Five Ghosts: The Story of Fabian Gray [Interview]

August 13, 2015

Five Ghosts: The Story of Fabian Gray [Interview]

Image Comics: Some creators have stories they've been wanting to tell since they were kids, while others describe the origins of their stories as pure inspiration one day. What was the gestation process like for FIVE GHOSTS?

Frank Barbiere: I’d say that FIVE GHOSTS is a mix of both—a moment of true inspiration and a love letter to all the different genres, stories, and ideas I’ve had storming around in my head from youth. I had met Chris when he was still a student at The Kubert School and we had been collaborating for over a year already when I thought of FIVE GHOSTS. I was an English teacher at the time, so I certainly had a lot of literary material kicking around in my head, but I was very inspired by Chris’s style. The first Parker graphic novel had come out, and Chris and I were talking about how we’d love to do something pulpy/period-driven.

We had agreed we’d love to do something about a rogue/thief type character and started talking about Indiana Jones as a touchstone. I was literally in bed one night running different ideas through my head and was very focused on trying to come up with something to set our main character apart from just an adventurer. I randomly thought "what if he had detective powers, and could be hyper-attentive..." and from there I thought "What if he could channel Sherlock Holmes?" Once I locked into that, I naturally extended it into "What other literary characters would be of use to a thief?"

From there, Chris started sketching and I wrote the first issue during my lunch breaks over the next week. Once we had the central conceit and knew a bit about the world, it became an exercise for me to figure out what the nature of these "ghosts" would be, how our character got these abilities, and what the opposition was. That’s when I realized we had the opportunity to throw in even more literary ideas and the controlling theme of "Where do stories come from and how do they affect our lives?" Since then, FIVE GHOSTS has been the perfect vehicle for us to put all of our different ideas, loves, and genres we’re passionate into. It’s really a dream project, no pun intended, and we’re very happy to have it at Image where we have no editorial mandates and can bounce around from genre to genre on a whim.

Chris Mooneyham: Frank pretty much nailed this one.

IC: FIVE GHOSTS is an adventure tale, which is a genre with a long history, both in comics and pop culture in general. What are you favorite entries in the genre, whether they influenced FIVE GHOSTS or not?

FB: As I mentioned, I feel like Indiana Jones was my big touchstone (and entry point) into pulp adventure. One thing I often comment on is how the current generation of writers produce really interesting work because our concepts of genre are normally informed by works such as Indy, where it was a very distilled piece of pulp that had a bunch of other of Lucas’s interests in it as well. This allows a very fresh take on genre, in our case adventure, and I think my idea of the genre is very different from someone else’s. Chris’s style, as well as Lauren Affe’s colors, really make it gel on the page and turn FIVE GHOSTS into a unique book. I’m a huge fan of a lot of adventure stuff, and particular in comics I have recently discovered Corto Maltese which is just amazing. I’d be remiss to not mention League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which our book shares a lot of DNA with. Whereas Moore’s work tends to focus a lot more on the literary, I always like to say FIVE GHOSTS wears the literary on its sleeve and is much more of an action/adventure.

CM: Indiana Jones was definitely our main source of inspiration in the adventure aspect. But I'd also throw in The Mummy, and The Phantom, too. Yes. The movies.

Comics-wise, (for me, anyway), I'd say Marvel's Bronze Age titles like Tomb of Dracula and Conan The Barbarian, along with more contemporary books like Mignola's Hellboy, and as Frank has already mentioned, Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen were huge influences on me, specifically, when it came to designing everything.

IC: Chris, your art is perfectly suited to this kind of story. Did it take you long to find your sea legs, so to speak?

CM: I'm not too sure. I was definitely starting to find something by the end of our first issue. And there are things I still like when I go back and look at the first volume. But there also wasn't a lot of downtime between finishing The Haunting of Fabian Gray and when we started Lost Coastlines, so it's hard to know exactly when things "clicked" for me. However, I do think it was during Lost Coastlines that we started seeing the way Fabian and co. were supposed to look. But, I'm also not "trying" to make it look pulpy. That's how I draw. I grew up with the classic masters of comics, From Kubert to Romita Jr., those are the guys that taught me how to make comics, so the pulp aesthetic was really second nature to me.

IC: One thing I enjoy about FIVE GHOSTS is that it covers a lot of ground, genre-wise. It's not just about a lantern-jawed hero in a specific setting. There are heists, magic, monsters, pirates, and even more besides. How do you describe FIVE GHOSTS to people?

