Frank Barbiere on Writing for Marvel, DC, & Creating Five Ghosts.
June 9, 2015
I grew up in New Jersey. I came into the comic book industry completely cold; I didn’t have any prior experience or “connections.” Comics is one of the few industries that is still small enough to be accessible and seeking new talent, in my opinion.
First Job in Comics
The first paid comics work I did was for Dark Horse Comics. I did a few short stories based around characters I created called “The White Suits,” which led to doing a full series of the same name a few years later.
It came about from sending samples of my work to an editor…he enjoyed what we were doing (we as it also had artwork samples from an artist) and gave us a shot…which was very kind!
I am a voracious reader and try to read as much as I can, whether it be comics, prose, or nonfiction.
I just think about everything I consume and when I’m brainstorming it all comes to the surface—really, I try to think about what interests me and what I want to say. The rest comes easy, it’s figuring out the big issues I want to communicate through my work that is the hard part.
Writing for Comic Books
Part of what I love about comics is the lack of constraint. Right now we’re having a bit of a “renaissance” where original content is actually selling, and there are audiences for almost every conceivable genre—even ones people haven’t thought of yet!
I think it’s still a very free, creative space, and that’s part of what I love about it.
More realistically, it’s limited to what I think we can actually pull off, if artists I want to work with are available, and budgeting.
It’s still a small business, so making large amounts of money is difficult. Everything, especially “creator-owned” (the term for original content and IP), is incredibly risky.
The Appeal of Comic Books
Comics are great because you can make them fairly quick (vs. say a film), you aren’t limited by special effects or budget, and it’s still a small-ish community. If you are doing great work, you’ll stand out, and that leads to more work.
I really enjoy writing comics because every time you collaborate with new people, be it artists or editors, you get new work that can be a little (or a lot!) different than what you did before.
It’s an art from where you can constantly reinvent yourself, even on a month-to-month basis, and I love that freedom.
Five Ghosts is an action/adventure/pulp series with a literary influence. It follows the exploits of a treasure hunter named Fabian Gray, a man who was possessed by five ghosts that take the forms of literary characters.
Fabian can “channel” the powers of each ghost and use their abilities, giving him a number of talents that help him on his adventures.
The book really grew out of a love of so many different genres and stories from literature; I often refer to it as my love letter to adventure and genre comics/stories.
I was an English teacher for a few years, so it was a great way to put a lot of my literary favorites into my own, fun action story.
Advice for Comic Book Writers
For starters, you need to hire an artist and start producing work. It will cost some upfront money, but you have to make an actual comic—no one is going to sit around reading your scripts.
It will teach you a lot to see your work actually drawn into art, and it’s one of the few things that you don’t get a feel for unless you’re actually doing it.
You can’t walk up to an editor and expect him to hire you based on “raw talent”—you need to produce something that shows them.
Five Ghosts ended up at Image Comics because we self-published the first issue—we weren’t waiting for anyone’s permission.
It’s very easy to feel like you’re not making headway or your work is going unnoticed. This can lead to being jealous of the success of others, giving up, or just some really general negativity.
You need to get past that and focus on the one thing you can control—your work. Read books, be a student, take a writing class—hone your craft and get better and better.
You can always work harder and be better, and you can control that.
I think it’s a very interesting time, as we have a lot of direct contact and outreach via social media. I don’t think it’s specifically helped me, but being able to promote my work to a direct and passionate audience is always helpful.
I think people really need to be careful with social media though—I’ve seen people ruin their careers with a few tweets. For me, it’s just a great way to interact with the people who enjoy and support my work.
Working in indie comics and mainstream comics like Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse.
For me, my job is largely the same everywhere—I write scripts. With the mainstream companies you are working on characters they own and have such rich histories that it stimulates a different part of my brain—people already know and trust these characters, so it’s up to you as the writer to find something new or exciting to say with them.
It’s much harder, quite honestly, with things you invent yourself.
Even 17 issues in, people need to be validated that a book like Five Ghosts is worth their time.
You can never fall back on years of continuity or character popularity—you always have to be pushing the envelope and doing your best possible work. Sometimes it’s nice to not have that pressure, haha.
