Frank Barbiere writes some of the most consistently interesting comics of anybody in comics these days. His new series Broken World from BOOM! Studios continues a streak of wildly creative comics with fascinating lead characters. I caught up with Frank at San Diego Comic-con and talked character, twists and why it’s so fun to write monsters.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Congratulations on the new series from BOOM!. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about it?
Frank Barbiere: Thank you so much. I’m here promoting Broken World, which actually started coming out in June, but we’ve been working on it for a long, long time- me and my editors, Eric Harburn and Chris Rosa, and the artist, Chris Peterson, and colorist, Marissa Louise.
Broken World is a little bit of a different book for me. I was really excited to do it as it is much more of a character drama versus a big, plotty action story. The hook of it really is rooted in sci-fi, despite it being a very grounded character story.
It’s about a near future where an asteroid is going to destroy Earth. The governments of the world come together and make an evacuation plan to get off the planet. The caveat is that only seventy-five percent of humanity can get off the planet. So clearly they prioritize by who is “important”- world leaders. And then people who are terminally ill can’t go or anyone who has an insane criminal records or anything like that.
But some people just get unlucky. Some people just loose the lottery and can’t go. So our main character is a woman who has kind of a murky past that her family is unaware of and we are unaware of as readers. She is not allowed to get off the planet, but her family is allowed to go and doesn’t know that she’s not allowed to go.
The story picks up with her trying to find a way onto one of the escape ships that are leaving Earth. The first scene she is in a forger’s “office” in like a workshop getting her I.D. forged. It’s a struggle about her trying to get off the planet and figure out a way to keep this secret, but make it work.
There’s a huge twist at the end of the first issue that changes the situation, but really it’s a character story about what you are willing to do for the people you love despite consequences you can’t control.
CB: She’s an interesting, complicated character, too. You aren’tt quite sure what her motivations are at certain points. How do you work on a character who kind of reveals herself to you as you read the story?
Barbiere: It’s funny because we know so much about it- me, my editors, and Chris the artist as well. It makes it so strange that I’d always intended to have a big twist at the end. The big twist in the first issue is something we had been engineering from the start. It was part of the hook of pitching the series to my editors and things like that. So I feel like it is just important to figure all that stuff out. And then as you’re actually writing the script, figuring out what you are going to actually share.
But it’s always until it comes out and you hear responses from people before you realize if it worked or not because I know all the beats and all the secrets. I get to the page turns and I am like, “No, duh. I wrote that.”
I think we found a really good balance. And with the art with Chris and Marissa, they’ve done really, really amazing character acting and coloring and mood. They carry so much of it in the artwork that it makes my job a little easier. I mean, it’s the wordiest book I’ve ever written. We are not doing any captions, so it is all dialogue driven.
It’s a character drama, so we have a lot of people doing direct characterization with dialogue, a lot of indirect characterization, and a lot of really getting to know people quickly by them sharing their opinions. Really the visual acting of the book is top notch. I’m so happy with what the art team has done.
We have a limited number of space; it’s four issues. So we want to get a lot across. The first issue really paints the whole scenario about the evacuation and everything that is going on.
I’m really happy with how we managed to elegantly get that out of the way and get to the character stuff. People responded really well to that. We’re happy to see that. No one asked the wrong questions. People understood the kind of backdrop. I feel like it’s a pretty common genre background at this point. We were able to use that to get the heavy lifting out the way. I was just so worried people would be at me on Twitter like, “What is the science of this?”
One of my good friends did consult me a bit on it. The method of evacuation they’re using is space elevators, which essentially would save a ton of rocket fuel and power to get people up to bigger ships waiting in the atmosphere. So that’s the really the iconography of what you see. You see our characters in front of these elevators, which are these giant towers going all the way up to space, which I also thought was a really cool visual for the book as well.
CB: I’ve been a reading a few different books with space elevators. It seems to be an idea that is catching a lot of attention. But it’s such an interesting visual. It’s such a spectacular visual. When you conceived the book, did you start with the visual or the plot or the character or some combination of all?
Barbiere: It was really the book of wanting to do a survival or post-apocalyptic story, but do it in a really unique way. I think it’s a very popular genre, now more than ever. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to say about that or what I wanted to say about my characters. I was really thinking of the hook of what makes ours specific and what makes ours special was what drove me to think about it.
And then, again, our character is a mother. I think that is really kind of symbolic in all the obvious ways, but also in the fact that she is really driven to go after her family. This is her whole life. She is a character who has a complicated past. Things kind of fell apart and she rebuilt her life.
For me, the real hook of the story is if you go through life and things get not so great and then you work your ass off to rebuild everything and make it better and do what you are supposed to do be doing, and then a disaster happens and ruins it, that’s beyond tragic. You worked so hard to rebuild and make something worthwhile then something you can’t even control ruins it. That’s what was interesting to me. I think that’s what is interesting about a lot of apocalyptic stories. A lot of times the disaster element isn’t something that you caused, but you have to deal with it.
