COMMENTARY TRACK: Andy Diggle Cracks "Thief of Thieves" #14

Andy Diggle is part of an exclusive club, one that only three other writers belong to. That club happens to be the "Thief of Thieves" writers consortium, a group that includes Robert Kirkman ("The Walking Dead"), Nick Spencer ("Morning Glories," "Secret Avengers") and James Asmus ("Gambit," "Quantum & Woody"). The writers, along with series artist Shawn Martinbrough, have come together with one goal in mind: to create a heist comic book for Skybound and Image Comics unlike anything you've seen before.

Diggle is no stranger to in-depth character-driven crime tales having written 32 issues of "The Losers" and the "Rat Catcher" OGN for Vertigo Comics, and this week he made his debut on Kirkman's "Thief of Thieves" with #14. The series follows career thief Conrad -- also known as Redmond -- as he decides to give up the crime game. Unfortunately, various circumstances keep conspiring to keep him out of retirement, not the least of which is his son Augustus' failed attempts to join the family business.

The previous issue ended with Conrad and Augustus tied up at the hands of psychotic madman Lola, whose one goal is to be repaid for the job Augustus failed to deliver on, partially because of Conrad's actions. To get his son out of hot water, Conrad explains to Lola that he's got one big score that will pay off his son's debt. If you've been reading "Thieves" from issue one, you'll know this as the often talked about Venice job. Now that he's got the right motivation, Conrad's putting his team together to save his flesh and blood.

With the release of "Thief of Thieves" #14 and the building blocks firmly laid down, CBR News spoke with Diggle about the Conrad/Augustus relationship, getting Conrad's band back together and co-writing with Asmus and Kirkman.

CBR News: I noticed James Asmus shares a story by credit with you and Robert Kirkman in this issue. Does that have something to do with the placeholder draft you mentioned last time we talked and you incorporating elements from #13?

Andy Diggle: Exactly, yeah. I started writing issue #14 before James had finished #13, so my first draft was kind of a "placeholder" until we knew exactly how things were going to shake out. We knew the "cartel boss" was going to confront Conrad and Augustus at the end of James' arc, but we hadn't locked down exactly who he was yet.

Then Robert Kirkman came up with this great villain, the psychopathic Lola, who carries around this weird little key-ring trophy. That item has an amazingly horrifying backstory which you'll learn about later; you can tell it's the "Walking Dead" guy who came up with it. "Thief of Thieves" has mostly been fun and games so far, but the story has suddenly taken a much darker turn. Conrad has spent his life ducking his responsibilities, and now it's all come back on him. Lola kind of represents the physical embodiment of all Conrad's mistakes and evasions. Lola is the ultimate consequence. He's one scary dude.

So yeah, once we had Robert's notes, James wrote the final scene of his arc accordingly and I re-wrote my first scene off that, and we bounced our drafts off each other until we'd kind of smoothed over the join. It runs together pretty seamlessly.

I've really enjoyed this way of working, this "writers' room" mentality. Everyone throws their ideas in and the best idea wins. Every decision is in service of the story, which isn't always the case on other comics.

Was it always part of the plan to get Augustus in hot water which necessitates Conrad pulling the long-talked about score?

Right. In the very first issue, Conrad's crew throw him this surprise party in honor of the huge Venice heist they've been planning for years and are finally ready to pull off. And then Conrad quits. It's been hanging over him ever since, with the bankroller Arno and the rest of the crew leaning on him to get back in the game. He's been twisting and evading, trying to get back to a normal life, but he can't. And when Augustus gets in trouble with Lola, that's the last straw. Augustus wouldn't be in this situation if it wasn't for Conrad's refusal to train him. So now Conrad has to pull the heist to save his son's life -- possibly at the expense of his own.

At its heart, much of the conflict between Conrad and Augustus seems to boil down to the basic parent-child dynamic where the parent wants to help the child avoid heartache and trauma while the child wants to live their own life. Was it difficult taking something so well known and putting a new twist on it?

I think the cliche would be the son wanting to choose his own path while his father pressures him to carry on the family business -- but we're doing the exact opposite. Augustus wants to follow in his father's footsteps, but Conrad won't let him.

I love the fact that Augustus just isn't very good at this stuff. So many stories show the young apprentice surpassing and eventually replacing the mentor figure, with the torch being handed on to the next generation -- but the sad truth is that Augustus is just kind of a fuck-up. It's like that scene in the movie "Parenthood" where Jason Robards realizes his son Tom Hulce is never going to change, he's never going to get his shit together, and he's never coming back. That's just who he is. You just have to live with it.

