Cage Noir,” “Bullseye: The Perfect Game,” “Captain America” and “Black Panther” for Marvel, I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to design and draw a world without costumes.
When you came on board the book, did Kirkman have the basic idea and you worked from these notes to develop the characters designs, or by that point had Nick Spencer come onboard and you were working from script pages?
The former. I worked from character notes Kirkman provided. However, when I started to get Nick’s scripts, there were additional characters that I had to stop and create designs for.
How much freedom did you have as far as designing the characters and the look of the book?
Total freedom, which is amazing. In some cases I did a few different versions of characters to nail exactly what Kirkman envisioned. Hopefully they’ll include some of those designs in the first trade collection. With regard to storytelling, I have free reign.
Kirkman has spoken in interviews about how many writers will be working on the book on different story arcs. Will there be different artists or have you committed to the book for the long term?
I’m the main artist and have committed to being on the book for as long as it runs. In fact, I recently had [a] lovely visit from some rather large Skybound representatives to ensure that.
What has it been like working with Robert Kirkman and Nick Spencer?
Really great. They’re both laid back and supportive guys. Kirkman is really open to my creative ideas and character suggestions. I really appreciate the clarity and efficiency of Nick’s scripts which give me a lot of room to be visually creative. Editorial Director Sina Grace is the MAN. I’m contractually obligated to give Sina props in every interview.
I know that you’ve also worked together with colorist Felix Serrano on the recent issues of “Black Panther” you did with writer David Liss, but had you had worked together before that?
Yes. Felix colored a “Captain America” comic that I illustrated for Marvel which was produced exclusively for the U.S. Military. Felix also colored my “Punisher: Hot Rods of Death” one-shot.
“Thief of Thieves,” like much of the work you’ve done, really looks as if it could be printed in black and white. What’s the challenge for you of drawing the pages the way you want, but still working with Felix and getting the pages to look right in color?
I don’t think about color when I draw the pages. I only focus on making the images work in black and white. Felix is a really talented colorist and artist in his own right so the majority of the time we’re in sync with the approach to color over my black and white artwork. My main input tends to be on picking out details and using the color to create as much separation between the black and white elements as possible. Aside from that, I sit back and look forward to seeing what Felix does with each page. I’m never disappointed.
How does an issue get put together? Do you get the script from Nick? From Sina? Is there a lot of conversation between everyone involved as it’s being put together?
It’s like an assembly line. I get the Kirkman-approved Nick script from Sina. I deliver the finished art, then Felix does the coloring and oversees some of the production specs for the final printing. We’re all pros so there’s not a lot of back and forth. There might be a random note or two but it’s pretty streamlined.
Do you offer story suggestions or get asked for thoughts?
It’s Kirkman and Nick’s job to deliver the story and script so I only focus on the visual storytelling. If I think there’s a more effective way of visualizing the script, I’ll offer my suggestions. The guys are really cool with that. I have suggested different visual approaches to some characters and again, the team has been very supportive of my ideas.
I know you’re a big noir fan and have worked on numerous crime stories. What about crime do you enjoy as a reader and how do you feel your skills as an artist are suited to the genre?
I love to read great drama. As the artist, I really try to make the scenes that Kirkman and Spencer have written come alive and seem real. I love action scenes, but making a simple conversation between two characters can be just as challenging as having two thieves jump off of a thirty story rooftop. I strive to make the characters seem like they’re really acting and emoting what’s on the script. I use shadow and light to create the drama in the scene. That’s where my love of Noir comes in.
Are there any scenes in future issues you’ve drawn that you really enjoyed?
Oh, there are too many. In issue #2, the robbery scene was fun to map out and I was really pleased when I saw how Felix colored those scenes. Although, sometimes the quiet moments are the best. The splash page where the lead character Redmond looks at the photograph of his son is one of my favorites. The combination of black and white and color really creates a dramatic mood that feels REAL.
I also love the cover for issue #3, which is a major nod to the street art scene. That was an amazing instance of Felix and I being in total artistic sync.
“Thief of Thieves” #2 is on sale this week.