Next week will be big for Thief of Thieves artist Shawn Martinbrough on two fronts, as not only does Thief of Thieves #26 go on sale Feb. 25, but on the following day he’ll discuss his career and his noir-influenced approach to storytelling as part of the Society of Illustrators’ celebration of Black History Month. He’ll be joined in the conversation by comics writer and historian Danny Fingeroth.
In conjunction with the release of Thief of Thieves #26, ROBOT 6 asked Martinbrough to rank his 10 favorite covers, and reveal a bit about the creative process for each one:
“I have to say upfront that I’m my own worst critic. The following 10 covers of Thief of Thieves are ones that I’m reasonably satisfied with. As an artist, there are always things that you would love to improve on but once in a blue moon, you can surprise yourself and think, ‘That’s OK.’
“I also chose these particular 10 covers because they represent a diverse cross section of images from the various story arcs of Thief of Thieves. In many cases, the covers are linked by theme. Some concepts were inspired by previous approaches to designing the covers and others were dictated by the direction of the story.
“Here’s a glimpse into the creative process of designing the covers to Thief of Thieves …”
Thief of Thieves #1
“The cover design for Issue 1, which was written by Robert Kirkman and Nick Spencer, was suggested by Kirkman. He sent me the following sketch which I thought was just so cool and an interesting design.”
“In an effort to create separation between Conrad’s and the figures in the painting, I used a contour line approach for the interior image and contrasted that with a dramatic lighting approach for Conrad himself. To make the Conrad ‘master thief’ character seem very mysterious and ominous, I opted not to show his face in the main figure but give the reader a glimpse of it in the painting. I also tried to convey that the Conrad holding the painting and Conrad in the painting with a happy family might be the same man but are in two different mental places. Felix Serrano did the coloring and created a ton of depth with the background element. I love his handling of the figures in the frame.”
“This first cover was also the start of my battle of designing images that worked with the bold Thief of Thieves logo!”
Thief of Thieves #2
“The cover to Issue 2 was my stab at echoing a standard movie poster image which is two full figures coming at the reader in a bold way.”
“The first cover featured a static, single figure so I wanted to contrast that with an image that had movement and a number of different elements at play. Notice that once again, Conrad’s face is covered in contrast to his partner, who is introduced in this issue. Felix Serrano did an amazing job with the coloring here. As with issue #1, there were multiple printings so Felix created at least five or six different color palettes for this cover.”
Thief of Thieves #3
“The cover for Issue 3 was very special and a really cool example of colorist Felix Serrano and I being on the same “creative” page. To introduce the character of FBI Agent Elisabeth Cohen, our lead character’s chief nemesis, I came up with a design that was slightly abstract and would encapsulate their ‘cat and mouse’-themed relationship.”
“The cover would show miniature Conrads running around and taunting Elisabeth. When Felix turned in the colors and I saw that he used a pop, street art type of style, I was blown away. It was totally what I had in mind. We’re both big fans of the artist Banksy but I never suggested that Felix apply this approach to the cover. It was a really odd and great example of both of us working in tandem.”
Thief of Thieves #4
“The cover design approach to Issue 4 was the introduction to Conrad’s wayward son Augustus.”
“I tried to visualize the concept of Augustus trying to follow in Conrad’s footsteps as a master thief, but unfortunately, he is clearly not his father. I thought it would be interesting to simply show that Augustus not a good thief which is evidenced by him being caught by the cops.”
“I designed the cover image to show the scene from behind Augustus, which is a contrast to the previous covers. This cover is a really great example of my going more for atmosphere than detail. The contour drawing gave colorist Felix Serrano a lot of room to add depth and atmosphere. I think he did a great job.”
Thief of Thieves #11
“The cover for Issue 11, which was written by Robert Kirkman and James Asmus, was a bit of a struggle. Covers are done months in advance, so in many instances you’re not really sure what the specific details of that particular issue will be . I’m usually working from a rough outline of the script. I think Kirkman sent me a suggestion for the cover. After a few attempts at making that idea work, I asked Kirkman to let me try something different. This design ended up being one of my favorite images because it is very simple and graphic.”
“My one regret was I wish I had figured out a way to show more of the arm so that it wasn’t covered up so much by the logo.”
“A running joke that I’ve applied to a few of the covers featuring Conrad and his son Augustus is that Conrad always looks cool and Augustus always looks freaked out.”
