Heist stories are among the hardest to pull off well. Not only do you have to plan a robbery that seems just complicated enough to work while still keeping the audience from getting lost, but you also have to create a solid cast of characters performing said heist that readers actually care about.
In the minds of many readers, Robert Kirkman has done exactly that with "Thief of Thieves," the story of criminal mastermind Redmond who wants to turn his life around. But Kirkman decided to switch things up when it came to writing the Skybound/Image Comics series as well, with "The Walking Dead" and "Invincible" creator enacting a writer's room approach where various writers take point on individual arcs while working on the larger narrative with Kirkman. "Morning Glories" writer Nick Spencer handled the first eight issues, then "End Times of Bram and Ben" writer James Asmus joined in on the fun with #9-13. As Kirkman announced at New York Comic Con, upcoming "Action Comics" writer Andy Diggle will handle the book's third arc which kicks off with April's #14. As they have since the book began, artist Shawn Martinbrough and colorist Felix Serrano will continue holding down the artistic side of Redmond's world.
With his initial arc on the horizon and Kirkman's claims that Diggle's heist is the most complicated yet, Comic Book Resources seized the opportunity to speak with Diggle about writing Redmond, coming up with an extravagant plot after using so many on "The Losers" and getting on board with Kirkman's wild bunch.
CBR News: How did Robert Kirkman first approach you about working on this project and what was your initial reaction?
Andy Diggle: Me and a few other creators met up with Image publisher Eric Stephenson when he was in London last year. We ended up in a tiny East End pub, and while I was chatting with Eric about crime books, right out of the blue he asked if I'd be interested in writing an arc of "Thief of Thieves." It almost seemed too good to be true. Robert Kirkman followed it up by e-mail and it all came together very easily.
Nick Spencer was out with us that night too, so I asked him about his experiences on the book and he gave it an enthusiastic thumbs up. I think Robert had me in mind based on the kind of work I'd done on books like "The Losers" and "Rat Catcher." He needed a complex heist caper, which is the kind of thing I love to write.
What was your experience like in the "Thief of Thieves" writer's room with Robert, Nick and James? Had you ever worked on comics like that before?
It's more of a "virtual" writers room, as we're on opposite sides of the Atlantic! It's all done via e-mail. But it's all been very straightforward. Robert sent me his initial series outline, plus Nick and James' scripts. All we knew about the third arc was that the entire first year's worth of stories had been building up to this one huge heist that Redmond had tried, and failed, to walk away from. It was all catching up with him, he couldn't get out from under, and he was going to have to execute this audacious heist after all.
As for exactly what the heist was, why it took three years of planning and a million dollar bankroll, none of that was known yet. So I figured it out, presented it to Robert, and he basically said, "Great! Do that."
I started writing issue #14 before James Asmus had finished #13, so I wrote a "placeholder" draft and we just e-mailed back and forth to smooth over the join. It's all been very collegiate and we've synced up pretty seamlessly.
What intrigued you most about the characters of Redmond/Conrad, Augustus and the rest?
I hope Robert, Nick and James don't take this the wrong way, but I kind of like the fact that Redmond/Conrad is kind of an asshole. At first glance he seems to fit the Danny Ocean archetype: cool, handsome, charismatic, super-competent. But once you scratch away at that surface, you can see he's kind of a fuck-up. He's destroyed his own marriage, alienated his son, pissed off everyone he's ever worked with. All of his problems are of his own making. He's selfish, self-destructive, and has a drink problem. Even though he thinks he's trying to do the best thing for his family, his ego drives him to secretly interfere in their lives, and as often as not, it only makes matters worse.
He's spent years digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole, and now he finds that he can't just walk away and start over. He's going to have to dig his way back out. And I'm not sure he has the self-awareness to understand that he is his own problem. His ego is such that he thinks he can fix everything by just making the right moves. He can see all the angles except himself. I think that's fascinating.
You've worked on original creator-owned books as well as corporate ones. Is there a different energy with something like "Thief?"
