Five Ghosts, White Suits, Black Market, and Beyond: An Interview with Frank Barbiere
Frank Barbiere is quickly becoming one of the most prolific and visible writers in comics, having built his reputation working on both original and company-owned properties for a number of independent publishers, including Blackout and The White Suits at Dark Horse, Black Market at Boom Studios, Solar: Man Of The Atom at Dynamite, and the fan-favorite Five Ghosts at Image.
Now he's expanding even further, writing an Avengers title for Marvel, inking a deal to develop Five Ghosts in other media, and preparing to re-team with Boom for the launch of his new original series Broken World. In the midst of all this, he's somehow found the time to sit down for an in-depth conversation about his career to date, and his plans for the future, and bring us an exclusive first look at Broken World's characters, and some samples from this week's Five Ghosts #16.
ComicsAlliance: Black Market is a pretty unique crime-story take on the "revisionist superhero" subgenre — it manages to evoke other works, but the story kept me guessing at every step, constantly pushing off in directions I never expected. What works or creators would you say influenced or inspired that series?
Frank Barbiere: I have always loved super hero stories and knew that if I was ever going to tell one in the creator-owned space that it had to be unique. I adore Powers and Brian Bendis, and beyond just his work on that series I remember him talking about how he didn’t want to tackle his own super hero story until he really felt like he had something unique to say. This was very much my mantra coming into Black Market — what could I say about super heroes and how we interact with them that isn’t just a rehash? Clearly I also love crime/noir, and was glad to balance that in there as well. Victor Santos also gave the whole project an amazing visual style that’s vital to being a unique piece — he’s amazing and a great collaborator.
CA: So, how did you end up working with Victor on that series?
FB: My editors at Boom, Eric Harburn and Chris Rosa, paired us up. I’ve been a huge fan of Victor’s work for a long time and never thought I’d get to collaborate with him, so it was really awesome and a great call on their part. They really collaborated closely with us and were vital members of the Black Market team — I love working with Eric and Chris and truly think they help bring out the best in my work (and projects).
CA: It's one of those titles that seemed to fall under the radar initially, but built good word-of-mouth. The collected edition will finally come out sometime this summer, correct?
FB: Yes, the collection will be out in June. The market is so competitive right now with so many great projects, it’s really hard to gain a lot of footing as a smaller creator. While I was certainly super proud of Black Market, I do feel it went a little under the radar — I’m hoping we can really give it some new life as a trade as it’s a project that I was very passionate about. Boom has really done a wonderful job of building great relations with retailers, showing readers they do interesting projects, and just having a passion for comics. I’m glad to work with them and they really helped — and continue — to market the book to meaningful audiences.
CA: And was it always envisioned as a four-issue finite story, or do you have more ideas for that world?
FB: I think the four issues we delivered were a really nice, concise story. The concept certainly has room for a “world,” but as far as what we did, I think it really serves as a single unit. I came into this project knowing it would be four issues, so did the best I could along with my editors to make it read as a nice, self-contained story. We’d certainly love to revisit the world one day, and planted some fun stuff, but I’m very content with the story we told in the format we used.
CA: How about White Suits? Is there more to come on that front, or have you said what you wanted to in that arena?
FB: White Suits falls almost on the other end of the spectrum. It was a project that I’m ultimately very happy with, but something I conceived of as a long-form narrative before I had actually “broken in.” When Dark Horse got the ball rolling I was completely green — they were actually the first bigger publisher to work with me — and of course I had nowhere near the bandwidth to support an ongoing series. I had to retool the story to fit into four issues, and it was certainly a blessing to have the short stories to help flesh things out. Toby Cypress did an immense job on that book and really gave it so much life and character.
CA: Yeah, Toby Cypress' art really made that book stand out from the crowd – do you have plans to work with him again at some point?
FB: Toby is an unreal talent. He is absolutely amazing, an artist’s artist, and it was really an honor to collaborate with him — I had emailed him out of the blue and he was kind enough to jump on board with a total stranger. Toby is pretty busy with various stuff, but I’d love to work with him again.
In other words, If I haven't been gushy enough, I adore his stuff and it really elevated White Suits to something special.
