Frank Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham are releasing a new Image Comics mini-series in March called “Five Ghosts,” and, having read it, I can tell you wholeheartedly that this is one book that is not to be missed (don’t believe me? Check out our review).
It’s what Barbiere calls a “literary pulp adventure,” and what I call flat out a great comic. It’s filled with superb character work, an imaginative idea, and stellar art from Mooneyham, and it’s going to be one of Image’s 2013 breakouts.
Today, I talk with Barbiere about breaking into the industry, what “Five Ghosts” is all about, where it could go next, and much, much more. Along the way, we have a preview of the first issue along with first looks at the issue #2 and issue #3 covers. Thanks to Frank for chatting, and make sure to get this added to your pull before the upcoming FOC date on February 25.
Five Ghosts, amongst many things, is quite the independent success story, as the two of had quite the journey bringing it to life. Can you walk us through what the two of you did to make sure it saw the light of day, and how long this process has been for the two of you?
Frank Barbiere: Chris and I have had the benefit of working together for around 4 years before launching FIVE GHOSTS. We’ve certainly learned a lot about how the comic market works and did everything in our power to promote the book the best we can. That being said, I think it’s really impossible to forecast just what will resonate with people. We approached this project the same way we had approached our last (a sci-fi western that never saw the light of day): we approached the book as a project we were producing, not just a pitch. This time we had the added benefit of Kickstarter which helped us get the word out and our initial finances in order, but at the end of the day it was the market that responded to us, which we are extremely thankful for! I think as a creator is 2013 you just have to be making the best books you can and getting them out there–it’s not a guarantee that people will respond, but I think if anything we should be a great example that the channels are there for your work to be noticed.
So it seems the two of you have been working together for a while. What’s the origin story of this partnership? How did the two of you pair up to make comics together?
FB: Our partnership, much like any creative success, was the product of being in the right place at the right time (not to be too cliche). I grew up in northern NJ a town over from the Joe Kubert Art School, which was awesome as a kid who was so into comics. I took a few classes there when I was a little kid, but never really stuck with the drawing. Chris ended up attending the Kubert School as a full-time student, and when I came back from college and was searching for artists I suddenly thought back to the school. I managed to connect with another student, Giovanni Valletta, who was actually living with Chris at the time. I became friends with Gio and we were working on another project when I mentioned I was looking for a new artist for a western project I was developing. Gio recommended Chris, I came over to their apartment and discussed some stuff with Chris (who had already prepared some awesome sketches), and we’ve been working together from that point forward. Having Chris be in the neighborhood initially was awesome as we’ve become really good friends and I’ve been fortunate enough to see his artwork in person. He has since moved back to Wisconsin, but having that personal connection really helped us solidify our collective sensibilities.
Wow. That’s not a bad place to meet artists.
So it seems that the both of you had the idea of wanting to work in comics early on. Were you a comic fan growing up? If so, I’m curious…what would you say the books that were most influential for you early on?
FB: I was fortunate enough to have a comic book shop in my local mall for most of my life. This was really important, because like a normal suburban family, we would frequent the mall and my mom would always leave my brother and I in the comic book shop, haha. I really just had a strong connection with comics early on (with an added bump from the Batman and X-Men cartoons), and the first series I started reading monthly was X-Men 2099. I actually bought every single issue in the store as they came out, so that was my introduction to monthly comics, haha.
Outside of the art, I really connected with serialized storytelling–I loved the month of waiting and seeing the long stories take shape as the issue numbers got higher and higher. I mostly just bought random mainstream trades and issues, including early Image stuff (mostly Spawn), but I remember getting very into the Cliffhanger imprint. CRIMSON, by Bryan Augustyn and Humberto Ramos, remains one of my favorite series…it hit me just at the right time (early high school) and just struck a chord. I really got into creators vs. characters when I started reading Grant Morrison (via his X-Men run), Bendis (via Powers then Ultimate Spider-Man), Millar (The Authority), and Kirkman. I just really nerded out and started reading Wizard voraciously. It was about that time I stumbled on an article about how Image was all creator-owned and I decided I should start trying to make my own comics. It’s fairly ironic to end up there all these years later, as that article is what got me into creating comics in the first place!
Oh man, I LOVED Crimson. That was a really great book that was overshadowed by Danger Girl and Battle Chasers, much to my chagrin.
Getting back to Five Ghosts, a book that is…well, I don’t even know what to call it? A supernatural, Indiana Jones-style adventure story? Anyways, what were your biggest influences when it came to the development of that book?
FB: The way I like to refer to the content (and that we branded on the advertising) is a “Literary Pulp Adventure.”