CB: That element of characterization is something I see in a bit of your work.
Barbiere: It’s what I am trying to push. I think it’s really for me as a writer where I’m trying to show I know what I am doing, but to grow and make stuff better. So I am glad you noticed.
CB: Is it an important theme to you, the kind of growth against adversity?
CB: I’m oversimplifying it I suppose.
Barbiere: No, I think that’s the core of conflict. What I always say, and I talk a lot about breaking in…
Clearly my forte is writing, not art, but with new writers and learning to understand that a story isn’t plot. Plot is just the sequencing of events in a story. The story is the bigger machine of character, theme, dialogue, and action. All of that is what a story is. Plot is just, “A man goes to the grocery story. A man wants ice cream. There is no ice cream. He argues with the clerk. He doesn’t get ice cream. He goes home and goes to sleep.” That’s a plot. There’s nothing exciting or interesting about that.
When you layer it more with theme (I’m not going to flush that out more than it is), that’s really what a story is. I think there is, especially in comics where you have the visuals to rely on, you can come up with a really cool aesthetic. You can come with really cool character designs. You can come up with a cool world. But if that actual character core isn’t there, people are just going to read it and it’s just going to happen. It’s not going to matter.
So I have been really trying to push my work more towards the character focused stuff. It’s such a cliché to say, “Oh, it’s character driven.” But for me, studying and finding what that really means and how to apply it to my work has been a really big focus for the last year. I’m really happy with how things are progressing. I think people are noticing a bit, too.
CB: I suppose it’s a cliché to say that things are character driven.
Barbiere: I think people just really don’t know what it means. That’s the thing. I’ve been working to define that for myself first.
CB: I spoke to Chris Claremont last night at the post Eisner’s party. Of all the interviews I’ve done, he may be the writer who talks the most about the importance of character. He’s deeply devoted to the characters that he creates and shepherds with obvious examples. He’s said repeatedly to me now in conversations, “Without the character, the story means nothing. What is Romeo and Juliet unless you care for Romeo and Juliet?” The way he says it is so elementary, but so true to the characters. But there is also such an impulse to create these sophisticated worlds and force characters into them.
Barbiere: It’s funny because it’s the whole thing. I used to be a writing teacher. The years I did that really helped me because having to study and talk about it with other people is always the best way to learn something. It’s so funny that you can be so well read and so analytical, but once you get into it, so many things go out the window and you start forgetting things. Every professional and probably every writer in general knows what they are doing at some level, but you get lost in the moment. There is no bigger bummer than to look back at your own work and be like, “I did the things I know I shouldn’t be doing.”
CB: But sometimes your instinct takes over, right? Or sometimes the character dictates the way to do a scene in a different way? That’s another thing Claremont mentioned to me.
Barbiere: That’s what a lot of people have always said about a lot of the bigger, established characters. I think it really is true that, without over-romanticizing it, you start listening to them and thinking about what they would do.
I was talking about this with Charles Soule, actually, who has clearly done a lot of big characters. It feels like when you’re talking about them with editorial people, you’re talking about people. At this point and time you know how they act. You know how they respond things. You know who they really are. It’s very interesting. It’s a weird phenomenon, but it’s exciting.
I feel like that’s the thing with work-for-hire at say Marvel and DC versus creating your own stuff; there is a safety blanket of knowing those characters and the reader accepting them already. That’s always the difficult thing about putting new work out there, especially when you’re doing a miniseries. You need to make people care about these characters and show them that they are valuable so fast. That’s always something that’s amazed me in film versus television. I think film gets a little bit of an anchor with actors. If we see an actor we know and we understand, you buy him a little bit more. But it’s just so difficult to make anyone care about anything, so when it works, it’s a really nice discovery.
CB: So how do you make someone care about a character who they’ve never met before? As you say, she’s a complicated woman.
Barbiere: I have a few things that are the most important things. One is we always need to know what they want. If your readers don’t know what your character wants, why are they reading? They’re not just watching someone go about their day. They need to know what they want. They need to understand why they want it.
I think it’s a really big misconception that people need to like your character. I don’t think they need to like them; I think they need to understand them. If they understand them, they can be empathetic and get it.
To me, that’s the biggest, biggest thing. Every scene you don’t want the reader guessing, “Why are they do this? Why is this going on?” You really want a clear focus. That’s why with most of my work you see very object-oriented people, like Lana trying to get to her family and Ray trying to rescue his sister. I think that’s really important. I know there’s definitely a lot of styles of writing where it’s more discovery oriented. But even when it is vague, the reader needs to find out because if they don’t know, they are not going to attach.
CB: That’s why something like Game of Thrones is so popular. People talk about the violence and everything, but what they really talk about are the characters and the richness of them.
Barbiere: And they all have such clear-
CB: Yeah, and a lot of them are incredibly unlikeable.
Barbiere: That’s it.
