An Artist's How-To for Graphic Novels Noir comics are about all things dark and shady; the genre relies heavily on visual story telling. The simple placement of shadows and lines can give away villains or betray a hero's fears. Seasoned illustrator Shawn Martinbrough pulls back the curtain on the "dark art."
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An Artist's How-To for Graphic Novels

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An Artist's How-To for Graphic Novels

An Artist's How-To for Graphic Novels

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From "Sin City" to "A Hundred Bullets," noir comics are about all things dark and shady. The books steer you down dim alleys into a crime boss's seedy lair. Inside, it's shadows and mystery, plus a lot of guns sex and car chases, oh and of course, a brooding detective or tragic superhero.

Now a seasoned illustrator is pulling back the curtain on this dark art. Shawn Martinbrough's new bookis "How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling." How are you doing?

Mr. SHAWN MARTINBROUGH Author ("How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling"): Hi, Farai, I'm doing very well. Thanks for having me.

CHIDEYA: So you know, there's so many different genres of comics - Manga, graphic novels - what exactly is a noir comic?

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: I guess in my - for me, it's more of like my style. I guess it's the way I approach any story. So if I get hired to draw a superhero comic book like, let's say, Batman, or if it's like a regular detective story with people with no powers or no abilities, it's just the way I tend to draw the images, you know, and I kind of give them a dark, shadowy, kind of dramatic look the way I draw it.

CHIDEYA: Give us a sense of the variety of projects that you've worked on.

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: I worked on Batman detective comics. I've done a series called "Angel Town" for Vertigo D.C. I've done Morlocks. It was an X-men spin-off from Marvel. I've done a bunch of different projects here and there, and I've done a lot of illustration work in like the mainstream, you know, arena, like you know, editorial illustration for magazines like Vibe of Black Enterprise.

CHIDEYA: Now comics, Manga, and graphic novels are hot not just as things in themselves but also as movie properties. We mentioned "Sin City." There was a movie that doesn't even seem to have a comic-book link, the 2002 Tom Hanks movie "Road to Perdition," but it is linked to a graphic novel or a series, "Lone Wolf and Cub," you know, "Batman," "Spiderman." Why is this form of art and storytelling getting so much heat, in a good way, from the studios?

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: Because the studios can see - they can make money from it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: I mean, you know…

CHIDEYA: That's a good start.

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: Yeah, I mean the way they work is that they tend to go for established properties, and so the same way they've always adapted novels, they see graphic novels as another medium that they can adapt. So these same stories have been around for, like, generations.

I mean, I've grown up reading comics. I'm 36 years old. And so it's really funny to see the X-men now as like a brand new, hot property, but I'm like -there's decades of stories there that have been around for a while. So they're just really just saying oh, okay, we can make some money off of this.

CHIDEYA: Are you making any moves into doing film work, as well?

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: Yeah, actually I started a production company called Verge Entertainment back in 2000, 2001, with two partners of mine, Joseph Illidge and Milo Stone, and it really is just another extension of my telling a story. You know, I mean, as a comic-book artist, I tell a story from panel to panel, and so segueing into film just seemed so organic, you know, so you know, so you see - you tell a story with panels, and then you tell a film with frames, and so basically just sort of translating that storytelling from, you know, two-dimensional art board to three-dimensional actors is just - it's just such a thrill to do.

CHIDEYA: Now when you decided to write a book about technique and a book that was - I mean, you know, on a personal level, my grandfather used to draw comics, you know, just for the family. It was one of the things he loved, and he had all these technique books around. But you know, who do you think your audience really is? Who's going to pick up a book about how to draw comics, and who do you think the people are that are taking this to heart?

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: You know it's interesting because I always thought that it would primarily be people that want - people that are already comic-book artists that maybe wanted to try a different style or have gravitated to this more dramatic type of style.

But I've gotten people who had read my book that said you know what, I've had a passing interest in art, but just the way you explain your technique and the way you approach it, they find it fascinating.

And also, I get this all the time from people that have kids or younger family members that are into art, that are into comics but just need a little direction or some tips on how to get into the industry and how to survive the industry or just how to just, you know, hone their talent to survive in it. You know, that to me is very gratifying to see people saying wow, you know what? I bought this for a family member, but I'm getting a lot of stuff out of it myself.

CHIDEYA: If you have to think about where comics are going in the future, there's been a whole slew of books talking about how comics faired during the sort of Cold War era and were seen as unpatriotic in some ways and arguably dumbed-down a little bit. Now you're seeing a lot more adult-themed comics and graphic novels. Do you think that that trend's going to continue?

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: Well again with the - I think comic books have always gotten sort of a bum rap as being dumbed down. You know, if you - I think there have always been quality stories that adults - like my dad used to read all of my comic books back in the '80s. I mean, he would like read all of my X-men. He would, you know, be into all these different types of comics that were really well-written.

I mean, you know, these are adults writing comics, so it's not like you've got like a five-year-old writing, like, a comic book. So I think the sophistication has always been there, and so of course you're going to have some books that tend to be more about, you know, fighting and action, but there are other - so many more that have, that are dealing with real characters, real character arcs, real themes, you know, especially a lot of socially relevant themes.

So I think they've always been - it's always been there. Now that the spotlight is really focusing on the industry, people are saying oh wait a minute, this isn't all about men in tights.

CHIDEYA: All right, well Shawn on that note, I guess that we'll have to go out and find our men in tights here in Los Angeles.

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: And women, and women.

CHIDEYA: And women in tights. Thanks a lot, Shawn.

Mr. MARTINBROUGH: Thank you so much.

CHIDEYA: Shawn Martinbrough's new book is "How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling." He joined me from our NPR studios in Washington, D.C.

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