SIXTEEN YEARS ago, while he was the artist on DC Comics’ Batman title Detective Comics, Shawn Martinbrough had an epiphany.
It had been nearly a decade since he’d made his professional debut as a comic-book illustrator, and here Martinbrough was, getting to draw one of the most popular comic characters of all time.
Many artists would take the position of drawing such a title and say they had made it. But Martinbrough didn’t look at it that way. In his view, he had nothing.
“This is great,” he told himself. “I’m this black kid from the Bronx, I’m drawing Batman. I’m creating characters. I’m creating new sections of Gotham City, but at the end of the day, I don’t own this,” said Martinbrough, who has lived in the Northern Virginia suburbs for the past 20 years. “What is important [is] to have ownership in characters. Because if they adapt something that I’ve created for the Batman universe for a television show or a film, I might see a royalty check, but I won’t see my name on the credits.”
Those feelings motivated Martinbrough to create his own company with two pals: Joseph Illidge, a former Batman editor who is also known for his column “The Mission” at Comic Book Resources, and childhood friend Milo Stone, who works as a graphic designer. The trio formed Verge Entertainment, a company that Martinbrough says allows him and his business partners to create a library of intellectual properties for television, animation and film — and then to shop those creations around the entertainment industry.
One property Verge is shopping around is Kim Webster, a cartoon created by the Verge partners — as well as artist Christopher Jordan (art director at the Gap) and lawyer Ayanna Ross (Martinbrough’s fiancee) — that aspires to teach young children about the law in a fun way. Kim Webster runs a secret courtroom in her treehouse and helps friends settle disputes while teaching them about the legal system. (Verge Entertainment is partnered with Overbrook, the production company of Will and Jada Pinkett Smith.)
Developing projects for Verge keeps Martinbrough busy, but he remains a dedicated artist in the comic-book industry. For the past five years, he has been the regular artist on the Image Comics/Skybound title Thief of Thieves, a series created by Robert Kirkman (“The Walking Dead”). Kirkman recruited Martinbrough to be the artist on Thief of Thieves, and Martinbrough has been the series’ only artist during its run of 31 issues and counting. A new arc of Thief of Thieves begins in June.
Martinbrough, 44, claims to have a few gray hairs to prove his age, but he gives off a youthful exuberance when talking about what he’s learned in his quarter-century in the comic book industry — and how he applies it to his business now. Part of the pride that Martibrough takes in being an artist at Image Comics, for instance, is that the original founders of Image proved that an artist could stay working without needing to draw a paycheck from drawing mainstream superheroes.
“It wasn’t so much about the quality of the work they were putting out, it was that they basically told the majors — Marvel and DC — that it’s not just your characters that are selling your books. It’s the artist,” Martinbrough said.
Image “made a real business move that you don’t see a lot of in comics, and you hadn’t seen in comics up until that point,” he continued. “And they showed that they can create their own comics, separate and independent, [and] it can make money and be successful.”
That business model of independent success has stayed with Martinbrough. “As a freelance artist, you always have to set projects up to keep yourself busy. Since Thief of Thieves is an ongoing series, this is pretty much my main commitment, but I’ll try to squeeze work on the side,” he said.
In 2007, Martinbrough published a book called “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling.” Martinbrough has frequently visited schools across the country, talking to students about his craft and using that book as a guide to inspire young artists. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore is currently showcasing Martinbrough’s original artwork from his time drawing a Luke Cage Noir series.
Another side project of his was designing some billboards and interior artwork for a new set of condos in the SoHo area of Manhattan, by the real estate/architectural company DDG. Martinbrough even illustrated a small comic book for potential buyers at the property — a fun tale of a superhero couple who, when not saving the day, enjoy living in the condos.
“To see your work on a billboard is really trippy,” Martinbrough said of the side project, which he views as a way to expose his artwork to people who may not necessarily be fans of the comic book medium, yet who could become potential customers if they want original art of their own.
Martinbrough still gets calls to draw for DC and Marvel — where he co-created the Angel Dust character who appeared in the hit “Deadpool” movie, with Geoff Johns. But, he said, “To me, it’s a matter of scheduling. My first commitment is Thief of Thieves.”
Social media is giving a voice to cries for diversity in comics — both in terms of the characters that appear in the panels of comic book pages and the creative minds behind them. And it’s an issue Martinbrough makes sure to address. His artwork reflects the diverse world he grew up in while in New York.
For instance, he knew Thief of Thieves would be multicultural. The lead character is a master thief named Conrad Paulson. Paulson’s main adversary is an FBI agent named Elizabeth Cohen, who has been on this trail since the series began. “When Kirkman gave me the description for Cohen, he really didn’t describe her at all other than her motivation. And I said, ‘OK, let me kind of mix things up,’ ” Martinbrough said. “If no colors are specified, I’m going to put a person of color in there, and if all the main character are spoken for and they’re all white, I’ll put someone of color in the background or in the foreground. So when I was designing the character of Elizabeth Cohen, I said, ‘Let me make her black.’ And I did a design, sent it to Kirkman and he said: ‘Cool, Elizabeth Cohen is black now? Cool!’ — just like that.”
Martinbrough said that he’s been in the comic book industry long enough to see even the most popular artists come upon hard times, which is why he’s always focused on the business side of things, in addition to drawing pages.
“It’s great to raise your profile working on a project for Marvel or DC or Dark Horse [Comics], Martinbrough said. “But to have ownership in your own stuff is a sense of security that I think all artist should aspire to.”