Talk Over Balloons: artist Shawn Martinbrough

This past February, after attending a Meet the Artists night at "Marvelous Color", an exhibit held at the Gallery of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, I had the stroke of luck to meet Shawn Martinbrough, the artist who drew "Luke Cage Noir", a Marvel Comics mini-series I'd recently reviewed. We've been in contact since and Shawn is highly appreciative of the type of work we do here at The Long and Shortbox Of It so he agreed to answer some questions about what was, in my opinion, one of last year's best minis. You, the reader, get to enjoy the dividends of our good luck in the form of this, our second interview on The Long and Shortbox Of It!

Jon Gorga: Shawn, thanks for answering some questions for us! So you're credited as penciler on "Luke Cage Noir" but I can see from your website that you did a great deal of reference research and I know that you were invested with the character from way back. I'm curious how much input, if any, did you have on the plot?

Shawn Martinbrough: No. When I came on board the script was already written by Mike Benson and Adam Glass. My role was to design the characters and visualize the script.

JG: Was that final plot presented to you 'Marvel style': outline without dialogue, or full-script: panel-by-panel descriptions with completed dialogue?

SM: I received a full script complete with dialogue and general panel descriptions. For the most part, the details were described very well in the scripts by Benson and Glass. I was really fortunate to have a ton of freedom to recreate the 1920’s Harlem and to create the look of the characters.

JG: You described the two common scripting styles in your book "How To Draw Noir Comics" as the simple script and the wordy script. Do I detect a preference there for you, as a penciler?

SM: For me, a simpler script is always better. It might create more work for the artist to interpret fewer descriptions but it also leaves more room to be creative. More importantly, a simpler script allows the art to have room to “breathe” and helps to tell the story visually.

JG: Makes sense. I always think of it as a balancng act: enough information to move the story, but not so much information that you bore the fuck out of the artist. I was really curious (and, honestly, at first skeptical) about how and why Tombstone was chosen as the 'super-villain' of the piece. Could you talk a bit about how you see his role in the story?

SM: Well, the decision to include Tombstone was totally up to writers Benson and Glass. Visually, he is an interesting character and his look is adaptable to the time period. In terms of his role in the story, Tombstone is the antagonist in both the past and present scenes in the story. When I first got the script I didn’t realize Benson and Glass’s version of Tombstone was supposed to be an albino African American so I designed him to resemble a John Gotti type. Later, I decided to pattern him after the famous Black activist Marcus Garvey. Tim Bradstreet, the cover artist for the miniseries, did an amazing rendition of Tombstone for the cover of part two. I plan to frame that print and put it on my wall.

JG: On the subject of drawing 'adaptable' to the time period, it must have been difficult to find the research materials necessary to give us a believable Harlem in the Twenties. Did you primarily use period photographs or some other method?

SM: Being a native New Yorker, I took numerous reference shots of present day Harlem. I always make mental notes of interesting locations for future projects and there’s so much beautiful architecture that’s still preserved in Harlem. The challenging thing about assembling photographic reference from that period is that there were not a lot of pictures taken in Black neighborhoods. Many of the famous photographs have been used repeatedly over the years. Certain locations in the script, such as the historic Theresa Hotel, are now office/apartment buildings so I had to extrapolate from past architectural reference to figure out what the hotel entrance and interiors would look like at the time.

I bought a few books on the Harlem Renaissance as well.

JG: One of my few critiques of "Luke Cage Noir" was the flashback scenes. I found them confusing for the first two issues until a bit more context was established in the third. So my two-part question is: Did you have a chance to talk with Benson, Glass, and your colorist, Nick Filardi, to strategize about the flashbacks? and Were you happy with the way they turned out on the printed page?

SM: I didn’t strategize with colorist Nick Filardi on his approach to coloring the flashbacks sequences. It’s always a little challenging from a writing standpoint to jump from present to past without actually stating “Flashback!” in a caption. I thought Nick did an interesting job of using black and white/grey tones to distinguish the flashback scenes from those that took place in the present.

JG: I loved that many of the scenes and pages in the series work fantastically as stand-alone one-page comics stories. Was that a conscious consideration for you and/or the writers? And, if so, would you recommend it to others as a way of constructing a story visually?

SM: Thanks. It’s funny. I remember when Axel Alonso, my editor at Marvel, first approached me about doing the project. Axel really stressed that he wanted simple layouts. No fancy floating, weird shaped panels, etc. He just wanted clear storytelling. I thought this was great because that’s pretty much my style of telling a story. If anything, with "Cage Noir", I probably simplified the storytelling layout even more.

I definitely try to make each panel interesting and strong enough to stand on its own as a single illustration but more importantly, to work as one part of a sequence. As an artist, the top priority is to tell the story that the writers have written in the most effective and interesting way to the reader.

JG: If I could move way off the main target for one question, I didn't realize until doing some research that you were one of the many artists working on the Batman character during the "No Man's Land" story-line, or 'event', whatever you want to call it. Those were the comics that brought me back to Batman after a long time in the Marvel camp. DC editor Denny O'Neil's description of the working process for that project from his "DC Comics' Guide to Writing Comics" paints a pretty interesting picture. Could you talk a bit about working on a project that massive, with so many different writers and artists?

SM: It was a fantastic experience working as the regular artist on Detective Comics during the 2000 relaunch. When the new creative teams were selected for each title they were given a new bible of Batman designs to follow and new elements to redesign. In regards to Gotham City, I was assigned specific neighborhoods to design from scratch. When working on Detective Comics, it was primarily writer Greg Rucka and I working with group editor Denny O’Neil and associate editor Joseph Illidge so it felt pretty insular from the other books.

JG: Wow. A chunk of an immortal imaginary city has your stamp on it, Shawn! Switching gears and looking forward: What's your next project in comics? And outside of comics? I know your company Verge Entertainment does film work as well as illustration and design.

SM: I’m pretty happy that my art instruction book “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling” which is published by Random House was recently selected for their e-Book series and is in its second printing. My company Verge Entertainment co-created with writer/artist Kevin McCarthy, an entertainment website using an ensemble cast of fictional characters to comment on real-world celebrities, politics, and pop culture.

Imagine New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver working on staff at a Hip Hop inspired news/blog/gossip site. We’ve partnered up with Rodney Barnes the executive producer of the “The Boondocks” cartoon to develop EXPO for television.

We also have a number of original projects that we’re working on for animation, graphic novels and children’s books.

That all sounds pretty damn cool, right? A big thank you to Shawn Martinbrough for making the time to answer some questions from a reviewer (and a fan) for our readers!

Shawn keeps a personal site up an' running that you can see here and his production company Verge Entertainment can be found at

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