"Thief" occupies a middle ground, as I'm basically doing work-for-hire on characters created and owned by Robert. But because it's his baby, it feels much more personal. It's a passion project. We all just want to tell the best story we can, and we're all pulling in the same direction. I'm pleased to say it's all been blissfully free of ego and arguments so far. The best idea wins.
Man, I've probably just jinxed it by saying that, haven't I...?
At New York Comic Con, Kirkman said your upcoming heist was the most complicated. What can you tell us about it?
It's the big heist the series has been building up to for a year; the Venice job that Redmond tried to walk away from in the very first issue. So I need to deliver! I guess I have some kind of track record with carefully-plotted capers in "The Losers," and even with sci-fi books like "Adam Strange: Planet Heist," so I guess that's why Robert had me in mind for this arc.
Robert's genius is to take a genre that's usually defined by a very rigid, finite story structure -- like, say, zombie movies, which are traditionally siege movies -- and open it up into a long-form narrative. It worked like a charm on "The Walking Dead," and now we're doing the same thing for the heist caper.
Heist movies are usually very plot-driven, very rigid in their plot mechanics, like a Swiss watch. Set-up, recruitment, planning, execution, complication, resolution. At the end of the movie, they've either got the MacGuffin or they don't; but either way, the story is over.
What we're doing in "Thief of Thieves" is opening up that rigid structure into something more long-form and character driven. Who are these people, why are they doing this, and what will be the repercussions on their relationships? I often described "The Losers" as "an ongoing series of capers" and that's kind of what we're doing here -- but with fewer exploding helicopters.
You used a lot of heist-like ideas while working on "The Losers." Was it difficult coming up with a new one for "Thief?" Did you bring the big idea to the table when you came in or was it worked out a bit "in the room?"
It's not like I came to it cold. Robert, Nick and James had already provided me with this wonderful grab-bag of characters, relationships, and set-ups, so I could pick and choose what I wanted to use.
That said, some of it was already set in stone in the very first issue. We know that Redmond spent three years planning the job, and that Arno had put up a million dollars to bankroll it. So the questions I had to answer were, why Venice? What are they stealing? Who from? Why do they need this particular crew? It's been fun answering those questions. I'm pretty pleased with what I've come up with.
Has it been difficult keeping track of all the moving parts and machinations of the story? Do you keep track of everything in a document, draw out a map or just keep it all in your head?
I love working on this kind of tightly-plotted story, full of twists and turns and revelations. One thing that really helped was to iron out all of the flashback sequences into chronological order. My wife Angela helped me build an Excel spreadsheet showing the timelines for each of the major characters, going right back to before Augustus was born. It helped me get my head around the history and gave me a solid foundation to build on. But yeah, "Thief of Thieves" is a big machine with a lot of moving parts. If you're not careful, you could lose an arm.
You worked with Shawn Martinbrough on a two-part arc of "The Losers." What was it like working with him again? Has your working relationship changed since that experience?
Shawn's a delight to work with, a rock solid professional. He did a great job on "The Losers," but it was only a couple of issues and we never had much in the way of correspondence at the time. Fortunately, I got to meet him at NYCC and he's an absolute gent.
It's great being able to work with an artist you can trust 100%. I'm keeping the panel descriptions to a minimum because Shawn knows these characters and this world better than I do. He's the guy who's been bringing it all to life on the page for the past year. There's no way I'm going to try and second guess Shawn. I just get out of the way and let him do his thing.
"Thief of Thieves" does a great job of keeping a consistent voice even with a group of writers working on the book; is that a difficult task?
In a way it's actually easier this way. Characters who have been around for decades have been written by dozens or even hundreds of different writers, each of whom has brought their own voice to it, so it might be hard to pick one voice that's "right" for that character. With "Thief of Thieves," Nick and James have established a very specific tone and style for the dialogue -- one which happens to gel very well with my own -- so I feel very comfortable stepping into that world. I already know how these characters talk and interact. So finding their voices comes very easily to me. It's been a genuine pleasure.
"Thief of Thieves" #14, Andy Diggle's first issue co-written by Robert Kirkman with art by Shawn Martinbrough and Felix Serrano, debuts April 3.