In "Thief of Thieves" #7, written by Robert Kirkman and Nick Spencer and drawn by Shawn Martinbrough, the heist might be over, but this final stretch of the story is still taut with suspense. It's like an unfolding cascade of neatly wrapped surprises, or a fast-moving trip in which the destination is unknown and the driver veers into hairpin twists and turns. Kirkman, Spencer and Martinbrough deliver one hell of a ride, and even more impressively, they give it a smooth landing. I can't think of the last time that I read a denouement this satisfying.
The first page is a tour-de-force trick of rapid back-and-forth between two confrontational scenes, one within the FBI and the other in Conrad Paulson's current location. The panel-by-panel conversational overlap widens to a scene-by-scene parallel construction for the entire issue. Kirkman, Spencer and Martinbrough pull off this structural play well, and it enhances and connects the two parallel narratives.
Nick Spencer's dialogue is snappy and crisp, using bolded text, ellipses and dashes to convey comfortable rhythms of speech. In the final scene of the issue, his use of repetition in one character's lines is almost poetically resonant, like closing music. There's a slickness to some of Spencer's back-and-forth conversations that's just a wee bit too smooth, yet it seems intentional -- almost like it's part of the larger-than-life, living legend atmosphere of the title. Spencer and Kirkman don't neglect the other side of the coin, though. Titular antihero Conrad Paulson may be a legend, but he breathes and bleeds. His despair and delight in his chosen work are so palpable in this issue as he reaps both the rewards and the punishments of his designs. He is tormented, both trapped and only truly tree when he uses his talents.
Much of that character development is also courtesy of Shawn Martinbrough, whose pencils continue to be quietly amazing. His style is unfussy, blocky and smooth with darkly inked shadows. He never showboats, always putting the story first. His line is simple but packs a fine, nuanced grasp of facial expression and body language. In one panel, he pans away from a character, showing her looking smaller and isolated, foreshadowing later developments in the issue. The pouty bewilderment on her face is clear as day, yet her entire face is literally only a half-inch large on the page and rendered in a few lines. In another scene, the smirk and the smug, too-relaxed way a character leans back his chair reveals what kind of man he is more eloquently than words could possibly describe.
Martinbrough's handling of subdued emotion is particularly potent, and the impact of Spencer and Kirkman's script depends heavily on his understated skills. Characters are shifted through a kaleidoscope of emotions ranging from glee to stoic resignation, and in the hands of a less talented artist, certain scenes would come off as manipulative or melodramatic.
During most of "Thief of Thieves" #7, Martinbrough's work isn't breathtakingly pretty or ugly, not drawing much attention to itself, merely pulling a staggering amount of weight in storytelling and character definition. Mid-issue, however, Spencer and Kirkman write an entirely silent four pages. In these two scenes, Martinbrough has more of the stage to himself and he busts out a different set of aesthetic chops. In one panel, the balance of shadow and light, lines and rectangles down a hallway, with a perfectly placed man's silhouette, make for a beautiful, almost Art-Deco-ish composition. Colorist Felix Serrano lights this panel in pure shades of clear night blues and purples and makes similarly restrained and appropriate color choices throughout the issue.
Writer James Asmus has big shoes to fill in the next story arc, but I look forward to seeing what he will do, especially since Kirkman and Martinbrough will remain. If "Thief of Thieves" continues to produce this kind of bravura suspense storytelling, it'll be a solid contender for the best new ongoing title of 2012.