“It’s a great time to be in the comic industry. It’s like the wild-wild west,” says Shawn Martinbrough, who may not fly faster than a speeding bullet or live in a bat cave, but has been professionally drawing comic book characters for over two decades: Luke Cage, Batman, Captain America, Black Panther and a collection of X-Men characters, just to name a few.
We prepared a photo shoot for Shawn to capture his essence on film. He is a natural in front of the camera, perfectly able to emote for the photographer. However, I pause for a minute to examine Shawn’s hands, which are tainted grey. Shawn explains, “I literally use a jar of ink. I’m old school so I’ve got to use a sharpie, a technical pen, and a brush.”
The ink stains were Shawn’s warrior marks for his craft. He places his hands up to the camera as the photographer snaps photos. “If you were an X-Men character, your mutant powers would be in your hands,” I say.
Ironically, when I meet Shawn at Studiowerks in Washington, D.C., he resembles a superhero in disguise, like Clark Kent — well over six feet, dressed in a tailored black suit and rocking wire-frame glasses. “I feel like at any minute you’ll morph into a superhero!” I joke. Shawn puts his hands up as if he was about to shoot laser beams out of his fingers and exclaimed with a laugh, “You never know!”
In many ways, the Bronx native is a superhero; he is a first of his kind: a Black comic book illustrator who has helped Marvel and DC Comics realize the cultural icons that have become part of the fabric of American mythology. Now, Shawn is creating his own piece of that mythology as the sole illustrator of Thief of Thieves, published by Image Comics' Skybound imprint. The new series is the brainchild of Robert Kirkman, who created The Walking Dead.
This moment is monumental in Shawn’s career: he created every image in Thief of Thieves, and for the first time the narrative is in his own hands. “Robert sent me a bunch of ideas for the characters, where he planned on taking the story and he just gave me free reign to create the looks of the characters,” he says, adding that a big part of his vision is to make the world less, well, white than your average comic. “I’m used to diverse groups of people, so I totally used my own natural instincts to diversify the cast of Thief of Thieves.”
“I feel a sense of obligation to share what I’ve learned with kids of color,” Shawn explains. “Art is a great way to channel your kids’ interests into something positive. If it keeps them off the streets, if it keeps them from getting caught up in nonsense, it’s a great way to focus them. It’s a great way to focus their attention and get them into something that they can really work at and study and also channel their feelings, especially Black kids because I feel like, in a lot of ways, we’re shut out of information.”
Shawn’s choice of words, “shut out,” hit me hard. With talk of Black Lives Matter, misrepresentations in media and political campaigns that in many ways feels rigged to further demolish the disenfranchised, “shut out” is a simple but perfect way to describe the state of the world as it relates to African-Americans. We’ve been waiting for Superman for decades.
You would think that a guy who grew up a fan boy and dedicated his career to the comic arts would be thrilled by the surge of interest in the genre, thanks to the dominance of superhero movies at the box office. Not really, he admits. “If you look at the X-Men movies, a lot of times, they change shit around, they’re not respectful of the source material,” he explains.
So, to better understand what Shawn is trying to do now, I decide to go back to his own “source material.” Borrowing a line from Brown Sugar — When did you fall in love with hip hop? — I remixed the question to fit Shawn Martinbrough’s fascinating journey.
When did you fall in love with comic books?
X-Men! It was the new, all different X-Men when they changed over their roster from the original group of all white team members. Then, you got Storm, Colossus, Wolverine, Night Crawler, all these different, ethnic types in one group. Colossus, who’s Russian, Storm, who’s from Africa, Night Crawler is German, and Wolverine is Canadian. It was such a diverse team. It really had an impact on me.
When did you realize you had the talent to be an illustrator?
Again, back in elementary school. Back then we had those metal lunch boxes. I had a Star Wars lunchbox and I copied the lunchbox. When my dad and my mom saw I had somewhat of a talent with drawing, they enrolled me in a local community center art class. I would go and paint with this old Latino teacher named Emilio. He taught me how to paint with acrylics. So I’d paint with him for maybe an hour or two and that really helped me build up my portfolio. He really opened me up beyond comic books.
Wow, so you had a mentor from the start.
Yes! That’s so important. He gave me a portfolio so when it came time to apply to high school, we applied to LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. I applied and got in. I studied hard. It was a great experience that continued my studying. When I was a freshman at LaGuardia, I met a friend and he said, “Hey, man. I’m taking this really cool cartooning class up on 145th street in Harlem. You should check it out. It’s really good.” And that’s where Gil and Davis became my mentors. They were like complete yin and yang with regard to the whole art experience. Gil was like, “You have to learn how to draw, you have to learn how to draw perspective, and you need to know the foundation of drawing.” Davis was like, “Screw all that. It’s a business. It’s about how you sell yourself.” That was really good because in art school, they never really teach you about business.
