Shawn Martinbrough has been a professional comic book artist for quite some time. I actually first heard of his work when checking out Batman: Detective Comics (DC). Along with writer Greg Rucka, Martinbrough created several characters for that series including detective Crispus Allen, (portrayed by actor Andrew Stewart-Jones on FOX’s Gotham). Next, I found his Luke Cage Noir series, which really is a must-read. I’m still surprised by how many people still don’t know about Shawn. In this interview, I get a chance to ask him about some of the favorite things he’s worked on, his long-running project with Skybound, Thief of Thieves and how diversity in comics ain’t new.
TBG: For those readers who are unfamiliar, please tell us how long you’ve been in the comic book biz and some of the imprints that you’ve worked with.
SM: I landed my first professional job from Marvel back 1992. Since then, I’ve continued to work with Marvel, DC, Vertigo, Dark Horse and currently, Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment and IMAGE.
TBG: The new ARC of your long-running series “Thief of Thieves” (#32) came out right before SDCC and I see there’s a new team, & more danger, but where’s my girl Liz?
SM: We all love the character of FBI agent Elizabeth Cohen but the story for this arc of TOT is primarily set overseas in locations such as London, Dubai and Russia. The new players and adversaries are international so Cohen doesn’t fit into this storyline. I do have an idea of how we could possibly bring her back for the next arc but we’re still figuring out the direction of the story.
TBG: Was Elizabeth originally written to be an African-American female character? Or did the concept change as the story was developed?
SM: No. When we started working together on the series and I began designing the characters, Robert sent me a description of “Elizabeth Cohen” and her role in the TOT story. He didn’t specify her ethnicity or age. I thought it would be interesting to make Elizabeth a woman of color and Robert went right along with the idea. In his words, “Oh, Elizabeth’s black? Cool.”
TBG: For SDCC I know you did a special crossover TOT/Skybound cover featuring Negan from The Walking Dead. Any chance you’ll be doing more crossover work with the series?
SM: That was really fun. I’m a big fan of Charlie Adlard (the artist of “The Walking Dead”) so it was a great exercise to draw a version of “Negan” that was a mixture of Charlie’s original design from the comic and the actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who plays “Negan” on the television show. I’m always up for drawing anything TWD related if I’m offered but that’s primarily Charlie’s lane. Also, it’s a matter of scheduling. I’m neck deep into drawing the world of TOT and maintaining it’s schedule. I’ve had an invitation to visit the set of the TWD in Atlanta for years but there’s never enough time!
TBG: I loved your Luke Cage Noir series. with Mike Benson and Adam Glass. The way you drew 1930’s Harlem was gritty and powerful. I also liked how his powers were only a metaphor for his reputation. That made him very real and relatable. Any chance that series would somehow come back?
SM: I’m really proud of that series. Mike and Adam did such a great job writing that story and the covers by Tim Bradstreet were amazing. Marvel Editor In Chief Axel Alonso, who edited the original mini-series, and I have been talking about doing something with that series and Cage. As a native New Yorker, I spent a lot of time in Harlem. It would be interesting to draw a story set in the Harlem of today. Clearly, Harlem has undergone massive gentrification and there are significant changes. However at the same time, there are entire blocks (some historical and some not) that are basically preserved and haven’t changed much in decades.
TBG: What’s the most favorite character you’ve drawn and why?
SM: I don’t have a favorite. As a artist, I take every project as a challenge and each is special in its own way. Drawing a 1920’s era style version of Luke Cage for Marvel’s “Luke Cage Noir” was a career highlight. Drawing “Batman: Detective Comics” for DC Comics was another. Applying my style to iconic characters such as “Black Panther” and “Captain America” was such a rush. The interesting thing about working as an artist for both Marvel and DC is that sometimes characters you created years ago get a whole new life.
For example, when the “Deadpool” film was first announced, writer/ DC Comics head honcho Geoff Johns dropped me an email telling me that a character that we co-created in our “The Morlocks” mini-series was going to be in the film. Geoff and I worked together on this miniseries way back around 2003. Now this character is being played by Gina Carano. That’s the current comic industry for you. Those experiences, which are just a few of the many projects I’ve worked in my career, have prepared me to work on an ongoing series such as “Thief of Thieves”. It’s definitely a milestone to say that I’ve drawn thirty-seven consecutive issues and covers over the course of this series.
TBG: What’s been your most fulfilling collaboration to date? Writer, colorist, publisher whatever.
