Image Watch: Staying One Step Ahead Of Thief Of Thieves With Andy Diggle

By David Dissanayake

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I love heist stories.  Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job, The Last Days of American Crime, Snatch, The Losers, Johnny Double – the list goes on and on.  I just can't get enough of them.

With that said, I think Thief of Thieves is easily the best heist comic on the stands.

Andy Diggle recently took over writing duties for the Robert Kirkman created and Shawn Martinbrough illustrated series, and there couldn't be a more perfectly suited writer out there for a book like this.  Diggle's The Losers was one of the best Vertigo series of the 00's (not to mention his PHENOMENAL run on Hellblazer), and having him on a book like this is a beautiful thing.

If you haven't been reading Thief of Thieves, the story follows retired master thief Redmond, as he's forced out of retirement to pull heist after heist in order to help his son out of deep trouble with both the Feds and the Mexican Cartel.  The heists that he pulls are ridiculously intricate, exhilarating and never quite what they seem, as Redmond keeps himself one step ahead of everybody, even the people he's forced to work for.

I talked with Andy Diggle about taking over the book and all other things Thief of Thieves:

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DD: How did you first come to be involved in the book? Had you been following the book before you were approached to be a co-writer?

AD: Thief of Thieves was one of the few titles I was still reading monthly when they invited me to join the team. I'd just been to dinner with Image publisher Eric Stephenson and a few London-based creators, including Nick Spencer, who was already writing the first arc. I mentioned to Eric how much I'd love to write more crime stories like Snapshot, and out of the blue he asked if I'd be interested in writing the third arc of Thief. It sounded too good to be true, but it really was as simple as that. We followed up by email, Robert Kirkman liked my take, and things came together very quickly.

DD: So you've taken over solo writing duties for the series now, but I'm curious, what was it like working in a more writers room approach with Robert Kirkman and James Asmus? What was the working style like?

AD: Robert Kirkman's series bible included rough outlines for the first two arcs, but there wasn't any detail on what would happen in the third arc – where I came in – beyond the fact that Conrad would be forced into pulling the fabled "Venice heist".

Conrad Paulson – aka Redmond, aka the world's greatest thief – had spent three years and a million dollars setting up the Venice heist, and then in the first issue, he quit. He spent the next two story arcs trying to squirm out of having to do it. My job was to pull together the various characters, plot lines and loose ends that had been set up in the first 13 issues, and tie them all together into this complex heist caper in Venice. Plus of course I made things harder on myself by adding a whole new bunch of villains. It was a lot of plates to keep spinning.

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So I put this all together in a seven-page, six-issue outline, complete with flashbacks. Robert basically said, "It's great. Do that." So there wasn't really a huge amount of "writers room" back-and-forth for the arc overall. The main area of story collaboration was in the transition between arcs. I started scripting the third arc before James Asmus had finished the second, so I put in some "placeholder" scenes that could be rewritten once we knew how his final issues played out.

We knew this major-league South American villain was going to appear at the end of the second arc, but we didn't really know who this guy was yet. It was Robert who came up with the psychopathic Lola and his grisly "trophy" key-ring made from a human eyelid. Robert gave us the character and his ugly backstory, and we incorporated him into our scripts. James and I knocked scenes back-and-forth a few times as we smoothed over the join between our arcs – the transition falls literally within the middle of a scene, with Conrad and his son at Lola's mercy. It was all very collegiate. James was an absolute pleasure to work with. And once that was done, I just got on with writing the rest of the Venice story. Robert keeps a very light hand on the tiller. I don't think anyone has asked for rewrites since that first transitional scene. Not that I mind a bit of rewriting if it makes the script better. A good story editor's worth his weight in gold.

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DD: Now that you're writing the series solo, how has your approach to the book changed? 

AD: I don't think my approach to the writing process has changed. I pitch an outline, Robert and editor Sean Mackiewicz approve it, I script it, and Shawn Martinbrough makes us look like we knew what we were doing all along.

In terms of approaching the story, I don't want to repeat myself from one arc to the next. So where the Venice arc had dozens of characters and twisty-turny caper plotting, I've tried to keep the fourth arc more centered and character-driven. It's also much darker, bloodier. If arc three was a party, arc four is the hangover. I haven't started writing the fifth arc yet but I already have a sense of how I'd like it to play out – much lighter in tone and with only a handful of characters, most of them female.

