Amidst the many news stories and announcements made at this year’s Comic-Con International in San Diego, one book announced by First Second Books involves some comics veterans working on a very different project. Written by Joseph Illidge and Shawn Martinbrough and illustrated by Grey Williamson, “The Ren” is a story set during the Harlem Renaissance and involves a love story between two young artists, a brewing gang war and attempts to capture the spirit of that revolutionary time and place.
Martinbrough and Illidge first met at DC when Illidge was an editor and Martinbrough was the artist on “Detective Comics.” The two went on to form Verge Entertainment and have been working on a variety of projects since. For “The Ren,” the duo has tapped artist Grey Williamson, who comics fans may know from the recent adaptation of the classic film “The Warriors” from Dynamite.
CBR News spoke with the creative team about the upcoming graphic novel, the concept behind the plot, the type of research done and the importance of the Harlem Renaissance as a period in American history.
CBR News: Guys, how did the three of you meet and what’s your previous connection to comics?
Joseph Illidge: I’ve been a Batman Editor for DC Comics, the Comics Editor for Archaia and Editor at Milestone Media, Inc. My relationship with the illustrator and co-collaborator Grey goes back to my time with Milestone Media, the first Black-owned mainstream comic book company. Grey brought such a sense of culture to his work that I wanted to work with him ever since he showed me an illustration of Marvel’s Daughters of the Dragon, and for the first time it was visually clear that Colleen Wing was of Japanese descent. Co-writer Shawn Martinbrough was the illustrator on Batman: Detective Comics when I was part of the Batman Editorial Group and we started our production company Verge Entertainment around the same time.
Shawn Martinbrough: My recent projects for Marvel Entertainment include “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Black Panther: The Most Dangerous Man Alive.” My art instructional book, “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling” is published by Random House and I’m the artist of “Thief of Thieves” written by Robert Kirkman, creator of “The Walking Dead.” Joe and I have been co-writers for years and when it came time to find an artist for “The Ren,” we both thought that Brooklyn based artist Grey Williamson would be a great choice.
Grey Williamson: First, let me say I am very honored to be working on what I believe to be a visionary property with such seasoned pros.
I come to this directly from the formation of Carbon-Fibre Media, which was born with the intent to produce cutting-edge entertainment properties that could translate through many different artistic mediums. I had taken the experience gained from designing, writing and illustrating for companies like Marvel, DC, Valiant, Paramount and more into a singular adult approach to creating media content.
When Shawn and Joseph came to me with “The Ren,” it was completely consistent with my artistic approach and direction. I was finishing up on a sculpture of President Barack Obama and I was deeply involved on the project, “Val-Mar, Prince Of The Damned.” I was so impressed by what they showed me that I immediately signed on. Although I am comfortable working completely on my own properties, this kind of collaboration to me is the strength at the foundation of good graphic storytelling. I wanted to be a part of this.
Tell us a bit about “The Ren.” What are the origins of the concept?
Illidge: “The Ren” originated from a discussion Shawn and I had about wanting to do a love story between two young Black artists, which is something we hadn’t seen before in comics or graphic novels. As we started building on the idea, the period of the Harlem Renaissance seemed to be the perfect backdrop for the story. That’s the first point at which the story gained a certain momentum and evolved at breakneck speed.
Martinbrough: After illustrating the miniseries “Luke Cage Noir” for Marvel, I was very inspired by the look and feel of 1920s to 1930s period Harlem. As a graduate of Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts, I enjoyed the vibe of being surrounded by other artistic students. The school, comprised of artists, dancers, actors, musicians and singers provided a dynamic and creative atmosphere. I likened this to what it must have felt like during the explosion of creativity during the Harlem Renaissance. It was a great foundation to craft a story set in that time period. I created an illustration which encompassed the tone and themes of what Joe and I envisioned for “The Ren” and then we pitched the project to Calista Brill at First Second Books. Once First Second was interested, we reached out to Grey and sent him the proposal.
Why do you feel the Harlem Renaissance was such an important period in American history?
Illidge: The Harlem Renaissance was a historical movement originally called “The New Negro Movement”, in which Harlem, New York in the 1920s became the nexus of activity for Black writers, musicians and painters. Since Harlem went through an influx of African-Americans as a result of The Great Migration in which Blacks left the South and moved north, some of the creative works of The Harlem Renaissance reflected a fusion of Southern and Northern cultures.
Martinbrough: I view the Harlem Renaissance as one of the first organized African American creative jam sessions that influenced future generations of Americans and the world.
Williamson: This time, the art, the music, the innovation of word in language would become the foundation of almost all artistic movements since.
Shawn, Joseph — your company Verge Entertainment did some work for the Howard Theatre restoration project in Washington, D.C. Did working on that project have any impact on developing “The Ren?”
Martinbrough: Totally. While filming the fundraising campaign on location in Washington, D.C., it was fascinating to learn about the Howard Theater, which pre-dated the Apollo Theater in Harlem and was a creative gathering place for folks of color. The Howard supported African American musicians and singers who were shut out of mainstream “whites only” clubs and theaters. This concept of artists of any color banding together to create something new and unique outside of the establishment system is a universal theme and very relevant to today.