I also have to give Dark Horse a lot of credit for believing in us and letting us do the book our way — our editor Chris Warner was instrumental in getting the book together, and is a great guy.
CA: And as for Blackout, the third of your triumvirate of monochromatic titles, it's also a Dark Horse title, but while Suits seems to be firmly off in its own world, Blackout is tied into the Catalyst/Comics' Greatest Universe line, as opposed to a creator-owned book, correct?
FB: Yeah, Blackout was very much a part of the whole Project: Black Sky line Dark Horse put together — it was fun to plant a lot of stuff in there, but it’s very much in Dark Horse’s court. It was a very fun work for hire project, a chance to work with [editor] Chris Warner, and one of the first gigs I was ever offered, so it really holds a special place in my heart. Chris believed in me when I was just a kid sending him samples, and I’ll always be in his debt…and thanks is also due to Mike Richardson, creator of Blackout, for letting an unknown writer tackle one of his characters.
I learned a lot on that project, I’m proud of the work I did along with Micah Kaneshiro and Colin Lorimer, and I think Blackout is a really cool character, so I hope they do more with him!
CA: Now on to Five Ghosts. What was the genesis of that series? Was it something you came up with and sought an artist for, or was Chris Mooneyham onboard from the inception?
FB: I had been trying to break into comics and working with Chris for about a year or two before we started on Five Ghosts. I was a public school teacher at the time — I taught English Lit and Creative Writing — and constantly talking to kids about writing and creativity just really had my mind churning out ideas. Chris and I couldn’t get much headway on a sci-fi western book we were working on, and one day the idea for Five Ghosts just hit me. I immediately started sending notes to Chris and we were off to the races – it’s a true co-creation and Chris has done a wonderful job of building the world with me. I also have to credit Lauren Affe, our colorist, who really nailed down the look of the book after joining at the end of issue #2. S.M. Vidaurri was also instrumental in getting the book off the ground, doing wonderful variants as well as the early colors.
CA: How does your partnership with Chris work on that series? Do you both contribute to the plotting, and how much leeway does Chris take in translating your scripts to the page?
FB: Chris and I will talk about story ideas, and I’ll go off and write a full script for him. This means my scripts have panel breakdowns and “shot descriptions,” but after that, Chris can do whatever he wants! [laughs] He has full agency to make the book his own, and often does, and it’s that much better for it.
The book is us as honestly as we can be — we have no editors and no one other than me, Chris, and Lauren working on it. It’s very much like making garage comics and a very freeing experience. And we’ll be releasing a hardcover of the first twelve issues in May/June that will have a lot of process stuff as well as a full script, so anyone interested should definitely check it out.
CA: If moments come up where you disagree on how to handle some scene or plot point or something, how do you resolve the issue?
FB: We’ve worked together long enough that we can just talk it out. We’ve never really had anything too crazy as we’re pretty in sync, but comics are all about collaboration and communication.
Chris and Lauren have both become my close friends, so we really all treat each other as equals and with respect — as I expect is the case in a lot of long term collaborations. For us, it’s really the only way we can continue doing the book. If we weren’t happy and excited we couldn’t find the power to do it.
CA: Is this a book that really hinges on you and Chris, or have you ever considered bringing in other creators to offer their takes on it — do "guest spots", if you will?
FB: In its truest sense, Five Ghosts will only ever exist as the collaboration between Chris, Lauren, and myself — if we lose a wheel on this car, the whole thing will crash. But being as we’ve really stumbled upon a universe with Five Ghosts, we’re really happy to throw out opportunities to many of our friends and frequent collaborators. Issue six had Garry Brown contribute some amazing art, and we were so happy to have him work with us.
In April we’ll be releasing a Five Ghosts “Special” that has a story written and drawn by S.M. Vidaurri, as well as a short I wrote drawn by an amazing upcoming artist named Jamie Jones. I’ve also tried to use the platform of the book and monthly issue format to celebrate work from creators I really admire and enjoy. Our first five issues had backups from Matthew Rosenberg & Patrick Kindlon (Ashcan Press) with Jason Copland and Shaky Kane on art. We then had Fabian Rangel, Jr. and Ryan Cody’s Doc Unknown in our back pages, and Fabian has come back with a brand new story called “Sleepwalking” in our most recent issues, with art from Huseyin Ozkan and colors by Mike Spicer.