DD: Do you and Kirkman still bounce ideas off of each other or do you now have a bit more freedom to go where you like with the story and the characters? 

AD: I've had a huge amount of freedom from the outset, which is both liberating and a little scary. With great power comes great potential to screw up. I think that's how the saying goes.

But yeah, of course I'm always happy for Robert to throw ideas in there. It's his book. It's all fuel for the furnace. His suggestion for the fourth arc was just a couple of sentences but it gave me everything I needed to know exactly what I wanted to write.

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DD: Thief of Thieves is a really cool long-form heist story that doesn't really have too many peers in modern comics in the sense that it is ongoing and most other heist stories are by nature finite. What is it about Thief Of Thieves that you think has given it more longevity? 

AD: Heist capers by their very nature tend to be short-form, self-contained stories. They're very structural. Set-up, planning, execution, resolution. When I first pitched The Losers to Vertigo, it was as a self-contained heist story. So when they asked me to make it an ongoing series instead of a mini, I had to ask myself, "How do you make an *ongoing* heist story?" I realized it had to be an ongoing series of separate capers, linked by the over-arching story of the hunt for Max, the series villain. Max was effectively the macguffin.

Thief of Thieves is also an "ongoing series of capers", but it's not about the hunt for a macguffin. It's driven instead by Conrad's hunt for personal freedom – to get out of this life of crime and get back with his family, while everyone around him is trying to pull him back in. It's about a man trying to run away from the thing he's best at; the thing that defines him. Trying to run away from himself, in effect, which is impossible, but maybe he lacks the self-awareness to see it. As a wise man once said (okay, it was Buckaroo Banzai), "Wherever you go, there you are."

So while each narrative arc has its own structure and objectives, it all adds up into one big over-arching story. The fact that it's driven internally rather than externally makes it a dramatically stronger premise than your typical caper, I think.

DD: What's it like working with Shawn? He's been involved with so many writers on this project, he's kept the story telling remarkably consistent. Do you give him detailed full scripts with panel-by-panel descriptions or does he take the story and break it down himself? 

AD: Every comic I've ever written has been full script. That's what they pay me for. But Robert laid down such a solid foundation with the series premise, Nick Spencer and James Asmus gave it such a strong voice, and Shawn Martinbrough brought it all to life so beautifully, I've really found it very easy to just slip into that world and inhabit these characters. I don't usually like writing other people's characters but with Thief it's just a pleasure. It just suits my style, which I guess may be one of the reasons Robert sought me out in the first place.

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The more I trust an artist, the less detail I'll put in the scripts. Shawn has such rock-solid, baked-in storytelling instincts, I just keep the panel descriptions very simple and let him do it his way. I might suggest a wide establishing shot or a close-up if there's a good reason for it, but that's about as far as I tend to go. I don't think it's healthy to be overly prescriptive. It's a collaboration and Shawn's the artist.

DD: Will we see you stay on the book after this arc?

AD: That's the plan. I'm on it for the long haul. Unless I screw up spectacularly, in which case I'll just disappear one day and never be seen again. Robert knows a guy who knows a guy.

DD: Finally, what comics are you reading? What's out there that has you excited right now?

AD: I don't actually read comics issue by issue any more. I tend to treat comics the way I treat books – you hear a buzz about something good and put it on a mental list (or Amazon wish list) to catch up with at some point. I've got a whole shelf full of graphic novels I haven't read yet. I prefer to binge-read a series in one go rather than drip-feed it at 20 pages a month. But that's probably just me. I just don't have the collector mentality.

That said, I absolutely loved the first arc of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's Lazarus, and I'm looking forward to catching up with the rest. That's pretty much everything I want in a comic book right there. And the first issue of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour's Southern Bastards was great. The Fuse, The Woods, Ordinary, The Bunker… There's a lot of good new stuff coming out.

Thief of Thieves #21 is released May 28thh, 2014.  Ask your local retailer to order you a copy using Diamond ID: MAR140610.

David Dissanayake is a Senior San Francisco Correspondent at Bleeding Cool.  Give him a shout on Twitter @dwdissanayake or come say hello to him at Mission: Comics & Art in San Francisco.

About Hannah Means Shannon

Editor-in-Chief at Bleeding Cool. Independent comics scholar and former English Professor. Writing books on magic in the works of Alan Moore and the early works of Neil Gaiman.

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