Sanford Greene: South Carolina’s Best Kept Secret

Sanford Greene is a busy man. The 38-year-old Charleston, S.C., native has been one of Columbia’s best kept secrets in the comic world.

A well rounded illustrator, his work has been used for sequentials (or storyboarding for the comics) and covers for comics like Batman, Star Wars and The Amazing Spider-Man. Now, with the release of his third installment of Deadlines, a sketchbook highlighting his work from Marvel, DC, and Warner Bros. along with his own original characters, Greene is prepared to release his own comic that possesses an understanding of hip-hop sensibilities, making him unlike anyone in the industry.

I first met Sanford Greene almost ten years ago through a mutual friend. Because my musical endeavors in hip-hop music closely resembled Greene’s interests in the art world, we became comrades and then eventually he became my mentor. Eventually, his nickname became “Uncle S” as we became a fixture in each others lives and routines.

To find someone heavily invested in the comic world while having similar music tastes became paramount in my own artistic development. He was living proof that success can happen while holding on to these roots. To consider my work with this article an interview seems off base. This is more like a ritual gathering that I just happen to record.

We meet on a Friday afternoon at his home in Northeast Columbia, South Carolina as his wife, Lesli, is out of town, leaving Greene with his two sons, Malcolm, 9, and Mason, 3. Needless to say, when the opportunity arises to catch up with him, I need to take it. 

After the two boys are tucked in, an NBA playoff game, numerous handfuls of trail mix, one bowl of popcorn and a Don Cheadle movie later, Greene is ready to talk about his life and work. It’s knocking on 4 a.m. These are the times when Greene thrives and loves to work.

Greene speaks humbly about his accomplishments.

“I don’t think my greatest achievement has happened yet. I can say work that I’m really proud of could be working with Spider-Man, since it’s my most recognizable thing, but there’s more that I want to do.”

Before Sanford Greene was a sought-after illustrator, he was Sanford Greene the unknown Yellow Pages designer for Columbia-based business Mobile Illustrated. He started working full-time with Mobile Illustrated in 2000, after getting an internship with the company the year before.

From then on he used his motivation to get into one of the most difficult art industries in the world. 
”When I worked at the Yellow Pages, I was the guy who handled the layout for the book. Imagine looking at the phonebook and seeing ads in there. I used to put that stuff together. It paid well but wasn’t gratifying artistically. I ended up going to a convention and brought my work with me and landed a job doing Planet of the Apes comic book, and even then I didn’t quit my job immediately. When it got to the point where I needed to take that step, my wife was supportive. She just said ‘as long as we can pay the bills I’m fine’. That support really helped me move forward.”

In the forward of Greene’s latest book, Deadlines 3, Eisner Award-winning comic book writer and artist Darwyn Cooke isn’t short on the praise of Greene, observing: “Sanford is an Art Director’s dream. Clear unique designs filled with distinctive shapes and sometimes daring stylistic turns make his work fun to look at.”

He goes on to write, “The other ingredient to Sanford’s success: Discipline. The discipline to get work done, and done well.”

And maybe that discipline is what’s leading Greene into the most successful year of his career: Finishing a graphic novel with Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man (with book of the same name), working on Marvel Comics’ Deadpool, along with a “confidential” project that will get animated using his original characters and storyline tentatively next year.

His attributes the wide range of project to the many sources of inspiration.

”Artist-wise my influences include Norman Rockwell, animator Don Bluth, Michael Golden and others. I’m also into different cultures. African culture, urban culture and being able to bring it together with the influence of classic illustrators is the reason I think my work is appealing to people.”

His ability to combine two seemingly opposite worlds of hip-hop culture and comics and finding ways to make it his own is a delicate balance. Something that Greene is always aware of.

“There’s many instances where the urban influence can be a conflict. And I understand that. That’s why it’s great to get my own stuff done. It’s gratifying because I know that I couldn’t do certain things like this for Marvel.”

His Method Man graphic novel was a hit at last year’s Comic-Con. The book did record numbers and gave Greene go-to status for anyone in the hip-hop world looking to dive into comics. The connection is second nature to him.

” Hip-hop is such a character-driven industry and I create characters and design stories with huge narratives. It’s all about telling your story and that’s what the music is to me.”

By this time it’s really late into the morning and yet still the time barely affects Sanford. Many late night hours he has been at his home office, listening to instrumental CDs by Madlib and Dilla and drawing until he falls asleep. Even though his work is featured in comics and he has worked on films like the Dark Knight, Greene is still the most approachable man you’ll meet. You’ve probably even stood next to him in line at Wal-Mart getting some groceries. He said it’s important to him to stay grounded and to continue to be motivated.

“My industry is really close to actors in Hollywood. I call it the Jamie Foxx effect. Jamie’s been acting for a long time but he ended up getting his big break with ‘Ray’ and he can’t do wrong right now. But you have to work at it. The acting business model is the same for illustrators. Work for hire. If you’re good, you’ll always be working. This is an industry where everybody’s trying to get in and there’s only so many projects. Sometimes you have to re-invent yourself or find another avenue to get your work seen but you’re fooling yourself if you feel like ‘I’ll wait till they call’.”

The modest two-story home is silent. The kids are sleeping and the vibe in the house is one of a family that’s loved and cared for. What’s the secret to succeeding in an industry that could be as cutthroat as Hollywood and unforgiving as the music industry? If there’s anyone that could write a tutorial on it, Sanford probably could.

“You have to know the rules before you can break them. You have to understand the handwork and fundamentals of this type of work. If you’re a hip-hop fan and you like someone like Common, you’ll get into the music and then find out who was his influences and go into it and learn the rules and discipline it takes to be a great emcee. You are then able to come out and make your own thing.”

Identity is so important and there’s moments where the right decision and wrong decision is something that can only be done by gut-checking (sometimes horoscopes and I Ching fail miserably). So, I ask about a defining moment in his career.

“You know, when I first started out with a big placement, I had a moment where I had to learn myself. I was hungry artist and felt that I was being abused and not fulfilling my potential. So, the day I told the guy in charge of the project that I was going my own way, he kind of gave me a back handed patronizing comment. He said something like ‘okay, good luck trying to find a job with Marvel or DC.’ And you know what? I work for both of them.”

Check out Sanford’s art at