I recognize the idea of calling your book “literary” could be fairly polarizing, but clearly I don’t mean it in an academic way, I mean in a sense that it deals directly with literature. I don’t think anyone’s been rubbed the wrong way by it, haha, but certainly our book wears the literary on its sleeve. At its heart it’s an adventure story full of fun pulp references and inspiration: adventure, horror, gothic, even samurai…it’s a real godsend to have so much to draw from. Personally, I just wanted to tell a fun story with a bit of a backbone. I was very careful to do a lot of planning before we even started in order to build a universe.
As I’ve said, I’ve always wanted to do a book that drew on the literary and explored the idea of what story really is, how it affects our world, etc. This project ended up being the perfect avenue for it, and I can really tap into some of the same territory as books like The Unwritten, which I absolutely adore. Of course this is all in service to a very action-packed narrative, not just characters sitting around pontificating about story! I think that’s really the line…our book doesn’t aim to impress people with how “smart” it is, it just draws a lot from a lot of the stories that resonate with the greater literary community.
Reading through that, I couldn’t help but think of The Unwritten, so it makes sense that was something you referenced there. One thing that seems to differ between this and The Unwritten is that The Unwritten’s literary references seem to be very, very direct (I mean, it had Rudyard Kipling as a character), while your touches on literature seem to be more inspirational than anything else. Is that a fair statement, or do things get a bit more direct later on?
FB: I’ve had a real fun time coming up with my own characters that were either informed or “possessed” by literary characters and we pretty much stick to that motif. Without getting too spoiler heavy, our story very much relies on the concept that “ideas” and “stories” can be called upon and manifested in the physical form, but mostly through human mediums. We have some stuff planned for arc two that draws a bit more directly on some literature, but it’s a really fun line to jump acorss here and there. I think people who aren’t expecting some of that stuff to play in so heavily will be pleasantly surprised; that is to say, it’ll definitely be there if you’re looking for it. The artifact that gave Fabian his powers, “the dreamstone,” plays prominently into our story and the macro narrative, and around issue three we will really see that plot start to take off.
Well that fits perfectly into my next question: you mentioned before how you were looking to “build a universe,” and now you say you have plans for the second arc. Is it Chris and yours intention to keep building out this world? How robust do your plans get when it comes to this book?
FB: I’ve briefly mentioned it before, but I feel so lucky that Chris and I have developed a concept that we can keep running for a good, long while and have lots of stories to tell. Of course, I know the last story we’d tell, but the first miniseries, “The Haunting of Fabian Gray,” really sets up a long form structure to the Five Ghosts universe. Of course you get the immediate resolution of the first arc, but certainly there is a bigger world teased.
That being said, it is not in any way confirmed, but we have definite plans for a second volume coming together. The way Chris and I see it, we’d like to do the book like Hellboy/BPRD with concrete volumes/arcs that all play into a larger narrative. I feel that as new creators the prospect of turning our book into an ongoing is an easy way to burn out…we’d rather keep the level of quality we’ve established and have some breathing room. We also have something really cool planned between arcs, but we’re far from announcing anything as of yet, haha.
To get back to that first point: I’m just very happy that the story and concept have grown into something that I’m excited to keep revisiting. I laugh with Chris that this could possibly be “our thing,” (i.e. the project that people associate us with/our “career piece”) and if people attach to it, I have no idea doing the book for the rest of my life. That’s by no mean an egotistical statement–if people hate it, we’ll get the hell out, hahaha. But it’s an exciting world to be playing in.
Having read it and reading the review we put up for the first issue from a copy acquired at NYCC, it seems like the early response is strong. How did rolling out this book at NYCC 2012 work out for you two, and how has the response been from those that have read it so far?
FB: People have really connected with the book, which is a great feeling. Even from the initial pitch pages we got great responses…I think, without patting us on the back, it’s also a bit of a fun concept. People tend to know who our ghosts are which is a fun way for them to connect immediately to the material. I think as Fabian’s arc comes out, it’s a very human story, and hopefully people will continue to connect.
I also have to mention the amazing art that Chris is producing, which is another huge sell point of the book. He just really is firing on all cylinders and found an amazing, unique style to call his own. He has great sensibilities that are classically informed, but he is also a very young artist. He learned from a lot of greats at the Kubert school, including Joe himself (and Adam and Andy!) and I think he has really found his voice as an illustrator. I think that’s also very, very important to the book’s draw. I think a lot of these elements coming together have really resulted in something greater than just the sum of its parts. Again, it’s hard to remain totally objective, but it’s nice to see people taking notice and genuinely enjoying the book, especially this early on.
Chris is a really, really fantastic fit for the book. His work was – maybe obviously – the first thing I experienced with the book, and that teaser you guys made for it, completely sold me.
