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Shawn Martinbrough Talks His New ‘Great Fire’ Illustrations in ‘Vanity Fair’
September 17, 2020 by Emma Drew
Artist and SVA alumnus Shawn Martinbrough and one of his illustrations, showing an eagle breaking through the blue silhouette of a police officer..

Artist Shawn Martinbrough (BFA 1993 Illustration); Martinbrough’s illustration for the September 2020 Vanity Fair article “Abolition’s Promise.”

Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan/Vanity Fair

This month, celebrated alumnus Shawn Martinbrough (BFA 1993 Illustration) joins an illustrious lineup of writers, artists, and activists in the September issue of Vanity Fair. Entitled “The Great Fire,” this special edition of the magazine focused entirely on addressing the roots and realities of systemic anti-Black racism in the United States. Spurred by the ongoing protests initiated earlier this year by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but encompassing a broader view of the struggles against white supremacy, the issue was guest-edited by award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me). It also features contributions from renowned Black artists and activists such as Angela Davis, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Deanna Lawson, Ava DuVernay, and Jesmyn Ward, among others.


“Of course I said yes,” Martinbrough says about being invited to join the project. His work accompanies two essays in the magazine: “Blue Bloods: America’s Brotherhood of Police Officers,” by sociologist and poet Eve Ewing, and “The Abolition Movement,” by legal scholar and journalist Josie Duffy Rice, both focusing on policing in America. Rice writes about the abolition movement and what rethinking justice might mean, while Ewing takes on the insularity and outsized power of police unions.

Martinbrough’s signature style defines his illustrations for both pieces—bold lines, dynamic action, moody tones, all hallmarks of his longstanding comics work. As Martinbrough notes, Coates, it turns out, was a fan of his “noir style” dating back to his Luke Cage Noir series for Marvel Comics. “He felt my approach to storytelling would complement the bold honesty of these pieces on police reform and the unions,” Martinbrough says. (Coates himself has written both a Black Panther and a Captain America series for Marvel.)

An illustration featuring three silhouetted police officers, whose bodies are linked by a network of veins extending from a police badge.

SVA alumnus Shawn Martinbrough's illustration for the September 2020 Vanity Fair article "Blue Bloods: America's Brotherhood of Police Officers."

Credit: Shawn Martinbrough/Vanity Fair

Martinbrough has a distinctive presence in comics—a penchant for noir’s low-key lighting, stark contrast and dramatic shadows, as well as a commitment to bringing diversity to the page—honed throughout his 26-year career. He’s known for his work on the series Hellboy and Thief of Thieves, has created some of the moodier renditions of classic characters like Captain America and Black Panther, and was the first Black artist to draw a regular monthly Batman title for DC Comics. Thinking about the connection between his usual work and the “Great Fire” illustrations, he notes that “the common themes found in comics and entertainment, in general, are ‘right vs. wrong’ and ‘law and order.’ What makes an effective and interesting depiction of these tropes are the gray areas artists and writers highlight.”


For the Vanity Fair project, Martinbrough worked closely with the editorial team to realize the final images, both of which employ the silhouette of a police officer in profile and a similar blue-hued color scheme. The bald eagle motif used for Rice’s essay references an earlier draft of the text, as well as the idea of freedom that the bird symbolizes in American culture. The challenge for Ewing’s piece was distilling several ideas down to one clear visual—in this case, an entrenched network of brotherhood above the law. For both, Martinbrough turned to fellow comics artist Chris Sotomayor, who also studied at SVA, to work on the colors.


“Usually, only after a project is completed, does it fully hit me what cultural, societal and personal impact this art may convey to the world,” Martinbrough says. “It’s an honor to be included amongst so many incredibly gifted voices in this issue. Hopefully, it will provoke thoughtful discussion and artists′ inspiration for change.”