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Last spring Frank J. Barbiere and Chris Mooneyham raised enough money on Kickstarter to self-publish the first issue of Five Ghosts, the story of a 1930s treasure hunter “haunted” by five familiar-looking ghosts. Fabian Gray is able to use each of their abilities, so essentially he has the powers and knowledge of Merlin, Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, Musashi and Dracula at his disposal.
The comic proved to be a success for the duo at the New York Comic-Con, where it debuted, and soon after Five Ghosts was picked up by Image Comics. The first issue will be re-released in March, followed by the rest of the five-issue miniseries. I spoke with the duo about the book, its move to Image and much more; my thanks to both of them for answering my questions.
Robot 6: Tell me a little bit about yourselves — we’ll start with the personal. When did you start reading comics, and what are some of your favorites?
Frank J. Barbiere: I was lucky to have grown up with a comic book shop in my local mall, so I’ve been reading comics my entire life. The first book I really got into was X-Men 2099 when I was about 7 … it was a really formative experience to go to the shop every month and pick it up in a serialized form. I think exposure from that early age, as well as the Batman and X-Men cartoons, really got me crazy about comics.
I have pretty diverse tastes these days, and certainly read way too many comics, but my favorites are Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris, Unknown Soldier by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli (and others), Crimson by Humberto Ramos and Brian Augustyn, and Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. I also absolutely adore the new Parker books by Darwyn Cooke. And so much more — like I said, I read a lot!
Chris Mooneyham: I can’t really pinpoint when I started reading comics, but it was early. I do remember being wowed in second grade by the first “The Death of Superman” issue illustrated by Jon Bogdanove, which one of my classmates brought in for show and tell. I started getting subscriptions not terribly long after that. So, it’s been a very long love affair, I guess.
These days, I’m painfully out of date with current comics. I tend to go backwards. I’m really into books from the Bronze Age (’70s-’80s). Don’t get me wrong, there is some overlapping. I’m a big fan of Conan (both Dark Horse and Marvel’s versions), Hellboy is my absolute favorite book, ever. Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil is another good one, and I’ll read pretty much anything by Darwyn Cooke.
Barbiere: I’ve been making comics in some capacity since childhood, but got serious about it around seven years ago when I was in college. I’ve worked on a whole bunch of independent stuff that never even got released (mostly pitches and things of that sort) and put out my first “professional” book with Arcana two or three years ago, which was the culmination of work from my early 20s — a lot of which I’m not too proud of now, haha. The interesting thing about publishing your first projects is that you are essentially “growing” in public and working out the kinks as you go along, finding your voice, etc.
I met Chris a few years back and we worked together on a book called Endless West that never saw the light of day, but was a really great learning experience for the both of us.
I’ve been very fortunate to have the chance to work with Dark Horse Comics over the last year or so. I’ve been developing a creator-owned property called The White Suits in the pages of Dark Horse Presents that will hopefully spin off into its own thing in the near future.
Mooneyham: I’ve been making comics professionally since my last year at the Kubert School; which is actually when I first met Frank, and he started bullying me into working with him. The first book I ever worked on was with Frank, called Endless West, which was a sci-fi Western that sort of fizzled out for reasons outside either of our control. Then we started formulating the groundwork for Five Ghosts. We did a five-page pitch, then Frank went on to work on some other things, and I went on to do a couple of issues of a horror book called Anathema.
Earlier this year you ran a successful Kickstarter for Five Ghosts. What was that experience like, and what did you learn from it?
Barbiere: The whole Kickstarter phenomenon is pretty amazing, and honestly took a lot less effort than I thought. It was really refreshing for us to find a bit of a fan base and have people donate completely on spec. It also bolstered our confidence in Five Ghosts, showing us that people were genuinely interested in the concept. I think there is a great community of readers looking for something new out there, and Kickstarter seems like a place where writers and artists can tap into that world.
Mooneyham: Well, Frank is the one that ran it, but for me, it was really encouraging to see that people liked the idea and what they saw. It made me feel like I wasn’t wasting my time doing this art thing.
Following that, you self-published the comic and hit the road to promote it (including debuting it at the New York Comic-Con). How was that experience?
Barbiere: Luckily I’d had the experience of self-publishing before, so Chris and I just brought as much knowledge and enthusiasm to the project as we could. We wanted the books to be special and unique, and coupled with very deliberate book design, we printed them oversize and on newsprint. Press was really receptive of us trying to get the word out, and fans definitely responded better than I could have anticipated–we sold out of books in the first two days of NYCC, which was certainly a first for me. I was just extremely happy to see people resonating with the material.
