“Thief of Thieves” #8 is the beginning of a new story arc, and it is also the first issue not scripted by Nick Spencer. How much of a difference does that make, factoring in that Robert Kirkman is still in charge of the larger story direction, and Shawn Martinbrough is still handling the art? A lot, it turns out.
James Asmus’ plotting is slower and more pedestrian than Spencer’s. It is impossible not to compare the two directly, because Asmus picks up the story literally the day after the events of issue #7. Asmus divides the plot into Conrad’s side and on Augustus’ side, and Auggie’s side can be summed up by “former business partners want their money,” a well-worn setup that leads up to a predictable damsel in distress cliffhanger.
On the plus side, Asmus’ dialogue has a nice rhythm from panel to panel and his humor can be easy and graceful. Conrad’s cheerfully saying Frank Sinatra’s lyrics to himself in one scene strikes a true, in-character note, as does Celia’s greeting Conrad with “There you are, old man.” Asmus knows how advance a story through conversation and action, but the problem is that his content is slight. “Thief of Thieves” #8 spins out of the aftermath of the heist, much of it retreading and decompressing known information from the opening story arc.
There is no significant further development of Conrad or other major characters. Donny is Conrad’s rival for Audrey’s affections, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he shows up in a clownish Hawaiian shirt. He would far more interesting if he wasn’t so easy to dislike. On a related note, the women in “Thief of Thieves” #8 have curiously diminished, one-dimensional roles, in contrast to the previous story arc, in which they were more fully-fleshed co-conspirators and opponents. In particular, the heightened sexualization of Audrey and Celia reduces them to being mere motivators for Conrad. When we meet Audrey again, we see her in a swimsuit, first from the front, then from the back and there’s a very obvious analogy through the rest of the issue to her status as a “prize.” As for Celia, her role seems to be limited to making an analogy between sex and crime while eating a banana, dressed in nothing but a towel, telling Conrad he’s going to need to “scratch that itch.”
In “Thief of Thieves,” the T&A has extra significance, because artist Shawn Martinbrough is excellent at developing characterization through costume. If clothes make the man, Conrad’s button-down shirts and well-cut suits show off his class and slick professionalism, as well as his ease and comfort in his own skin. Augustus has the same square jaw as Conrad, but his shorter haircut, chin stubble, and hoodies indicate that he’s still a kid.
Martinbrough is one of those few artists who only need a few lines to define a place, face or emotion. He has a knack for zeroing in on the details of Asmus’ script with the most impact, such as Conrad’s outstretched hand as he reaches towards Audrey, ostensibly to help her tie his boat into the dock. Asmus leans towards visual analogies, and it’s nice that Martinbrough plays to his strengths. In turn, Felix Serrano’s colors fill in Martinbrough’s clean heavy lines like stained glass fitted into black leading. His flat planes of translucent color highlight the simplicity and beauty of Martinbrough’s compositions, and the nighttime scenes “Thief of Thieves” #8 are especially lovely because Serrano excels at the restrained use of only a few, well-chosen complementary colors.
Martinbrough and Serrano provide visual continuity, but “Thief of Thieves” #8 is still a great example of the usual advantages and pitfalls of work for hire, where changes in the creative team allow for a different take but always require the audience to adjust to the shift. Kirkman still oversees the story, but judging from the differences between #7 and #8, his contribution to the creative pie is the smallest, and the pace and feel of “Thief of Thieves” will change as new writers take it on.