That's one of my favorite things about this book -- the fact that the crime caper stuff is underpinned by the relationships. Usually capers are all plot plot plot and there's very little room for character development. By opening it up into a long-form story, we get to examine what makes everybody tick. Like nobody had done that long-form character-driven thing with zombie stories before Robert wrote "The Walking Dead." Now we're doing the same thing for the caper.

Augustus tells his dad, "I was raised by wolves. I'm a wolf." That seems to be a very central point to Augustus as a character and the story itself.

I was thinking of Conrad as the "alpha male" with the young challenger nipping at his heels, trying to take over the pack. Conrad has always tried to put his son down to keep him out of the life of crime, but of course it's backfired horribly. That sense of rejection, that bitterness, has only fueled Aug's need to prove himself to his father. And of course, because Conrad refused to train him, Aug has completely ballsed it up.

I hate to see a good bottle of whiskey go to waste, but the three silent pages were very moving. Was there ever a version of the script for those pages that had word balloons or text? Is it difficult balancing smaller personal moments like that with the larger putting-the-plan-into-motion ones?

I always saw it as a silent sequence. I say silent, but I could practically hear the buzz of the fluorescent lighting in that all-night store when I wrote it. It did feel a little self-indulgent at first -- three pages out of a 20-page book -- but when I tried to tighten it up, it just didn't work. It needed room to breathe.

And hopefully the point comes across -- that Conrad is facing this terrible decision, with his son's life hanging in the balance. His first instinct is to start drinking -- it's an escape for him, a kind of flight from responsibility, which is what he always does. He steals the whisky without thinking, without even breaking stride...

But he never takes a swig. That panel where the bottle freezes on the way to his lips, and we drop in a couple of flashback panels to Aug's childhood -- that's Conrad making his choice. At this moment, his life can go one of two ways. If he starts drinking, if he tries to run away from reality, then his son is dead, and the happy family life that Conrad wants so desperately to get back to -- that'll never happen. He drops the bottle the moment he decides he's going to give Lola what he wants. And you won't see him touch another drop of booze until the job's done... or somebody's dead.

I think the sequence -- and the series as a whole -- works better without interior monologue or captions to explain what's going on inside Conrad's head. You have to figure it out. We don't want to spoon-feed our readers; they aren't dummies.

It made me realize something that became very helpful when scripting the later issues, when they get into the nitty-gritty of the Venice heist. In most caper stories there's this obligatory exposition scene where they lay out the plan and show exactly how impossible it will be to overcome all these obstacles. And I realized, you don't need all that. They've been planning this heist for three years. If this hand-picked crew don't know the plan inside-out by now, they never will. So I decided to chop out all the exposition and just let the reader sort of spectate on the action as it unfolds, and try to figure it out as they go along. It makes the reader more invested in the story, and it also frees up much-needed space, which can be used to round out the character beats and give it a heart.

I felt quite pleased with myself until I realized that's exactly what I did 10 years ago in the very first issue of "The Losers" -- just drop the reader into the middle of a complex heist sequence without explanation, and let them try to figure out what's going on. I guess sometimes you just need to take the long way round to get back to what you already knew!

Conrad sets up a fake interview to talk to Augustus' mom Audrey which says a lot about their dynamic. She's mad, but it's unlikely that she would have talked to him otherwise. How important both story-wise and thematically was it to get her in on the heist?

I think it's essential that Audrey be an active participant. She can't just be a trophy wife, a human MacGuffin to be won back by the hero. And remember, she used to be a career criminal too, so she shares a degree of responsibility for the way her son has turned out. She has to balance her anger at Conrad against her love for Augustus, her desire to protect him, and her guilt about what's happened to him. That doesn't mean she's happy about being dragged into this situation, though, as you'll see in the next issue.

Now that Conrad has Audrey lined up what other familiar faces will we see join in for the heist?

All of them! Seriously, almost every character who's had a speaking part since issue one will have a role to play in this arc. The ones who are still alive, anyway. We met Conrad's crew at the surprise party in the first issue, some of whom went on to help with the evidence room heist. We'll be putting that band back together for the Venice job, plus one or two faces who haven't been seen since issue one. We'll get to know them a little better in Venice.

You'll see more of cartel boss Lola, plus a whole new set of Italian antagonists, including some old school Mafia guys, and the dashing Captain Valenti of the Italian Guardia di Finanza. And of course, FBI Special Agent Elizabeth Cohen. What, you think she's going to sit this one out? So yeah, it's a big machine, and I'm trying to give every character a chance to shine.

Plus you'll see a face that's been missing from the frame since issue one...

Andy Diggle continues to craft the Venice heist in "Thief of Thieves" #15 which goes on sale June 26.

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