I think the interesting and difficult thing for independent creators working on their own books is that quite often, talent isn’t enough. A lot of really great books get ignored even though those who read them, love them. I’ve heard people say they work more promoting their books than they do creating them. Is that a fair assessment? How much have you had to work to get this book in front of the eyes of the right people?
FB: That is, without a doubt, the absolutely horrifying prospect of doing your own material. You never have that assurance of knowing you’ll do at least a certain number of copies, some retailers flat out just won’t order your book, and awareness is going to be at an all time low. Personally, I’m really kicking things into high-gear this month (February) as the order cutoff for our first issue is Feb. 25th. I think what most people don’t understand is that on Image you have to do a lot of work yourselves. Their staff people are extraordinarily helpful and do a great deal of work, but ultimately you are the ones who have to hit the streets and get the word out. We have been very fortunate that people seem to be responding well and interested in giving us press, but I’m constantly fearing it’s not enough, haha. Basically, I just want readers and retailers to know our book is going to be out there, and that it very well could appeal to them. I think readers have been very savvy these days and are always looking for new books. The same with retailers…so many of them go above and beyond to help out new creators, and we’re very thankful for that.
But promotion and advertising is a full-time job for creators. I think if you don’t love comics and understand the networks and avenues, it can be pretty tricky. It’s thankless work, but I’m just so excited to be out there and to have our book being brought to retail that I still bring a lot of enthusiasm, haha. Maybe ask me again this time next year, hahaha.
It’s a cruel mistress doing creator-owned comics, but you two seem to be off to a good start. It helps that you’re working with Image, who has a lot of cachet with readers right now. You mentioned that this book was a Kickstarter success, but how did you and Chris end up bringing this over to Image?
FB: I’m a huge fan of Image and have been interested in bringing a project there from the time I started doing comics, so I’m really happy to be working with them. It was actually an article about them in the late 90’s that got me into making comics. They are inundated with submissions, so it’s very, very hard to stand out. I think Eric Stephenson has done a brilliant job of curating their line over the years and has brought some amazing talent into the fold. We were fortunate that after we debuted at New York we caught the attention of a lot of Image creators who were asking about the project, what our plans were, etc. Through them it found its way to Eric who then reached out to us. So all and all, it was pretty organic. I’m still pretty amazed and intimidated to be publishing along some of my favorite creators, both new and old, but it’s a challenge Chris and I hope to rise to.
Yeah, that’s a pretty amazing story, especially considering how careful of consideration they take in picking their books. Pretty fantastic.
So just a couple more questions, mostly about the meat of the book. Can you tell us about Fabian Gray and his…well, gifts? I’m not sure gifts is the right word, but let’s go with that.
FB: My preferred term is “unique abilities,” haha. But Fabian is a character who is pretty guarded, yet he is also a bit of a ladies man; he puts off a demeanor of cool, confidence, much like the original Fleming James Bond. He’s a master thief (or “treasure hunter,” as he often corrects) and his past is perhaps one of his most guarded treasures. We will reveal exactly who he is, what makes him tick, and so forth in the book, but going in to it (well, brought to light in issue one) readers will see that there is a somewhat altruistic goal behind his pursuits: he’s trying to find an artifact capable of reviving his twin sister, Silvia, from a catatonic state.
As for his “ghostly affliction,” we have said in the copy text for issue one that it is a result of a “tragic encounter with an artifact known as ‘the dreamstone.'” Fabian’s haunting has given him the power to draw on the unique abilities of these “ghosts.” Again, without getting into the exact semantics of it, the ghosts are not the actual literary characters, but spirits that have taken their forms. This is a fairly important distinction which I haven’t really spoken about (exclusive Multiversity spoilers!), and gets back to the idea of the actual literary characters not appearing in the book. Our story mythology will become very clear within the first mini. If you keep your eyes open you’ll see that Fabian actually has pieces of a crystal lodged in his chest (check page 6!). We’ll address how they got there, the consequences, etc. I promise!
The crux of this first arc really is based around the fact that the possession is actually killing Fabian. It’s a little bit of criticism I’ve seen, that if Fabian has all these powers isn’t he essentially overpowered? I think by the time you finish issue one you see that this isn’t an unlimited source of power. There are consequences for using these abilities, as well as darker things lurking beneath their apparent benefits.
Oooo…I like exclusive things. Is the idea that these are spirits taking the literary characters forms something that came up because of a natural storytelling direction, because of rights issues, or because a bit of both?