Five Ghosts has turned into a real family for us, and we’re so proud to use it to celebrate work from creators we love and admire. At the core of it is Image Comics — Eric Stephenson approved the book when we were complete unknowns and has let us grow it into what it is today, so we’ll always be grateful and humbled to be a part of Image. Their model has really let us explore every opportunity possible with the book, and we hope to keep it going for a very long time.
CA: The series is founded on a fairly novel device, one that allows you to play around with all sorts of adventure-fiction archetypes. (Hero Fabian Gray can harness the 'ghosts' of five literary archetypes.) How did you hit on that specific combination?
FB: It was really a “lightning in a bottle” experience for us. Chris and I just really knew we wanted to do some kind of adventure story, and I had really been thinking and doing some soul searching about what kind of comics I wanted to make. Everything that goes into Five Ghosts is something we love and care about; it truly is a love letter to genre and the form of comics for us.
It was pretty much a happy accident that we ended up with so much to draw from, but our mantra is really to have fun and keep ourselves excited. Everything else is just little details.
CA: Your lead, Fabian Gray, is a classic adventurer hero in the Clay Quartermain / Indiana Jones mode. Were you at all concerned about readers seeing him as his own character, not just as an amalgamation of things they'd seen before?
FB: I’m always worried that we’re not getting enough into Fabian, as he’s very archetypal and based on what I refer to as “un-characters.” Particularly Indiana Jones—there’s a guy who you know so much about just based on how he looks and what he does, and it takes a while to dig below the surface. I think now, 16 issues in, we’ve really expanded Fabian’s character, and the theme of “redemption” is really starting to come through. I’m always concerned I’m not doing enough with character [laughs], but that’s just me being a writer.
CA: When putting this together, were there particular inspirations that readers may not be aware of? I mean, we can sit back and say, "Yes I see some Jules Verne, yes there's a bit of Bram Stoker, yes Arthur Conan Doyle…" But are there other influences that you're bringing to bear on the book that might not be as immediately identifiable?
FB: Without being too grandiose about the whole thing, I’d say everything we read and enjoy goes in here. It really is a melting pot of story and action for us, but it’s all grounded by a big influence from books like League of Extraordinary Gentleman and The Unwritten. People love to say “Sandman”, but embarrassingly enough I actually hadn’t read Sandman until a year ago. I actually finally read it because I was afraid Gaiman had done stuff that was very close and we might be treading on him! [laughs] Thankfully that wasn’t the case — it's an amazing book that I’m glad I read.
But really, Five Ghosts, and many of my stories, are about how we interact with story and mythology, where it comes from, and how it drives us. Yes, it’s covered up with a lot of punching and pulp action, but underneath is the core mythology about the Dreamstone and Fabian’s quest for redemption. I’d say a big influence is probably a lot of Manga and JRPG’s I consumed growing up… there was even a joke line from Final Fantasy 3 (or 6 if you will) in the first issue.
CA: So, were you concerned about this series being compared to other comics like League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Unwritten, Planetary, which have been given a similar "fictional mash-up" tag?
FB: To say I was concerned is to put it lightly! [laughs] I always refer to it as people thinking we’re “punching outside our weight class.” That’s why I’m so quick to point to Indiana Jones as much more of a touchstone than League — Five Ghosts is a pulp homage in many ways, a more modern take on the pulp that I grew up with. The aforementioned works are some of the most influential, smart, and amazing comics ever put to paper — I would never invite comparison, but they are infinite sources of inspiration as well as something to attain to over the length of a career. And quite honestly, I think most writers are interested in a lot of the same stuff… where story comes from, mythology, how fiction interacts with our own lives, et cetera.
CA: Something that seems to have caused a little bit of confusion is that you've now placed the series with Black Mask Studios for development in other media. For the record, the comic itself is still firmly housed at Image, right?
