Image’s Thief of Thieves series has already lived up to its name in its title character Conrad “Redmond” Paulson. Literally Redmond is a former master thief (a “Thief of Thieves” in itself) who now only steals from other criminals, like the “Dexter” of the thieving underworld. The series, created by The Walking Dead Marvel Zombies scribe Robert Kirkman, was the launching pad for Kirkman’s Image imprint Skybound Entertainment and the home for a rotating lineup of Kirkman chosen writers to work with regular artist Shawn Martinbrough. The one common theme is that, while not without his ordeals, Redmond proves over and over to be such a master thief that Thomas Crown himself may bite his nails in jealousy.
That trend may be changing with issue #14, as scripted by Andy Diggle (from a story by Diggle, Kirkman and James Asmus). On the very first story page the words “Old thieves never die. They just get taken.” serve as the subtitle and, indeed, we immediately see Redmond tied to a chair in an empty warehouse alongside his adult son (and partner in crime) Augustus. Surrounded by dead henchmen and puddles of blood. Yes, if the colorful language doesn’t firmly secure this issue in the “Mature” category, the blood and gore surely will.
As the story progresses, the stakes get even higher, involving not just Redmond himself, but his estranged wife Audrey in this international drug plot, with Augustus held as a bargaining chip. Regular readers of the series will recognize that Redmond is uniquely qualified for the job of stealing from a rival crime family, but Diggle’s script makes it clear that this is no ordinary job for the master thief and that the stakes, to date, have not been higher.
Diggle also adds depth to the storytelling by rolling back in time to further detail the complex relationship between Augustus and his father Conrad and to expose the hidden building blocks that led to the duo’s imprisonment in a dark, bloody warehouse by the mob. The problem is that this is the majority of the depth that we are offered here and while Thief of Thieves #14 does set up one hell of a compelling storyarc, it takes all twenty pages to set up what could have been established in five or ten.
This, of course, makes sense from a sales standpoint. A compelling introduction necessitates purchases of at least the next several episodes. Further, there is a lot to be said for “paced” storytelling. However, for all Diggle’s talent, Thief of Thieves #14 feels a bit less “paced” than “slight” and “slow”.
On the other hand, there is another metaphor for such things: “taking the scenic route” and looking at Martinbrough’s art, that may well be exactly what Skybound is doing with this issue and beyond.
From the cover itself (by Martinbrough with colorist Felix Serrano) with its striking Redmond over Skull image and its Hitchcockian title design, the artwork is dark, noir-infused, shadowy and coldly realistic. Martinbrough’s strong inks over his own pencils combine beautifully with Serrano’s colors, rich in shadows, blacks and blues with virtually no bright colors (even in the daytime scenes) save for the deep red of blood and the gang boss’ shirt. At times the blood even invades the negative spaces as if to imply that even in the darkest places within the Thief of Thieves’ universe, things can still get even bloodier.
The entire artistic motif combines into the microcosm of the “Dia de los Muertos” masked mob henchmen. While initially business-suited dark-drenched skull-faced monstrosities, the light reveals them to be brightly-painted, ornate and festive masks of white, red and green. This dichotomy starts with the writing itself, allowing for these towering fright-faced minions to take the page, but only works so well because the artists pull these grim visaged figures out of the dark and into the light, playing with the beautiful colors and the theme of death in a far too literal and far too dark setting.
Tellingly, the few well-lit scenes are not only enhanced by but are, in fact, dominated by the shadows that cascade across every significant subject in each frame. The more light Martinbrough introduces, the more shadows pull the eye through the story. In the midst of a shocking revelation, half of Audrey’s face is darkened by shadow. As Redmond attempts to face a smile, shadows draw the eye away from his bright visage into the dark, When things seem, momentarily to get brighter, a figure blocks the light and becomes a silhouette. Even something as simple as a vase of flowers casts a dark shadow in the room as the grim criminal affairs of the saga are discussed in hushed tones. Even Audrey’s striking beauty, when not obscured by shadow is brought to cold reality by her welling tears and shocked expressions. And just as her composure takes back over, so do the shadows, cutting each figure in half and reminding the reader of the noir, with or without facial expressions to enhance this tale. Martinbrough is a genius with light and shadow, just as he is with the pathos of his characters.
Redmond has proven to truly be the embodiment of the Thief of Thieves, fully living up to that name. All the while Martinbrough seems to be living up to the name of Image itself. Thief of Thieves is one of the more beautifully drawn and colored books Image has to offer in its current lineup. On the bright side, Kirkman, Asmus and Diggle have an excellent setup for a compelling new story arc to introduce us to, possibly equal to the art that tells this story. On the more shadowy side, they’re taking their sweet time to tell this tale and stretching it out over as many issues as they can. To be fair, however, with Shawn Martinbrough and Felix Serrano on the title, even the slow pace proves to be the scenic route.