Comics: Drawing 'Noir' and New York Comic Con

Illustrator Shawn Martinbrough discusses 'noir' comics, his unique visual style of bleak urban settings populated by gangsters, superheroes and other creatures of the underworld. Video by Shawn Martinbrough/Verge Entertainment
Shawn Martinbrough
Illustrator and Author, 'How to Draw Noir Comics'
Friday, April 18, 2008; 12:00 PM

From New York Comic Con, one of the biggest pop culture conventions that plays host to the latest in comics, graphic novels, anime, video games, toys, movies, and television, illustrator and director Shawn Martinbrough was online Friday, April 18, at Noon ET to discuss the convention plus the art of drawing 'noir' comics, his unique visual style of depicting bleak urban settings populated by gangsters, superheroes and other creatures of the underworld, featured in his book, How to Draw Noir Comics.

A transcript follows.

Martinbrough has illustrated Batman, Superman and X-Men characters for DC Comics, Vertigo and Marvel Comics. His client list includes LucasArts, Bad Boy Entertainment, Playboy and Penguin Books. His media company, Verge Entertainment produces and develops projects for television and film. Martinbrough lives in Washington, D.C.

Arts & Living: Comics


Shawn Martinbrough: Hi, Shawn Martinbrough here. I'm at the New York comic convention at the Javitz center. I look forward to you questions about Noir comics and what's going on at the convention.


Houghton, Mich.: Good Afternoon Shawn,

Do you have any techniques or "tricks" you've learned to cue your readers' imaginations to create the atmospherics that in film would be provided by a soundtrack? Otherwise stated -- how do you compensate visually for the lack of music, audible dialog, etc?

Shawn Martinbrough: Hey, I love using music as inspiration for my art, especially film soundtracks. Some of my favorite composers are Hans Zimmer, John Williams, Harry Gregson Williams to name a few.

So even though I can't physically incorporate the sounds into the 2 dimensional art, it definitely plays a part!


Honolulu, Hawaii: I'm a writer working on a story that I would like to turn into a graphic novel. What's a good way to find an artist or production company to begin moving in that direction?

Shawn Martinbrough: It's tricky because you have a lot of company and competition out there. First, make sure you have a great script. If you have a favorite artist, google him or her and approach them. It helps A LOT to have a budget. Artist's get approached all the time to do work for free and it can be frustrating!


Durham, N.C.: How do you think your previous relationships with members of the "Dreaming City" of comic distribution has impacted your work? I recall you being able to get in touch and actually live portions of your later illustrations during that time. Do you think it was a benefit in the long run for you as an artist?


Shawn Martinbrough: Dreaming City comics was a great independent company to work for! A number of talented writers and artists contributed stories to their books. I would work with them again in a heartbeat!


Harrisburg, Pa.: What did you start drawing? Did you do comics for your high school newspaper? How much art study did you have?

Shawn Martinbrough: I started drawing in elementary school then my parents took notice and enrolled me in a painting course at a community center in my neighborhood. I attended Fiorello Laguardia Music and Art high school in Manhattan as an art major then got my degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts.


Arlington, Va.: Is it me, or do comics seem to have gained more respectability lately? I ask this because I see more and more "grown ups" (i.e. over 30 and wearing suits) stopping by the comic book shop in Union Station...

Shawn Martinbrough: I think the mainstream "respectability" comes from the billions of dollars generated at the box office and worldwide merchandising. As a long time fan, I've always respected comic books as a visual and written art form! It's interesting because graphic novels are respected around the world EXCEPT here in the US!


Fairfax, Va.: Do the comic book companies you've done work for tell you what they want characters to look like or are you left on your own? I imagine you have to have a similar look, right, so that they'd fit in with the overall look of whichever comic you were illustrating.

Shawn Martinbrough: It depends. Sometimes you get a script for an established character like BATMAN and as an artist, you have very little room to embellish. Other times you are given a lot of room to visually create the look of a brand new character. It depends on the writer and how much they have visualized the character in their own mind. They usually send notes with their script.