Do you think you were born with this gift?
My approach to drawing is I think anyone can draw with study and practice. I think some people are born with more of an edge or more of an aptitude to do it, but I think I was born with a little something.
There aren’t many people like you in this industry, Black men. Why do you think you’ve succeeded?
I promoted myself. I learned from a very early age that you have to promote yourself. Sometimes, if you’re on a hot comic book, Marvel or DC will set you up with interviews, but I learned that you can’t depend on them to promote you. You have to promote yourself and that’s pretty much what I’ve done. So I am basically my own PR person. I’ll just put out stuff and people would usually just come up to me and say, “Hey, we’d love to interview you.” It creates a domino effect and then once you kind of do that, you keep feeding people, you keep putting stuff out there, the more people know about you, the more people want to talk about you.
As a Black illustrator, do you ever feel pressure to represent Blackness?
It’s not even pressure. It’s just automatic for me. Whenever I was drawing for comics, if there was no Black character that was introduced, I had a Black character in the background. I had a cop walking through or something because, for me, that’s just automatic. I have to say, though, to Robert Kirkman’s credit, he’s been really supportive on my work in Thief of Thieves. Our main character is an international thief. He has an FBI agent on his trail the whole time and the character’s name was Elizabeth Cohen. The main character’s white, his son’s white, his ex-wife’s white, so I thought, let me kind of mix it up here and make Elizabeth Cohen Black. I sent the design to Kirkman and he was like, “Oh, Elizabeth Cohen’s Black now? Cool.” Just like that. A white illustrator probably wouldn’t have thought about making her Black. When it came time to creating the comrades and name the characters, I made them Black, Asian, Latino, and a white redneck guy from the south. This whole mix of characters because, to me, it’s just more interesting.
Have you experienced racism in the comic book industry?
I have not. I honestly haven’t as an artist. Now for Black writers, it’s a whole different story. I’ve heard many a horror story from Black writers dealing with institutionalized racism. And I’m not going to say, “There’s no racism!” No. I’m not saying that. Racism is everywhere. But being an artist is a faceless medium. And for the longest time people didn’t know what an artist looked like. They would only judge you by the quality of your work. Now, with social media, they can look you up and see who you are, so there’s a bias that can come into play there. Typically, an artist, they’re judging you by how well you draw and if you can draw on time.
There is all this talk of representation media. How do you think comics represent people of color?
If you’re picking up a comic because you want to read someone who’s having your same life experience, then that’s kind of narrow. One of the great things about comics for me is that it took you someplace else, and you can gain an understanding of someone else’s journey. Think about Star Wars. Who the hell lives on a foreign planet and learns how to use ‘the force?' But there’s something there that you can identify with in that character. So you don’t need to have your exact story on the page to pull you into it because I think that’s really the job of the writer and the artist.
Which comic book superhero are you most like or you relate to the most?
Growing up, before I became a freelancer, I loved the old Spiderman comics that showed Spiderman as a struggling photographer because, I don’t know how familiar you are with Spiderman, but Spiderman was a freelance photographer by day. That’s how he paid his bills, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was fighting crime. But there was such a long period of time in comics where they really showed how broke he was. How he had to constantly snap a picture of himself saving someone and then sell it to the Daily Bugle and then they would cut him a check and then he would come home and they would show him go into his refrigerator and there was no food in the refrigerator, and I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting,” and as I became a freelancer, I was like, “Wow, that was really accurate!”
What’s been your lowest moment in the comic book industry?
When I wasn’t getting work. Unfortunately, the way the comic industry works is sometimes you’ll build a relationship with an editor and that editor will keep you working and then they’ll leave and you have to start from scratch. A new editor comes in; they have their people they want to work with. There was a time where I literally wouldn’t get work. I’d send work out to people and I’d just get the, “Oh, we love your stuff, but we have nothing for you.” That probably was the lowest point I had where I was like “wow, maybe I should just do something else outside of comics.” But, like I said, I promote myself and the work eventually comes.
What’s been your best moment in the comic book industry?
It varies between meeting a fan that just says, “Hey, I really love your work. Your work really inspires me,” and that feeling really inspired me to take time out and do my art work and draw more comics. Over the years, I’ve had so many people say to me, “Hey, I love to draw. How do I get in the industry?” Or I’ve had family say, “Hey, I’ve got a son, daughter, niece, or nephew. I kind of want to give them some guidance so do you have any tips?” So I wrote my How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytellingand it was a great thing being able to channel my experience into a way that people will read. Having people come up to me and say, “Hey, I read your book and it really inspired me. It’s really helped me,” I’ve gotten messages from people on Facebook from other countries. People that can barely speak English, saying, “Hey, I really love your book. Your book really inspires me.” That’s the kind of stuff that really touches you because it makes you aware of how far your words can travel.