Just to continue doing what I’m doing—that is, doing some work for hire (i.e. Marvel and DC) and telling a lot of my own stories. We’re in a very cool time when you can publish original content and that can lead to mainstream work, but for me it’s always find a balance.
If I didn’t have one or the other, I’d be seeking it out, haha! I’d love to do a nice, long run on a big, established character, though. We’ll see what happens!
I tend to try to keep away from a lot of internal monologue, or “caption boxes” in my work. I feel it makes it more cinematic and keeps the action cleaner.
Also, more cinematic, as we rarely have voice overs in film. I’ve also really pushed to have a lot of character and emotional motivation in my work—even at Marvel and DC I want readers to be able to relate to these characters and get what drives them, vs. just having them fight for no reason.
I hope my audience recognizes I’m trying to build towards bigger themes and emotional moments in my stories, but also trying to do that in the most entertaining way possible!
Our Kickstarter was really a godsend as it allowed us to self-publish Five Ghosts.
It was pretty small, all things considered, but it gave us the confidence to know our idea was something special and it also got us a lot of press (which is always a struggle, even more when you’re an unknown).
Really it just fueled my thesis that you have to be making your own work and self-publishing to get anywhere in this business. You’re not always owed success, but you have to put yourself out there.
Tools like Kickstarter are a great way to help you reach your goals, but you have to be realistic about them.
Top 5 Moments
1. Getting to write Doctor Strange. Never expected that, and it’s some of the work I’m most proud of (NEW AVENGERS ANNUAL #1).
2. Having my own ongoing series that people actually read. It’s incredible that we’ve managed to build a following with Five Ghosts, and it means the world to all of us.
3. Working with Image Comics. I had been trying to get a book on Image for a long, long time, and when it finally happened I was so thrilled.
4. Being on panels at conventions. This is kinda silly, but it’s still a thrill to get in front of a crowd and talk about my work.
5. Becoming a full-time writer. I still feel extremely fortunate that I’m able to do this full time. It’s always a struggle and requires a lot of careful financial management, but it’s always been my dream to do a creative job full time, and I’m thankful every day.
What is something about your career that you’d like people to know that they might not?
I am ALWAYS working. Every day, every hour. Being a freelancer doesn’t mean taking it easy—it means you’re always on call, 24/7.
I consider myself to be in a position where I need to work even harder than before, and that means focusing intensely on my work, pushing myself, and being a student of my craft. I constantly read and try to learn more and more.
You are not owed anything in the arts, and people can just as easily stop giving you work and walk away.
You need to define yourself as someone people should pay attention to, and I’m trying to do that by being the very best I can be. It’s all I want to be doing, haha, so it’s certainly no punishment—but it’s a lot more work than most people imagine.
I studied creative writing and English education in college. Both were invaluable and helped my intellectual growth in a huge way; I think education is very important as it gives you a safe place to develop, where you can learn from your mistakes and grow as an artist.
It’s easy to write off college or classes, but what you will learn there is truly vital. Even if it’s not in college, take classes, be a student, and stay inspired.
There have been a number of people who have helped me along the way, but really it was my family for always supporting me.
I took a huge chance by quitting teaching and moving to New York City with barely any money, and then again when I quit my NY day job to write full time, but my family always had my back.
In comics I have so many great peers and friends, but really I owe my career to Jay Faerber—he’s an amazing creator who read my work and supported it with no ulterior motives, just being supportive. He’s fantastic, and his work is always an inspiration, as well as his kindness.
The writer/teacher JOHN TRUBY has also been invaluable to me, though I’ve never met him personally. His books and online lectures have made me truly a better writer, so I’d definitely encourage everyone who is a writer to seek out his stuff.
I’m currently working on FIVE GHOSTS at Image Comics, BROKEN WORLD at BOOM! Studios, AVENGERS WORLD at Marvel Comics, and a few other things I can’t really talk about yet! But definitely check out those three books!
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
Thanks so much for your time, and if you are aspiring creative professionals—don’t wait for permission! Get out there and create, and do it on your own terms.
People love to tell you “no” and that you “can’t do it,” but at the end of the day it’s your career, so get to work and stay positive.
You can make it happen!
Where can people go to find out more information about you and your work?