The example a writing teacher used really well is Pulp Fiction. These are not nice people, but they’re funny and we understand what they are going through. So we like them, but we definitely don’t want to be them or have them even be our friends. But we get it.
I think that’s the core of making someone relate to a character. They’re relating to the idea of when someone wants something that they can’t get. We’ve all dealt with that in our lives. That’s really the pain of conflict and the thing we all understand. I think once you can get that across, people kind of buy in a little bit.
When they’re like, “Oh, I wanted to get a job and have been fired or denied it,” whether or not their job is contract killing someone or working at Staples, we can understand the feelings that are there. That’s something that really interests me about storytelling in general. I think that’s really what I am building towards. As I constantly say, it is seeing a film where it just happens and you are kind of entertained versus you walk out and you feel something. I am hoping people are going to start feeling something when they are read my books.
CB: Well, you hope so!
Barbiere: And if not, you can feel ripped off at the end. But that’s the feeling that we can obviously create.
CB: Wow, okay! I wasn’t expecting you to get dark there all the sudden, Frank. You did use the term “working towards” a few times so far. So do you feel like your writing is still a work in progress in a lot of ways? You’re still evolving your scope?
Barbiere: I feel like people who don’t are going about it wrong. There’s not going to be an ah-ha moment. I want everything I work on to be better than the last thing. You always learn. Comics is one of the things you really only learn to do it by doing it.
So I’ve been really happy I’ve gotten the opportunity to be prolific. A lot of people definitely work on things. It all helps. I don’t get too bummed if I feel like something wasn’t quite there if it missed because I learned from it. Early on, I read,I think, Matt Fraction interviewing someone in The Comics Journal. He was talking about the scariest day in comics is Wednesday because that is when everyone kicks back and gives opinions and goes crazy. But after Wednesday, it’s over. It’s on to the next thing. And you’ve got to just keep moving forward.
CB: Well, you want to keep your stuff out there, too, and available. I have to ask you about Howling Commandos.
Barbiere: I’m very excited about that in terms of moving forward.
I love Marvel. I‘ve done a little bit of stuff there, which has been exciting. So I’m really, really excited to be a part of the fall relaunch and get a number one and an ongoing series.
It’s a book I never imagined writing. People say that a lot, but like Hit Monkey is on our team. Hit Monkey is a character I never, ever, ever, ever imagined writing in any expansive of time.
It’s fun. I say it often as well. I have my writerly things I champion. One of the things I champion is there are no bad characters because of what I said. Everyone wants something and everyone is doing something. It’s about making the readers understand those characters.
We have a very weird line up, which is inspiring because it makes me figure out how do we identify with these monsters for lack of a better term. Like what are they doing that is actually relatable or interesting? The framework of the book is that Dum Dum Dugan found out he is a life model decoy. I think that was during the original sin. So he’s dealing with this huge conflict of identity. He thought he was this great solider, but he is really just a copy who has the memory. He goes through this crisis of, “I don’t know who I am. Why do I even exist? I am just a gross simile. I am a monster.” He comes to realize, “Oh well, I have to be Dum Dum because no one else will.”
So now he is in charge of this team of rejects and monsters and kind of teaching them, “We are soldiers who fight for a cause.” He kind of takes a leadership role. It’s really fun to write a conflicted leader like that. They’re a secret division of SHIELD called STAKE that hunts supernatural monsters and investigates the spooky stuff that is too out there for the Avengers or SHIELD. So it’s a really fun framework to work in.
It’s a crazy cast, but it’s an interesting cast. I think people are going to be really excited. And Brent Shoonover, who is doing the art, is an awesome collaborator. He found such a strong visual tone for the book. The minute he drew the first thing, I was like, “That’s going to work for people.”
CB: Cool. It’s an ongoing, right?
Barbiere: Yes. Hopefully we will have many, many stories to tell.
CB: Excellent. What else are you working on, Frank?
Barbiere: So in the fall we‘ll be wrapping up Broken World. I have another thing at BOOM! that we’ll probably announce in 2016 that I am really excited for. Five Ghosts just wrapped it’s third arc. #17 actually comes the last week in July. So the third trade will be in August.
I actually am co-writing Lobo with Cullen Bunn at DC. That’s another character I never thought I would write, especially with the new incarnation of Lobo. So that’s been really exciting for me. I love Cullen and getting to co-write with him is really fun. He’s really smart and really organized, so he makes my job easier. What else?
I don’t know when we are going to launch it, but it has been announced that I am a part of Mike Marts’ new company, AfterShock. So that’s another creator-owned thing I am going to have out there. I can’t talk about what it is, but it is a product I’ve wanted to do for a long time with an artist I’ve really wanted to work with for a long time.
So I’m really excited to get that out there. I feel like I’ve struck a really nice balance for myself of work for hire and stuff I own soI can bring the best me to each of these projects and not be like, ‘Oh, I wish this was more like x, y, z,’ because I can scratch all those itches at once.