Thief of Thieves #13
“The cover design for Issue 13 was tricky cover to nail down. This is the final cover for writer James Asmus’ story arc and I didn’t have the full script. I was only given a basic idea of how the story was going to wrap up. I figured the best approach would be to show some closure and some growth between Augustus and his father, Conrad. I thought it might be interesting to show the son appear as if he actually learned from the father while taking some lumps along the way. A funny detail: I was watching the television show Breaking Bad while drawing this cover and added a little plastic baggie on the cover. Colorist Felix Serrano cleverly colored the baggie blue as a little inside nod to the character Walter White’s secret meth recipe.”
Thief of Thieves #15
“The cover for Issue 15, which was written by Robert Kirkman and Andy Diggle, was a bit of a challenge. The story was: Conrad travels to Italy to undertake the infamous ‘Venice Job,’ which had been referred to since the start of the series.
Kirkman sent me a sketch of Conrad trying to sneak through a metal detector in airport with a bag full of contraband. I tried to make the composition work because it was a fun concept, but the image just seemed too busy and unfocused.
I decided to try a simpler design approach that focused on ‘attitude,’ suggested the scope of the story and showcased the diverse members of Conrad’s crew of thieves.”
“Colorist Felix Serrano really did a great job in terms of creating a ‘magic hour’-type atmosphere for this cover.”
Small detail note: I gave a nod to the music artist and producer Pharrell by having one of the characters rock his Billionaire Boys Club logo on his shirt. A couple of folks caught that.
Thief of Thieves #21
“Ever since Andy Diggle started writing Thief of Thieves, I think he’s probably suggested using a cover design based on the cover to his classic Vertigo series The Losers for almost every issue. In Andy’s defense, it is an iconic cover design illustrated by the great artist Jock.
“For one reason or the other, that approach wasn’t the right fit for previous covers, but for #21, I thought that a variation on the ‘worm’s eye’ view would be perfect to showcase the psychotic crime boss ‘Lola.'”
“The low angle view would reinforce how threatening and menacing the Lola character was.”
“I added one of his masked henchmen in the background to balance the composition and to serve as a contrast to Lola being in all white.
“In the effort to give the piece further depth and information, I added texture to Lola’s machete.”
Thief of Thieves #25
“The cover to Issue 25 was the finale of ‘The Hit List’ story arc written by Andy Diggle, and really capped off the first four arcs of the series.”
“I tried to accomplish a number of things with this cover:
A) I wanted to design a image that echoed the cover of #19, which started the arc.
B) Create a design that had movement.
C) Create a bookend to the cover of the very first issue.
D) Play with the visual themes of sex and violence.
“The ‘sex and violence’ aspect was tricky to pull off. As written by Andy, there is some sexual tension between Conrad and Lolita but that’s not the gist of their relationship. Also, the character of Lolita is not a willing partner to the crime boss Lola so I tried to suggest that she was reaching out to Conrad in some way. As you can see, Conrad’s not even looking at Lolita as he shoots. She’s not the target.”
“A fun behind-the-scenes story for this cover is that it’s the first I’ve ever drawn while someone was working in my studio with me. Former Skybound Editor-in-Chief Sina Grace was in town visiting with my fiancée and I. We both had deadlines, so Sina was working on his great series Burn the Orphanage for Image and I was drawing this cover while talking up a storm in my studio. Again, this was a first for me. I always work alone.
Thief of Thieves #26
“The cover to Issue 26 was a little bit of a challenge. Once again, I didn’t have the completed script, but I had a basic idea of the direction that writer Andy Diggle wanted to go for this new arc of the series.
“I wanted to create a striking image that stood apart from all the previous covers to date.”
“None of the covers for Thief of Thieves have ever been overtly sexual in nature, which is mostly due to the nature of the stories.”
“For this issue, I thought it might be interesting to create a cover where the sexuality is upfront but it’s not a sexy image. It would show the current relationship between Conrad and his ex-wife Audrey, which is clearly a desperate man trying to hold on to a woman who clearly has moved on.
“I think colorist Adriano Lucas did such a great job with the color palette that he chose for this cover.”
In addition to being the artist on Thief of Thieves. Martinbrough is the author of How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling, published by Random House and reprinted in several languages. You can view more of his work at his website and he sporadically tweets.