By Matt O’Keefe
Writer Frank Barbiere has had an impressive climb in the comic industry over the past couple of years. Since his breakout Image series Five Ghosts with artist Chris Mooneyham debuted in 2013, Barbiere has gone on to work for a number of high profile publishers with a wide breadth of amazing artists. Just recently it was announced that he’s taking over Avengers World from Nick Spencer, making it Frank’s first ongoing at Marvel. I spoke to Barbiere about his meteoric rise to comic book fame and the jitters that come along with jump.
No two breaking-in stories are of the same, but you have about as linear a story as I’ve ever heard, working your way up from small publishers to places like Image and Dark Horse and then to Marvel and DC. Has it felt like a natural progression?
I’m really happy with how quickly I managed to get up there. I feel like I’m following the new path for creators and I’m happy to see it working out for a lot of people. I was really happy with the reception of Five Ghosts and I was very fortunate that I managed to get out some other work quickly and that it’s been received well. For me it’s been upswing momentum. My biggest fear was to put out a book and then just disappear. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been pretty consistent in putting out work from month to month.
Do you feel like you needed to do a book at Arcana for Five Ghosts to get picked up?
Oh man, you did your research! That was a huge, huge learning process. That’s a book that I’m fairly embarrassed by now, but it taught me how to make comics. It taught me how to do stuff on my book alone. Image is very much like that, too. Doing everything from the design to the lettering for Arcana every month was really cool in a lot of ways, but very stressful. It would have been impossible for us to do Five Ghosts the way we do it and not look like idiots begging for help if I hadn’t turned it that book for Arcana. And I think I experienced a lot of growth writing a long form piece, learning where my strengths and weaknesses were at the time. I try to be a really reflective writer and think about how I can I be better. It was a very weird process and took a long time and ultimately I was stuck with the results, but it was a really great learning experience. Pivotal for me to get ready for where [Chris Mooneyham and I] are at now. I don’t think I would have ever been able to balance the workload and understand what went into making a comic if I hadn’t self-published. And, again, a publisher put it out but it was me doing everything humanly possible for the book including all the graphic design, which is why the book looks really bad. [laughs]
How did you learn to letter?
I found the Comicraft book when I was in college and I bought two of the fonts and got the free Blambot fonts. I had Illustrator from school, so I just started doing it. My lettering was atrocious at first. The font too big and I was trying to do very “90s” lettering where every character’s was different. But it was a really cool way to get more involved with the art side of things and it really gives you a more inclusion in the physicality of the pages versus just sending them off and seeing them get done. I feel like when I don’t letter something I can be a little more objective when I’m doing a pass, but lettering your own stuff is really cool because you get the ultimate final cut. You can always change things at the last second.
Has it taught you a lot as a writer to be able control the pacing with lettering?
Yeah, it certainly has. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve worked with a lot of great collaborators who are really good with their storytelling and page pacing In general and, especially early on, if my scripts were a little too stiff they would add a panel here or there to break up the moment. Reexamining that when I was lettering taught me a lot about that and if anything it just taught me how much dialogue can really quickly stack up. It still blows me away how quickly dialogue can back up with balloons and captions. I learned a lot about how to break that stuff up and make sure it doesn’t look like a wall of text, but every now and then it does happen. You still need to get that stuff out and people have to read.
With Five Ghosts, the ghosts that are haunting Fabian Gray are pulp characters, but they’re also literary characters. How do you strike that balance?
That book has really taken on its own shape. Because I don’t really have the ghosts interacting so much, they’re pretty much silent. I think in the new arc we’re seeing the Dracula ghost show a little more personality, but for me it’s more about how to use the powers in a cool way. Coming into this arc that’s something I’m really trying to do more of because the last arc, we were really happy with, but it was a little more straightforward and relied a lot on the Five Ghosts concept. In the new arc I’ve been trying to really examine how to use the powers in more ways and also the Dracula ghosts is coming front and center and to kind of show show some of it’s own endgame and personality. I think of the characters in Five Ghosts as unique from the ones in the source material. Very early on we made the distinction that these weird fantasy spirits take the shape of these characters, but they’re not the actual characters. I’ve always wanted to avoid worrying about them being true to the character. That approach is a huge difference from our book and books like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and The Unwritten where you have these characters that are kind of the archetypal versions of the characters. [My way] is fun because it gives me the complete ownership to do whatever I want. The book in general comes from a very honest fun place and I’m excited that people can dig it.
It feels like a story that can go on forever, which is probably why it was picked up as a TV series. Do you have an endgame in mind?