Mooneyham: NYCC was great this year, and I absolutely credit that with Frank. He really worked his ass off getting people to see our book, and it payed off. We ended up selling out of books because of the positive reviews it was getting. Meanwhile, I’m in the back coloring in my coloring book (inside the lines, of course).
But seriously, this book would be nowhere without Frank’s diligence. He really makes it easy for me, and I think that it shows how hungry he is to be successful in this industry.
Barbiere: After NYCC we were planning on doing the book completely indie, but a lot of people started reaching out with interest of publishing. A lot of Image creators had gotten the book at the con and word got back to Eric Stephenson about it. We got talking through email and things just came together. They’ve been amazing so far and let us just do our thing as far as the content of the book is concerned, but are really working hard to promote the book and get the word out.
Will Image reprint the first issue that you self-published this past fall?
Barbiere: Yes, the first issue is still the first issue. There are a few little things we are tweaking, but only because we were coming down to the wire to get it out in time for NYCC — the content is wholly the same.
Tell me a little bit about the main character, Fabian Gray. How does he end up haunted by these five ghosts?
Barbiere: We purposely dive right into the story in the first issue and don’t go too far into Fabian’s origin. By the time we get to issue five readers will know his back story, but as the copy on the credits page says, he suffered a fairly tragic encounter with an artifact known as “The Dreamstone” that resulted in his “possession.” Fabian is a man who is trying to redeem himself and certainly has lived a complicated life. I think an appeal of the series will be learning what drives him and where he came from, as well as how he ended up being the vessel for five spirits in the form of characters from literature.
Barbiere: There are an endless amount of wonderful literary characters that will hopefully show up in our world. I used to be an English teacher and have a huge appreciation of classic literature and mythology, so working on a project like this is really fun. The main cast of “ghosts” simply were the characters I thought could be most functional to a thief, as well as exciting and iconic.
I like that, despite the supernatural aspect to it, this is really a good old-fashioned adventure comic, with lots of action, twists and exotic locales. What are some of your influences here? (I’m gonna guess one of them would be Indiana Jones, which I realize probably isn’t a stretch.)
Barbiere: We certainly wanted to channel old adventure pulps, but bring a modern sensibility as well as a fun “hook” to it. As you mentioned, for me, Indiana Jones was my first exposure to that world and clearly carries a lot of influence. A lot of the almost “espionage” elements of the book have some clear James Bond elements mixed in there, as well as some swashbuckling that’s informed by old pirate plays I read in college. I’m also a big fan of many mainstream books and hope to bring a strong action vibe to the book, but without getting into the territory of “superhero.”
Mooneyham: Indiana Jones is an influence, definitely. But I would say that it’s really only a superficial one. I think the real influences are classic comic books, like the stuff that Joe Kubert and Alex Toth were doing, back in the day (among several others). Jonny Quest and James Bond are some more (for me), with the exotic locales, even more exotic women, and general feel.
I also like that you pack a lot into this first issue. It has more pages than your typical comic, with it coming in at more than 30 pages, but each page has a lot going on as well. Was it a challenge getting everything you wanted into the first issue?
Barbiere: We really wanted to give readers access to the full scope of the world we are going for here, and with the extra pages I think we do that in the first issue. We have a lot of locations (and will certainly have a lot more) and I think that adds to the “adventure” feel of the book with a bit of globetrotting, etc. We also wanted to get that second action scene in there to really hook readers and leave them with a fun cliffhanger. It was a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly how much to give upfront, but I think the pacing of the issue ended up being a strong point for us.
Mooneyham: It is a high page count for a single issue, but I think that we give them a taste of everything that the book is going to be about. So really, it’s only a 34-page teaser of things to come.
I don’t think that there were any real challenges other than, “How do we make this as awesome and nostalgic as we can, without over doing it?” I think that we’re pretty good at keeping each other in check when it comes to stuff like that. It’s a true collaboration, which makes it fun. I believe that putting the book out through Image is great because we are in control of our creation. We can do whatever we want, and what we want, is to have fun.
What else have you been working on lately?
Barbiere: As I mentioned I’ve been working on The White Suits and some other material over at Dark Horse Comics, but also brewing a few creator-owned projects I hope to debut soon. You can keep up to speed with me on Twitter under the handle @atlasincognita and on my blog.
Mooneyham: Well, I took a little break after NYCC, but now I’m right in the thick of Issue 2. Hopefully, we’ll be working on this book for some time.