SM: I value all of my collaborations. I’ve been fortunate to work with really great writers over the course of my career. Just to name a few and in no particular order, Mike Baron, Robert Washington, III, Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns, Kevin McCarthy, Christopher Priest, William Harms, Mike Benson, Adam Glass, David Liss, Robert Kirkman, Nick Spencer, James Asmus and Andy Diggle. There are many more but you get the gist. For me, it’s akin to taking a writing course taught by each one of these talented writers and I got paid!
Outside of comics, I would have to say that my art instruction book, How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling is one of the projects I’m most proud of. I get asked very often by kids, teens, adults who are aspiring artists or have children who have an interest in art about how I developed my style and got into the comic industry. Creating this book with my publisher Watson-Guptill/Random House was a great platform to answer questions and share my experiences and approach to art.
TBG: What do you think about the current push of diverse characters in comics right now? Any you like? Or is it mostly just pandering?
I don’t think it’s a current push. Social media and younger blogger types tend to inflate things to seem like it JUST happened even though it’s been happening for years. The U.S. comic industry is no different from the U.S. at large. The population is becoming more diverse so smart and forward thinking businesses understand that their content and packaging must reflect that. Think about it. Marvel is putting out feature films based on characters that were created around fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, everything was white and that was just fine for a lot of folks.
Remember, when Marvel was trying to get the first “Iron Man” film off the ground, people scoffed at the idea and this was a story about white, rich guy in a suit of armor. When “Thor” was announced, folks rolled their eyes at the idea that a blond haired, blue eyed Nordic character with a hammer could crack through to mainstream audiences. So the argument some folks have is that Marvel should have jumped out first with a $100 million film about a ruler of an advanced African society who wears a cat outfit doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t have a problem with Marvel using their bigger players to lay the foundation and support for their classic and new superheroes of color.
Here’s another thing and one of my favorite writer/artist Kyle Baker (“Why I Hate Saturn” & “Nat Turner”) took the words right of my mouth with a recent Facebook post. When I was growing up reading comics in the 1980’s, some of my favorite artists and writers were people of color. EVERY comic fan worth their salt was a fan of George Perez, the artist of “The Avengers”, “The Teen Titans” and “Wonder Woman” among others. The “GI JOE” comics from the 80’s that were the blueprint for the classic cartoon series, the ridiculously successful toy line and currently, the live action films? Those comics were written by Larry Hama.
Artist Denys Cowan and writer Dwayne McDuffie worked for years in comics before they co-founded the media company “Milestone”. I could go on and on but I just want to make the point that in my experience, there have been well written female characters and characters of color in comics for years. There have been people of color working in comics for years. Now if we’re talking about female writers of color who have worked for the “Big Two”, I’m stumped. Editors of color? Not so many. Although, my first professional job was assigned to me by a Black editor at Marvel by the name of Marcus McLaurin. Just sayin’.
TBG: If you could turn your “noir” stylus on any character who would it be?
Hmmm…I really don’t have one in particular. I’m going to be writing a few comic projects soon so if given the opportunity, to write a character for Marvel or DC, it would be fun to crack open a “Marvel Universe” or DC’s “Who’s Who” and see what lesser known characters jump out to me.
TBG: Name an underrated artist or writer we should be looking at right now.
I’m going to reiterate my admiration for writer/artist Kyle Baker here. Growing up reading comics, I was a huge fan of Kyle’s. Probably starting with his art on “The Transformers” comics which had a really distinct line quality and use of shadows. His long run as the artist on “The Shadow” series with writer Andy Helfer for DC Comics was just brilliant. His “Dick Tracy” film adaptation? Amazing and deceptively simple in its complexity. Once Kyle started writing and drawing his own creator-owned series starting with “Why I Hate Saturn” (which was totally “Seinfeld” before “Seinfeld”) to “Nat Turner”, the talent on display was bananas.
Kyle was probably the first creator that I ever came across who wrote, illustrated, lettered, colored and packaged his own projects. So many indy creators, who put out badly designed product, should check out Kyle’s work and take notes. One of the most slept on projects of Kyle Bakers’ is “Birth of a Nation: A Comic Novel”, his collaboration with writers Aaron McGrduer and Reggie Hudlin. This graphic novel about the Black neighborhood of East St. Louis trying to secede from the United States is pure comedy and should be a mini -series on Netflix yesterday.
Okay, you get the point.
Kyle, my bill is in the mail.
More of Shawn’s work can be viewed at www.shawnmartinbrough.com.
He forces himself to tweet at @smartinbrough
And recently discovered and joined Instagram at smartinbrough