FB: It’s more of a story direction, as the characters we are referencing are all in the public domain, but I like the idea of not having to stick perfectly to their histories. When I was coming up with the concept I got very into the idea of Fabian literally drawing his abilities from ghostly apparitions of the characters, but that didn’t exactly make sense as they were not real people. The solution worked itself into one of the bigger ideas of our story–the idea that there is a universe-wide “dreaming” where all creativity and ideas come from and can be drawn from. This is why we don’t necessarily call the ghosts Sherlock or Robin Hood, rather “The Archer” and “The Detective.” Even the spirits themselves are informed by the stories, not necessarily hard manifestations of those characters.
One thing that astounds me about this first issue is it’s 40 pages for $3.50, and there is just SO MUCH in there. It’s an incredible amount of story, and it sets so much of it up right off the bat. Did you and Chris make that choice to make the first issue extra sized to provide more value to readers? Or was it just because that is where the story took you? Personally, I think it’s a great way to market the book – it’s a dense read with extra pages for a very reasonable price.
FB: In your question you hit on the big benefits: more story, more world building, and more value. Initially I wrote the script as 22 pages, ending on a certain character’s reveal, and I just decided it wasn’t getting us there. I think adding in that second action scene really takes things a bit further, gets another location in there, and as you said, just gives readers more. A few more recent Image books have taken the initiative to put more pages in their first issues and it’s really paid off, so I think it’s a big plus. I’m also an opponent of having comics that read “too fast.” Luckily, Chris has a great sense of decompression in his scene work that takes a big longer to read, and plus the extra pages, I think we are giving readers a pretty good bang for their buck!
Last question about Five Ghosts before I jump over to one last subject, and this is your moment to shine: you have the soapbox – why should people pick Five Ghosts up?
FB: I’m going to go no holds barred here and flat out say that if you like comics, you can find something to like about Five Ghosts. Chris and I (as well as our colorist Shane Vidaurri) have poured everything we love about the medium, everything we’ve learned about telling stories, and just about anything we could bring to the table into the series. I certainly feel that things just fell together in the almost magical way you can never plan, and the product that came out is far greater than the sum of its parts. I approach all of my work with humility, but I am immensely proud of what we are achieving–and I really don’t feel disingenuous when I say that there is something for everyone here. Anyone who loves stories or classic literature will be able to connect with not only our references, but the idea of story being something bigger than reality…and if you just want to see some fun action comics, well that’s in there, too. Not to mention that the whole package is wrapped up the prettiest we could–every panel has been planned and coordinated and mulled over. We really just love comics, it’s in our bones, and we want to put something out that we’re proud of and don’t walk away from saying “oh, we should have done better.”
I think comics is at a wonderful place creatively. There are so many creators out there pushing boundaries and telling wonderful, intelligent stories. I know there are a lot of books, but I hope people will be willing to take a chance on something new. Not to harp on it too much, but making comics isn’t something I do for fame, recognition, or money. I’ve literally not made a single cent from almost seven years making comics (profit wise, so to speak), and I wouldn’t ever do things differently. It’s very much a part of my life, and to have something that people might connect to–that’s just the icing on the cake for me. And now I’ve gotten all romantic and weird–I just want people to know that this is something that comes out of passion and respect for the medium, for our prospective readers, and we wouldn’t dare put something out into this market that we didn’t think was worth your time and money.
Perfect. Well, I don’t want to focus too much on non Five Ghosts things, but it was announced the other day that you’ll be working on “Blackout” at Dark Horse as part of the Heroes line. It’s from an idea that publisher Mike Richardson created, and I’m curious: what can you share about this, and how did it come together?
FB: I’ve had the pleasure of working with an editor at Dark Horse for the last year on my project “The White Suits” which as been in and out of Dark Horse Presents (April’s #11, December’s #19, and January’s #20). When he got word of the stuff going on with Blackout, he put my name into the mix, and I was brought on board. It’s a real honor as I’m a huge Dark Horse fan, and quite honestly, still a little surreal.
I can’t really say much at this point, but to go off of what Mike Richardson said in his CBR interview–the book is named Blackout and is a brand new addition to the Dark Horse universe. It’s got a very fun espionage/science fiction vibe, which isn’t something that normally makes its way into these kinds of properties, and I think readers are going to be excited. It also features some absolutely beautiful artwork by Micah Kaneshiro…you can check out his work at http://www.micahkaneshiro.com. It’s been an awesome experience so far, building this from the ground up, and I’m personally very excited to get it out to readers. I think there will be an official press release this month that will spill more details, so keep your eyes peeled!
I just can’t emphasize how extremely thankful I am for the opportunities that have come my way this year. I have a lot of stuff brewing, but I’ll definitely be challenging myself and doing the best work humanly possible on these books.