Illidge: Writing material for the fundraiser trailer Verge produced for the Howard Theatre Restoration Project helped me see another progression of Black artistic talent during the time immediately following The Harlem Renaissance, acting as a thematic prequel. Once “The Ren” began, I continued that line of research by going further back in history. Christopher Alan Chambers, the Professor of Media Studies at Georgetown University, has been an ally in providing material for this book.
The book’s tagline is “a story of love, crime and the power of art.” How is this reflected in the plot you’ve set up?
Illidge: The story focuses on Clay Jackson, a bass player from Georgia, who leaves home after a mess of trouble and travels to Harlem, New York City with dreams of starting his own band. Clay meets Lisette Ford, the middle child from a family of sisters who wants to be the best dancer on the floor, because dancing is her release from the pressures of life.
Clay ends up playing in The Haven, a Black-owned club created by a former crime boss named Lawrence Denton. Denton’s trying to go straight and sees the business potential for bringing together the next generation of Black talent under his roof, especially since his daughter, Celeste, is a painter. Celeste is using her father’s club to create a company spotlighting the fusion of art, music and literature of Black teenagers — what would have been the precedent for Motown, DefJam and P. Diddy’s Bad Boy.
A three-way romance develops between Clay, Lisette and Celeste. At the same time Denton is fighting a war with a crime family looking to take over his territory and his club. Celeste’s dream is close to being realized as The Haven is in danger of being destroyed.
Martinbrough: A major theme that we’re exploring in this story is the power of “naive hope versus a mature cynicism.”
What was the process like for trying to research for “The Ren” to make it historically accurrate?
Illidge: It’s a mammoth project and the books are spilling out of my office bookshelf as proof. The beauty of this is that, back when I was an editor on the Batman books for DC Comics, writers and editors would have to create a history for Gotham City that drew heavily from the history of other cities. You have to work doubly hard to create the lineage of The Waynes.
With “The Ren,” it’s all there and all real. Nothing has to be made up, just discovered and used to inform our characters, strengthen their motivations and propel their personal drama. Add to that the influence of real-life heroes and controversial visionaries like W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, and the story becomes highly enriched.
Grey’s art brings the whole period of The Harlem Renaissance and the characters alive in a way that makes it seem fluid and natural without being forced. He nailed the trio of Clay, Lisette and Celeste on the first shot. I asked Grey to think about the actor Paul Winfield, who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in a television movie years back, as the model for Lawrence Denton, and Grey came back with a look that went even further than my description. It made me push myself more to make Denton’s dialogue meet up to the character’s veiled menace.
Martinbrough: I’m fascinated by the difference in cultures of the North and South. Being a native New Yorker and having family roots in North Carolina, I know that there is a lot of history to be explored in “The Ren.” Not only are we researching how the characters would speak in that era but how they would dress and live as well. Using a visual medium like a graphic novel presents a unique opportunity to tell this story. Based on Grey’s initial designs and sketches, I absolutely cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.
Williamson: Joseph and Shawn have woven such an inspiring tale that, once I read it, took me to a different place, a different time. For me, it is complete escape. I relate to this so well, it is such a part of me, that it becomes easy to transpose myself and visualize the movement, the flow, the attitude of that cultural experience. A beautiful artistic opportunity.
This is such a rich period of history, in telling the story did you draw on some true stories or real places and people?
Illidge: Oh, without a doubt. That’s part of the fun! Denton’s club, The Haven, is very similar to speakeasy-based nightclubs in Harlem, and is heavily influenced by what happened when The Cotton Club was established and its policies involved a purge of Black talent from its stage. There’s a scene between Denton and W.E.B. DuBois I wrote that Shawn vibed off of instantly, and his idea of bringing in Bumpy Johnson (the future criminal enforcer) helped set up part of Clay Jackson’s emotional thrust for when he gets a taste of the energy and sophistication of Harlem’s nightlife. Just deciding what high school our heroine Lisette Ford attended involved researching Harlem’s real estate as far back as the latter quarter of the 19th century.
Martinbrough: I’m a huge fan of films like “Titanic” and “Moulin Rouge,” which use historical events and places as a foundation to create new and original characters and stories. As a writer, it’s a fun challenge to integrate fact with fiction.
Williamson: Shawn and Grey help me visualize “The Ren” as a musical, so we’re creating with that kind of vibe. With television shows like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and AMC’s “Mad Men” showing the intrigue and appeal of period dramas, I’m confident there’s an audience ready and waiting for “The Ren.”
Grey, what do you see as the challenges and pleasures of depicting a historical story?
Williamson: I was born and raised in New York City, and being a precocious child of the sixties era, I saw a culture that was still very much affected by that revolutionary time period. There were still speakeasies and a behind-the-business social structure that impressed a young boy to carry himself a little differently.
For me, the challenge was to relive special moments shared with my father, who was an iconic descendant of that era, and factor that sensitivity in with my own research. As an artist, I am all about telling the story within the story and my joy comes from communicating a little something extra, something personal to the reader.
What is your favorite artist or work from the Harlem Renaissance?
Williamson: We could talk about artists like Zora Neale Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Langston Hughes, John Biggers and The Duke, but really we are speaking of a general culture of self-realization that turned walking and talking and dressing yourself in the morning to face the day into a bold artistic statement-one that still has great influence today. Those artists all touched inspired each other to produce something that was greater than all of them.
For me “The Ren” is special in that way. It speaks from that spirit. Yes, a very cool project to work on.