I first took notice of Shawn Martinbrough‘s work during his and Greg Rucka’s run on DC’s Detective Comics back in the early 2000s. While his storytelling skills were great then, they’ve only improved over the years and can currently be appreciated in Marvel’s Luke Cage Noir miniseries, set in 1930s Harlem (Issue 2 was released on September 2; Issue 3 will be out on October 7). Actually, I’ve wanted to interview Martinbrough since 2007 when he wrote How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling, so we discussed that book before moving on to his current Marvel work, as well as his upcoming Studio Museum exhibit on Luke Cage.
Tim O’Shea: How did your How to Draw Noir Comics book come into being?
Shawn Martinbrough: My friend and colleague Joseph Illidge mentioned that I should pitch an art instruction book based on my art style. I approached Jackie Ching, an editor at Watson Guptill who was also a friend and colleague about the concept. She was very interested and suggested I create a proposal. I turned around a proposal for “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling” within two weeks and shortly after it was approved by the higher ups.
O’Shea: What do you consider to be the target audience for the book?
Martinbrough: I describe my journey from being an art student to breaking into the comic book business which gives a novice some relevant insight on breaking into the industry.
Overall, I share my perspective on art and storytelling with the reader. I discuss how I use shadows and light in my images and why I choose certain angles in my sequential storytelling.
O’Shea: How would you define noir?
Martinbrough: Noir is the French word for Black. I define Noir as a mood and a style of storytelling.
O’Shea: In the reviews at Amazon, I thought it interesting that the book tackles diverse aspects, as this reviewer notes the book is “gender and ethnic inclusive with attention to the diversity of human faces“. What ground were you really pleased that you were able to cover?
Martinbrough: A large number of people, including those at my publisher were surprised to see the amount of diversity in the subjects in my book. Growing up in New York City, I am very used to seeing and interacting with different ethnic types so it just feels organic to include them. Variation is so much more interesting than homogeneity and people really appreciate being represented. They’re actually quite vocal about it.
O’Shea: Did you beta test the book on a limited audience–to see how effective a teaching tool it is?
Martinbrough: No but I have received such great feedback from novices and professionals who really enjoy the book and found it very useful so it seems to be a rather effective teaching tool!
O’Shea: Was there any particular topic or chapter in the book that proved to be the most challenging to do?
Martinbrough: I would say the most challenging was just starting to write the manuscript itself. If you ask me about my process and thoughts on art, I’ll talk your ear off. Having to sit down and write them out can be a bit intimidating. I started off by creating all the new and original art which would fit into my outline during the first few months. In the ultimate act of procrastination, I saved the manuscript for last.
If you were to ask my editor, the very talented Abigail Wilentz, what was the most challenging aspect of putting this book together, she would probably say getting all of the legal clearances for previously published work. Thank the lord, I didn’t have to deal with that.
O’Shea: Of the myriad comic characters out there, is there any property that you think would flourish in a noir style?
Martinbrough: I love Doctor Strange so that character and his universe immediately come to mind. I was a huge fan of those Steve Ditko stories. A few years back, I pitched an idea for a Dr. Strange mini with the phenomenal John Watkiss attached as the artist.
On the DC Comic’s front, having co-created the Crispus Allen character with Greg Rucka during our run on Detective Comics, I believe there’s a whole subsection of Gotham city characters that could really thrive in their own Noir style series. I really enjoyed working with artist John Paul Leon on the revamp of the Challengers of the Unknown which was also for DC Comics. That was a great noir style interpretation of some classic DC characters. If ever a book should be adapted for the small screen, that was it.
O’Shea: Did Marvel seek you out when they embarked on the Noir project, or was it the other way around?
Martinbrough: I sent Marvel executive editor Axel Alonso a copy of “How to Draw Noir Comics” and he dropped me a line saying how much he liked the book and asked if I would be interested in illustrating Luke Cage Noir. I’ve known Axel and have been a fan of the projects he had developed dating back to his editing days at Vertigo.
O’Shea: Can you talk about some of the supporting cast in the Luke Cage noir?
Martinbrough: The looks of characters such as Stryker, Josephine, Little Walter, etc were are all inspired by various photographs I found in researching the period of 1930’s Harlem. I think the most distinct character I designed was the pre-established Marvel universe character “Tombstone”. Tombstone is a large albino, white guy with sharpened, shark like teeth so I based my early design sketches on that look. Then after reading the script for Cage Noir #1, I realized that the writers, Mike Benson & Adam Glass wrote him to be an African American. In rethinking the approach, I thought it would be interesting to design the look of their Tombstone after the historical figure, Marcus Garvey.
O’Shea: Did you already know a great deal about the Harlem Renaissance before embarking on this project?
Martinbrough: From a historical sense, I was well aware of the Harlem Renaissance. In terms of capturing the visual look of 1930’s Harlem, I needed to gather reference. Chris Chambers, a friend and very talented writer/Georgetown professor, provided me with some invaluable material on the period. This really got me into a groove in terms of designing the look of Luke Cage Noir.
O’Shea: How flexible were the series writers, Benson & Glass, if there was a scene they had scripted one way, but you thought might work better with a slight tweak here or there?
Martinbrough: Mike and Adam were really gracious with any artistic changes I made to the script. Any alterations were slight, few in number and made solely to improve the storytelling. In general, I make a concerted effort to follow any script I illustrate very closely. As the artist, it’s my job to visually represent what the writer (or writers) write.
O’Shea: What else is on the horizon for you in 2009 (or beyond)?
Martinbrough: I will be illustrating two more projects for Marvel which I’m excited about. One of which will reunite the Cage Noir creative team. Benson and Glass are really great guys so it will be great to work with them again. If we get the amazing Tim Bradstreet back on the covers, it’s a wrap.
Outside of comics, I’ll be illustrating some book covers. My production company, Verge Entertainment, is creating the marketing campaign for the renovation of the historic Howard Theater in Washington, DC. Working on the Howard project and Cage Noir has been a great opportunity to learn more about some key periods in African American history.
O’Shea: How did your involvement with “The Making of a Harlem Hero: LUKE CAGE”, an educational exhibit for the Studio Museum in Harlem come about?
Martinbrough: After seeing “How to Draw Noir Comics”, the museum reached out to me about contributing to their quarterly magazine. I told them about Cage Noir and the museum suggested a potential collaboration on an educational project for kids. I met with a member of the museum’s education and public programs department Ayeshah Wiltshire who was also a huge comic fan. After discussing some ideas, we developed a concept for an exhibit titled “The Making of a Harlem Hero: Luke Cage”. The exhibit will feature artwork from Cage Noir and show how the mini series was created.
O’Shea: My thanks to Martinbrough for his time and thoughts. More of his artwork can be viewed at ShawnMartinbrough.com .
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