The Moody, Cinematic Comics of SVA Alumnus Shawn Martinbrough
August 9, 2019
by Emma Drew
It's often a dark and rainy night in the world of Illustration), or at least in the world of his atmospheric comic book characters. Martinbrough's stylistic penchant for noir—its low-key lighting, stark contrasts and dramatic shadows—has made him a distinctive presence in the comics industry over the course of his 26-year career, one that started even before he graduated from SVA. Martinbrough's created some of the moodier renditions of classic characters like Captain America, Black Panther, The Punisher and the Dark Knight himself, Batman. He was, in fact, the first black artist to draw a monthly Batman series for DC Comics; select art from his 1999 – 2001 run on Detective Comics is currently on view in New York City at the Society of Illustrators exhibition(BFA 1993
"When you go to that show there's so much history of Batman, so many amazingly talented artists," he says, "and then I'm on the wall as part of this Batman history, and that's really trippy—I actually contributed something to that universe."
Martinbrough keeps busy, and has been steadily working as an artist since he brought pages to an editor at New York Comic Con while still in school, which landed him a gig at Marvel. He went on to work at Milestone Comics, DC, Dark Horse and, at Skybound/Image Comics, with Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman on the crime series Thief of Thieves, which recently wrapped after seven years.
Martinbrough's latest project requires him to breathe life into a cast of new characters while setting up a preexisting, highly acclaimed intellectual property. Titled Prométhée 13:13, and serving as a prequel to the best-selling French sci-fi graphic novel series Prométhée, the first installment in the three-issue series debuted at San Diego Comic Con last month. A digital comic book with English and French language versions, it launched worldwide through Amazon imprint Comixology; the second installment will come out in conjunction with New York Comic Con this October.
The story of 13:13 tackles some of the Prométhée epic's dense mythology, introduces American characters and characters of color and infuses Martinbrough's own strong noir style into the storytelling. "It definitely looks different from [Prométhée creator] Christophe Bec and his original series but I think that he's happy with the cinematic approach that I brought," he says.
Influenced initially by legendary comics artists like Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City) and Alex Toth (Green Lantern, Detective Comics, Hanna-Barbera), Martinbrough also takes inspiration for his compositions and pacing from film and television like The Sopranos, The Wire and Jordan Peele's recent horror movie, Us.
Martinbrough makes a point to diversify the pages he draws. "There is a responsibility to represent yourself and your culture in a positive light, that just makes sense," he says. "Over all these years, I've always said that if I got a script and there weren't people of color that were the main characters, I'll put people of color in the background, you know, prominently walking by or something, just to include them. But I've really been fortunate to work with writers who are just conscious, who sort of get that there are not just white men reading comic books." He shouts out fellow black artists like Excellence and A Bitter Root for expanding the field in particularly exciting ways.and the creators of
Martinbrough's work has attracted Hollywood's attention as well. Characters he has co-created have been featured in films like Deadpool and The Justice League and the series Gotham and The Gifted. "Just like that, a character I created years ago just popped up on the big screen, out of left field," he notes, still a little stunned. "It's an interesting time to be a comic-book creator—not only is it a great time to tell stories in a medium that you love and that you've probably spent most of your career honing your craft in, but Hollywood is looking to adapt that stuff."
"Now is a really great time for me to work on things that I'm creating myself, that are creator-owned," he says. "I've been inspired to really focus on putting out stories that I create and that I illustrate and I write, to have my own voice and talk about issues and play with characters and dynamics and themes that I might not necessarily get to play with when I'm doing work for other people." To that end, Martinbrough is currently at work on a soon-to-be-announced original graphic novel that he will be writing and illustrating for a major publisher in 2020.
In the meantime, he's finishing Promethee 13:13, creating covers for Meyer (a Breaking Bad-esque imagined biography of legendary Jewish mobster Meyer Lansky), squeezing in a follow-up to Hellboy and illustrating the graphic novel Like Lava in My Veins, written by Derrick Barnes. Lava in My Veins will be published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House and is the story of a young African American boy who is threatened with expulsion at an academy for kids with superpowers— it's an allegorical take on the educational inequity faced by brown and black boys in the American school system. Martinbrough is obviously more than just a little busy.
For more insight into Martinbrough's art visit "Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture," at the Society of Illustrators through October 12, and check out recently released book, Master of Comics, which features some of his influential work.