Every year, there are at least five films coming out based on comic books. How do you feel about the rise of comic book culture?
I have friends all around me who are getting deals for TV shows that they created. So in that sense, it’s a great time to be in comics. On the other hand, the competition is really high. So if you put out the comic book, it’s got to be a certain standard because you’ve got people who are putting out work that’s just really good, high quality level. You have to be able to compete. It’s exciting to go to a Marvel movie and see characters that I grew up with as a kid. Also, the thing is that Hollywood and business people see this is a money maker. We can make money off of this stuff that goes a lot longer than simply just adapting a novel. Comic books, you can get a whole lot of merchandising off. That’s the whole thing that makes comics so interesting, the executives are seeing the value in these comic book properties.
Comic book films are also getting more diverse. Look at Black Panther, which is coming soon.
Absolutely! Marvel and DC are realizing that, “Damn, all the characters that we put out, most of them are white.” Now, that’s because these characters were created 50 years ago when everything was white, and there were a couple of Black characters around but now they’re saying, “Okay, America’s becoming a more diverse country, and the world’s becoming purchasers of this stuff.” Not only do you have American audiences that are becoming more diverse, you have South America, you have Asia, you have Europe, and you have so many people of color that they want to appeal to. So it’s in their best interest to diversify. There might be some people who feel morally it’s the right thing to do, but it always comes down to money. If you can get a billion people in China buying tickets to see your film that might have a character in there that’s Asian, if you want to target Africa or all those countries in Africa that have purchasing power too, yeah, you want that money. It’s very profitable.
You are working with Will and Jada’s Overbrook Entertainment. How did that happen?
I was having a talk with my fiancé and we always have these talks about the law and how the law applies to Black folks. So I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting if we could come up with a cartoon series that can teach kids about law.” We came up with this idea of Kim Webster and the Kids' Court, which will be all about a secret court that kids have and Kim, this young Black girl, would be the judge. We teamed up with a friend of ours from college named Chris Jordan who is a phenomenal artist, hilarious -- I always saw him as the Black Seinfeld. We were connected to a producer at Overbrook who liked the project name so they came on board. Their people are shopping it. Just like that, you put out something that you think is fun and it just works.
What is the ultimate goal for you?
To [have] properties for TV, film, television, books, graphic novels and just telling stories on a grander scale. I’ve been telling stories in comic books for the past two decades. I think I’m a really good story teller and I feel like I have so many stories to tell that can have a greater impact and also commercial as well. So just telling stories on a grander scale, plus, I’ve always wanted to direct. I’ve always seen directing as the natural progression of what I do because I because feel like I’m the director of every story that I draw. I’m the casting director, I’m the location scout, I’m the lighting, I’m the cinematographer, and I’m the acting coach. So, for me, directing is the next step that I see in my career, which is to direct films as well as write them, or co-write them.
What are three tips you can give a young person that is trying to get into the comic book industry?
Study, study, and study! I can’t stress that enough. I went to art school. I took painting classes at my local community center and I’m sure these weren’t super expensive. My mom shelled out a couple bucks and I painted every week and then that led me on the path to go to an art high school where I studied. I got my degree in illustration, so it’s the studying. And sure, there might be some people that are born with a God-given talent, but more often than not, you need to study whatever industry you want to get in to and that’s what I tell kids all the time. If you want to draw comics, learn how to draw. Don’t copy comics, take an art class. Draw from life. If you want to get into business, if you want to make a living of this, study the business aspect of how to conduct yourself. How to create a portfolio, how to go on a business meeting, how to be able to sit in a room with people and convince them to either hire you or give you money and all that comes from studying and preparing. So, studying times three!
I’ve spent hours with Shawn, the sun is coming down and he is filled with just as much energy as he was when we first met. We take some photos for his social media, as he stresses, “Like I said, got to promote!” After two decades of hustling, it’s clear Shawn is on his way to major success. Many creative people are taught that having a career in art is just a dream, and you better find some other way to make a living. But Shawn never had a backup plan. He doesn’t have a side hustle or a practical skill tucked away for a rainy day. The only job he has ever had is as a comic book artist. He stuck with his passion and never rested on his laurels, but put in the work to grind on his strengths. “You can make a living as an artist,” Shawn says to me. “I wouldn’t have thought drawing superheroes would get me on BET, but I’m here. This is one of the best times of my life."
(Photo: Eli Meir Kaplan/Wonderful Machine for BET)