Drawing Noir with Shawn Martinbrough

Shawn Martinbrough is a name familiar to many comics fans even if they can't quite name a project the artist has worked on. As an inker he worked on "Static," "Shadow Cabinet," "Vertigo Pop! Bangkok" and others. As a penciller, he's probably best known for taking over "Detective Comics" in 2000 with Greg Rucka writing. He also drew the Gary Philips-written miniseries "Angeltown" for Vertigo, filled in for Jock on "The Losers," and contributed to "World War Hulk: Front Line."

Martinbrough is also the writer of the art book "How To Draw Noir Comics," in which he talks about his style and process of working with shadow and light. The book led to Martinbrough's most recent comics work, the just collected "Luke Cage: Noir" miniseries, which he pencilled and inked for Marvel Comics.

CBR News spoke with the artist, who gave us an exclusive look at his process of taking a book from script to finished art.

CBR: Your book is called "How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling," but it's really a much broader book about the use of shadow and lighting and angles to create mood and atmosphere, more than being about one particular style. Is that intentional or was that just a byproduct of talking about this subject?

SHAWN MARTINBROUGH: It was very intentional. I wanted this book to describe my approach to storytelling by using shadow and lighting instead of reading like a traditional art instructional book. I find that when you give someone step-by-step instructions, they tend to mimic what is presented rather than thinking about what is presented. I also wanted write the entire format of the book as a narrative story by establishing how I started drawing, my different levels of schooling, my entry into the comic book industry and the different types of projects I've worked on. The challenge was not to overload the book with too much text. I've seen other art instruction books that just have a staggering amount of text in huge blocks. Like an actual graphic novel, there should be a nice balance between words and images.

You've done a lot of work as an inker where the use of black to highlight and define the image is important. How has that experience shaped your interest in noir and the way you work as a penciller?

Actually, I began my career in the comic book industry as a painter. My first job was a watercolor illustration for Marvel's EPIC line of "Hellraiser" books. After illustrating a few projects for Marvel, I was offered work as an inker working with my friend and very talented artist John Paul Leon over at Milestone Media. We worked together as penciler and inker on "Static" and "Shadow Cabinet "and then moved on to work for Marvel and DC. John and I share many of the same sensibilities and influences when it comes to black and white, so it was really fun working together for so long. It was also interesting to go from working with color to only interpreting images in black and white. As a painter, when you use color, there are so many values and gradients to choose from. When working in black and white, it really forces you to make bolder choices. I started penciling and DC Comics offered me "Detective Comics" for the 2000 revamp of the title.

Do you prefer to both pencil and ink your projects?

I totally prefer to pencil and ink my work. Over the years, I've been at the mercy of some inkers who simply didn't fit my style or just wanted to turn the work around quickly to get paid. Ultimately as an artist, you want as much control over the finished product as possible. I also believe that penciling and inking your own work provides a greater opportunity to experiment and grow as an artist. Whether you like it or not from a fan's point of view, over time there tends to be a greater change in the styles of artists who ink their own work.

What is it about noir as a style that speaks to you?

I love the power of black and white. I love the way light hits a form and the boldness of shadows that it creates. As a viewer, it just makes an image more striking.

What did you like about the idea behind "Luke Cage Noir" and why did you sign on to draw it?

Marvel's Executive Editor Axel Alonso offered me the "Luke Cage Noir" project after seeing "How to Draw Noir Comics." To draw the classic seventies superhero Luke Cage, set him in 1920s Harlem, and to apply my noir style to the story was an amazing opportunity that I could not pass up.

Take us through this process of working on "Luke Cage Noir."

The script for "Luke Cage Noir," written by the duo of Mike Benson and Adam Glass, was very specific in regards to locations. In researching the look of the period, I was inspired by photographs of James VanDerZee and amassed a ton of visual reference from the Harlem Renaissance. I also shot tons of reference photos of present-day Harlem. In the following pages you can see how I visualized the script by Benson and Glass. I selected an action sequence and a "quiet" page to show how I approach both.

Once I read through the script, I create a thumbnail layout of the page. When creating the thumbnail, I choose the best angles to relay the action. I do all of my revisions and edits here in order to streamline the storytelling. I also establish the lighting. After settling on a final thumbnail, I assemble my reference and draw the final. I sketch in the basic drawing in pencil and then complete the image in the inking phase. When you compare the thumbnails to the final "Luke Cage Noir" pages, you can see that I follow my layouts very closely.

The script for "Luke Cage Noir" as we can read was very detailed. Do you enjoy working with a script that detailed and precise? 

I thought the script written Mike and Adam struck the right balance of words and images. They were specific with the action but gave me room to be creative and choose the best angles from which to choreograph the sequences. As an artist, sometimes you get scripts that are very over-written. Some writers don't account for the partnership that art and words have to tell a story in the comic book format. Quite simply, you don't have to write as much because the images help to tell the story. I find that sometimes, writers will make the mistake of squeezing three points of action in one panel. For example:

Panel 1: Morning, Hell's Kitchen, a small, cluttered living room.

Vinny rises from a plastic covered couch drenched in sweat and takes a swig of beer. He belches very loudly.

Usually when I run into a situation like this, I'll choose the most important piece of action or if there's room, I'll add an additional panel. In general, I really respect writers and try to draw the scripts as they are written, give or take an angle or two.

The covers for the "Luke Cage Noir" miniseries were illustrated by Tim Bradstreet, and the cover for the hardcover was done by Dennis Calero. Did you have any input?

The covers that Tim illustrated were amazing. I did thumbnail designs for the first three covers. My design for the fourth came in too late so the final cover for the miniseries was all Tim. Dennis Calero used my design for the hardcover collection and did a great job as well.

I know you're working on a Bullseye story, I don't know how much you can or even want to talk about it?

Under strict orders from Marvel PR honcho Arune Singh, the only thing I can say is that the two-part Bullseye story is set against the backdrop of major league baseball!

Besides the Bullseye miniseries, you're working on a number of different projects for your production company, Verge Entertainment. What would you like to be doing more of in the next few years?

In addition to working on interesting Marvel projects, I would love to do more directing. Filmmaking is 3D storytelling. The big difference is I don't have to draw everything. My partners and I have been trying to decide what to shoot next -- however, we've been approached by several companies interested in our projects for animation and the literary markets.

That's taken up a bit of our time in addition to my work on ExpoWeekly.com, an entertainment website using fictional characters to comment on real-world celebrities, politics, and pop culture. My company co-created Expo Weekly with writer/artist Kevin McCarthy, and we've done celebrity interviews with writer/director and former BET head Reginald Hudlin and acclaimed author L.A. Banks to start. It's really fun material.

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