We really do. [Everything] points towards the final story and the end of Fabian’s arc, so I know the last story we would tell, but getting there is kind of an endless journey. There’s just so much, it’s become so much its own thing. Having [Fabian] as a thief, the artifacts, mythology like dreamstone… there’s a lot there, and we’re excited to keep rolling through it. We worked on it pretty much endlessly for the last two years. Chris had gone and drawn some other books while working on it. It’s been kind of crazy for him. He’s wrapping up the Predators book at Dark Horse that just started coming out with Josh Williamson, which is an awesome book, but we’re certainly back in the grind of it and excited to keep going. This arc and then the arc after it will kind of bring what we consider Book 1 of Five Ghosts to a close.
The collection of White Suits is coming out in a couple of weeks. How was the experience with that and with Dark Horse?
It was great. That’s actually the first mainstream project I pushed through, the stuff I did for Dark Horse Presents. I was nobody [when the issues came out] so I don’t think anyone went crazy over that but we did three short stories and that was really my first mainstream published work. I’d forever envisioned that story as a crazy 12-issue series so it was kind of a double-edged sword, finally getting to do it but then having to do it. But thankfully Toby Cypress, the artist, kicked so much ass on that book. I adore his work and how he made White Suits such a cool unique thing. I am so so proud to have it all together. We put the shorts in the trade, which is cool. [The stories in Dark Horse Presents] happen before the narrative [of the miniseries] and give a bit more perspective. It think we wrapped it up pretty tightly at the end. The last issue has a lot of narration about what’s going on, but I think it’s cool to see the short stories and how they all build on each other and were referenced in the main narrative, so I definitely its cool to be collected. Dark Horse was really really cool. And It’s a weird looking book. They took a huge risk allowing us to do it the way we did and I’m just so proud to have that live forever in trade.
You’re co-writing Avengers World with Nick Spencer. Have you ever co-written before?
No, and it was a really cool experience. Technically I feel like when you’re working with editorial it’s a form of co-writing. Here, though, Nick told me what the book was going to be what he wanted to do with the issues and we just went at it together. It was a really cool experience. Maybe a little more interesting was how it felt like jumping in at the middle of a run. But because it was two self-contained issues that happen amidst Axis, it was exciting. Our issues of Avengers World are in the middle of Axis #6 and #7. I feel surreal about that and am a huge huge fan of Rick Remender, so it was really cool to read those issues and it’s the kind of crossover I want to read as a fan. It was really fun to pick out the moment our story happened. There’s some really cool stuff [in the issues] and a big Marvel canon moment that I don’t think people are going to see coming. The whole concept of Doctor Doom assembling a team of his own Avengers given most [superheroes] are involved in Axis and either inverted or incapacitated. It was really fun to get to write Doom and also Valeria Richards. I love what Jonathan Hickman did with her, and she’s a big player in our story.
Is it daunting taking over your first ongoing series at Marvel?
I’m very happy that I’ve done enough at this point [that I feel prepared] but I feel like it’s technically the highest profile thing I’m doing. So in that sense I’m scared, but it’s been so great already. The editorial team is Wil Moss, Jake Thomas and Tom Brevoort. Their support structure takes a lot of the edge off. They read my stuff and give direct feedback and help improve it. It’s truly great. We’re doing a storyline that I think is called “Before Time Runs Out” and it’s all the stuff that happens before the eight month time jump [in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers books] so there’s a lot of collaborating with Hickman, who is one of my favorite writers so I’m definitely geeking out a little bit on this. In Avengers World we’re doing a lot of really cool stuff and seeing a lot of the Avengers under the hood is really exciting because I’m such a huge fan. That’s really been a huge thrill. Hopefully people can see that I’m having fun with it. And Marco Checcetto, who did the Axis issues, is joining us on this arc as well and is absolutely phenomenal. There is some wacky stuff in those Axis tie-ins and he just knocked it out of the park. There are some brand new designs and some characters who haven’t been seen in awhile. All that stuff makes me feel more confident, but I still have the jitters. I know there’s a different level of attention paid to this, so I hope people enjoy it.
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting to make comics?
Everything, kind of! But I think patience is the most important thing. Collaborators don’t go anywhere. If there’s someone you want to collaborate with, you don’t need to go crazy trying to get them to do as much as possible. Good things will happen; the most important part is just doing your work. I learned that quickly but there’s still this weird fear of becoming quickly irrelevant or I guess not breaking in hard enough. There’s this fear that you put out a book and no one will care. There’s always something to wish about. I wish we could have sold better, I wish we could get more press and sometimes it’s a bummer, but at the end of the day I’m really happy and excited with where I’m at so whenever I feel that way I quickly feel like an asshole because two years ago I never would have guessed that I’d be able to do the amount of work I’m doing. So I really think patience is huge. For anyone breaking in it can feel impossible and really soul crushing at times, but as long as you’re doing work you believe in you’re getting something out of it and pushing forward.
Five Ghosts is in the midst of its third arc. You can buy Volumes 1 and 2 on Amazon or at your local retailer, and you can catch up in back issues or digitally. I highly encourage you to do that, as well check out Frank’s upcoming solo work on Avengers World.