FB: Yes, the Black Mask deal is only for media and transmedia stuff. Our publishing quite happily remains with Image. Black Mask has been wonderful in working with us on getting some new media stuff ready for consumption, and not to mention instrumental in our TV deal with Universal Cable Productions and Benderspink. We’ve really been able to keep closely collaborative, and Black Mask has our backs at every step — they’re fantastic partners as well as a great company in their own right.
Something I’m very passionate about is bringing not only my work, but the entire medium of comics to a whole new audience, and Black Mask has really been pushing the envelope on that front. They recently unveiled their "Tubecomics": high-end multimedia with sound, voice acting, and effects. Youtube has a diverse viewership who may not be exposed to our stories, and with the Tubecomics we hope to reach some people who may not be picking up our book in comic shops. Matt and Brett recently did a great piece with the New York Times about it, and it's exciting to have Five Ghosts in the initial lineup, and get this chance to bring our work to different audiences.
CA: You're also writing Solar: Man Of The Atom for Dynamite. How far in advance do you have that book planned out? And how closely do you work with the other creators working in that Dynamite/Gold Key universe to co-ordinate things?
FB: Solar is another book that I’m very proud of, yet I feel goes under a lot of people's radar. My arc was planned for 12 issues, which we’re wrapping up now, and hopefully there'll be more stuff announced soon.
To answer the second part, I coordinated a bit with Fred [Van Lente] and Greg [Pak] when we were building the universe, but it’s really only now, around issue #10, that we start seeing a lot of the other Gold Key Universe stuff crossing into Solar. It was very liberating to have a shared universe, but to tell my own story.
I’m so grateful that Dynamite let me and [editor] Nate Cosby re-invent Solar, and I think our new female Solar, Erica, is one of the best characters I’ve ever had a chance to write. She’s really come into her own and allowed me to say a lot about the super hero genre, even if it’s not evident at a glance. I’m really proud of how this arc closes out, and hope people will take a look — it’s honestly some of my best work.
CA: And on top of everything else, you're writing Avengers World for Marvel?
FB: Yes, and I’m so excited to finally be writing a full arc on a Marvel book! I was very fortunate to get the opportunity to write the New Avengers Annual last year, and now I’m writing the "Before Time Runs Out" arc for Avengers World. It’s really been amazing as it ties directly into Jonathan Hickman’s run on Avengers, which I’m a huge fan of, and it’s great to add to the canon of his story. Marco Checchetto has also been a fantastic collaborator, and is, in my opinion, turning out some of the best work of his career. I really enjoy Marvel and hope to continue there, but if Avengers World is all I ever get, I think people will see I told the best damn story I could.
CA: So, what else do you have planned? Any other projects in the works that we should keep an eye out for?
FB: Well, in June I’m launching a new creator owned book called Broken World with Chris Peterson. I’m so proud of this book, it’s a story I’ve been dying to tell… It's the story of Elena Marlowe, a woman who is fighting a troubled past and workings towards a better future, coming to grips with the end of the world. A giant asteroid was detected, on a collision course with Earth, and the planet has banded together to evacuate in a global initiative — problematic for Elena who is hoping to build a better future for herself and her family. A McCarthy-esque government review board has come together to decide who can get a spot on these evacuation shuttles, and Elena has been denied access, effectively given a death sentence. The story is about her doing whatever it takes to get off world, to fight for a future she can’t have, and what happens at the end of the world. I’m partial to saying, “The end of the world is just the beginning.”
The book is clearly a love letter to the survival/post-apocalypse genre, and there are some really fun reveals that we won’t be spoiling until issue one is out. I think anyone who’s a fan of The Walking Dead and Y: The Last Man, as well as TV shows like The Leftovers and Lost, will really vibe with the book. And yeah, that’s a tall order, but it’s the best work I’ve ever done, and I’m building a character-driven story for all readers to enjoy — not just a subset of white, male superhero fans. Boom is a great publisher to work with, and they really believe in the story. My editors had the great idea to pair me with Chris, an artist whom I’ve liked for a long time, and we immediately hit it off. He has really refined his style and given the book a great look — our plan is really to have it be very accessible and driven by the storytelling rather than arduous captions, etc.
I’ll be talking about it nonstop for the next few months, but I truly can’t wait for everyone to see it… And beyond that, I'm planning to keep on with Five Ghosts as long as humanly possible!