Chicago, Ill.: In the video I noticed that after you draw something black you go over it in white and refine it. It looks really neat. Then are photos taken of the original art work by the comics? How does all of that work?

Shawn Martinbrough: Thanks! Today in the comics industry EVERYTHING is scanned in and processed in the computer. I'm old school so I still draw all my artwork out by hand then I scan the "art boards" into my computer, make tweaks then upload it to the server of which ever company I'm working for. Imagine hundreds of artists around the world transfering files to companies like Marvel and DC. I even upload all the artwork for my art book to the publisher's server! It's all digital.


Annapolis, Md.: What will you be doing at the convention? How many people are there, what's going on?

Shawn Martinbrough: I'm here promoting my art book and an 80 page Graphic Novel I illustrated called "Ayre Force". It's the first GN for the media company BODOG. Pretty exciting.


Washington, D.C.: Who are your favorite artists and have any of them inspired you?

Shawn Martinbrough: There are so many but to name a few, Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Eduardo Risso, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Michael Golden...I still look at their work today!


Washington, D.C.: Who do you deal with at the comics companies? The main creative director who must also be an artist?

Shawn Martinbrough: All companies have a staff of editors. Their job is to hire writers and artists and traffic all of the scripts and artwork to create the final comic. Imagine an editor keeping track of the writer, the penciller, the inker, the letterer and the colorist and making sure EVERYONE is on time. Now multiply that by 10! Editors are very busy people!


Washington, D.C.: Shawn,

What does "noir" mean today? Are we too far away from those '40s-era movies or is there room for a rebirth of this cool style?

Thanks for taking questions!

Shawn Martinbrough: To keep my answer short, I would say "Noir" means visually stylish and dramatic. Not sure about a "rebirth" because people still invoke the style in different films and television shows, music videos, etc...

The Sopranos is very Noir!


McLean, Va.: Have you ever worked in movie animation? Does that appeal to you? It seems like that area of entertainment/visual arts is really expanding.

Shawn Martinbrough: I have not worked in traditional animation although i am a huge fan. My company produced to animted webisobes to accompany my current graphic novel project "Ayre Force" for the media company BODOG. I created the storyboards and we hired another artist to draw the "frames". There just wasn't time for me to do it all but it turned out really well!


Shirlington, Va.: Your noir work and that of others that I've seen seems real retro and yet it's the current style of some comics. To what do you attribute the long life of this kind of drawing?

Shawn Martinbrough: In addition to other comic artists, I draw tons of inspiration from classical art styles. As you know, EVERYTHING is cyclical , so old becomes new again. Many "new" artist "borrow" techniques from the old guys! So this kind of drawing is always present. It might be buried a little deeper!


Baltimore, Md.: Who should purchase your book, beginners, experienced artists, etc.?

Shawn Martinbrough: I've received praise from all the groups you mentioned. Since I don't teach people how to actually draw in this book, it might not be for beginners. However, I do give a lot of insight into the nature of the comic industry and how to approach it as a freelance artist. These are things that can be helpful to a variety of people. I've received praise from writers who have purchased my book.


Washington, D.C.: What interests you there at Comic Con? Are there booths set up? What's the layout and what goes on?

Shawn Martinbrough: Since I came straight to my publishers booth, I haven't had a chance to walk around and check everything out. But from what I can see around me, there are tons of booths promoting everything from upcoming television shows, summer blockbuster films, comic book companies, art books, trading cards, memoribillia, etc! Plus I've already seen a number of people in costumes and it's still early!


Alexandria, Va.: What comics do you read? Specifically do you read anything or can you recommend anything outside the mainstream of DC/Marvel/Image or Dark Horse?

Shawn Martinbrough: I don't get a lot time to read comics these days but when I get the chance, I love 100 Bullets which is published by Vertigo/DC Comics. I recommend picking up the trade paperbacks. REALLY great reading and fantastic art!


Shawn Martinbrough: Okay eveyone, thanks for the questions about Noir artwork and the comics industry! Not it's time for me to walk the convention floor! Be sure to check my art book "How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling"!


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