FB: I really start with the general concept, "an Indiana Jones-type adventurer in the '30s who is possessed by five ghosts that take the shape of literary characters." I’ve found, thankfully I might add haha, that people tend to be intrigued by the concept and then I can start talking about how it’s a love-letter to genre and some of the more "where do stories come from" ideas. Really, that whole "love letter" idea is what allows us to bounce around—we are lucky enough to have a concept/world that is pretty encompassing and we can work what we’re excited and inspired by into every issue. I’d honestly say that FIVE GHOSTS is a project that is purely us, the creative team; it’s the comic we make in our garage that we put all of our love into.

CM: I don't. I let Frank do that. He talk good.

IC: Frank, one thing I personally enjoy is hearing people describe what they like best about working with their collaborators. So, I'm going to put you on the spot: what do you like best about Chris's artwork?

FB: Without over romanticizing it, I have to say that Chris draws exactly how I wish I could; when I write something for Chris, the work he produces is not only exactly what I see in my mind, but it even transcends what I’d hope for. A lot of success is being in the right place at the right time, and I’m really fortunate to have met and become friends with Chris early on in our careers. As a writer, I’m able to keep our scripts loose and let Chris bring a lot of his own sensibilities and style—FIVE GHOSTS is a true co-created, collaborative comic. As I had mentioned with genre, Chris’s work really is such an amazing combination of art that’s informed by classic styles, as well as his own excellent sensibilities and modern instincts.

One thing people don’t realize is how much design work happens on the fly in comics. We work on a monthly basis when we’re in the grind, and we rarely have time to predict what’s going to be coming. Chris really is an amazing designer and innovator—from the scenery, character wardrobes, and the character designs themselves, he always nails it. The same can be said for our colorist, Lauren Affe—we know that instinctively Lauren will always surprise and amaze us, and it really is such an amazing experience to get pages of FIVE GHOSTS in your inbox, haha.

IC: Chris, same question for you. What do you like best about Frank's writing?

CM: Reading a script from Frank (and keep in mind I've been doing it for a long time now), is like reading an old journal entry. It's very familiar, but has a touch of eloquence you don't quite remember having at the time. For me, specifically, it's like he's been inside my head, and has taken my mishmash thoughts, and sorted them out on paper.

We've been working together for a long time, so he knows what needs to be said, and what doesn't. His scripts have gotten a lot looser as we've gone on (as have my roughs for him), and he lets me interpret things the way I want to, or think best fits the book.

So, if I had to pick the one thing I like most about Frank's writing, it would be that he trusts me. He mostly plays to my strengths as an artist, but sometimes makes me confront (and conquer) my weaknesses. He's a damn good collaborator, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to work with him.

IC: By the end of the hardcover, there are a number of subplots in play. How firm of an idea do you have of where FIVE GHOSTS is going in the future? Do you play it by ear, or do you have it plotted pretty tightly until the end?

FB: I basically have outlines/ideas for larger "arcs"—i.e. what is contained in a trade. Within that space we can pivot and move as we see fit, but each one tends to be dominated by a genre or bigger aesthetic/story idea (be it horror, pirates, islands, etc.). I know the main arcs of our characters and where we want to see them end up, but it will be a long while until we’re "done." I also know the last story—but getting there will be an adventure in of itself! While we may be taking periodic breaks, FIVE GHOSTS is a story we will always come back to as it really is personal in a way that can’t be replicated. It’s also our first book, haha, so it will also hold a special place in my heart as something that was very pure and contained our blood, sweat, and tears. A lot of people don’t know, but we self-published the first issue, so truly this is a book we’d be making regardless of being able to publish it in the direct market (though we are still honored and humbled by it having a home at Image!).

CM: On the art end of things, I usually have enough time to design a main supporting character or two, and that's kind of it. The settings are organic enough to sort of piecemeal together as we go, along with any third string, or background characters.

Usually, Frank and I will talk about what we want to do next, be it characters or settings. I remember when we were first talking about Lost Coastlines, he asked what I wanted to draw, and I replied with "Sharks! OOH, and pirates!" So, I find out the basis of the story when we first start brainstorming, but don't get the particular story beats until I get the script.

IC: FIVE GHOSTS has a nicely pulpy design, too. How important is it to both of you that the series exudes this feel, that it feels like an artifact or homage to a certain genre?

CM: I think it's important that it stands out on shelves, more than anything else. And I think it does. You don't see any other books that look like FIVE GHOSTS. Sure, there's a plethora of pulp out there now, but FIVE GHOSTS (in my most humble opinion) looks legitimately retro. I've met a few fans who, at first, thought this book was made in the 70s. That's a huge compliment to me, as it means I'm getting something right.

FB: From the get-go FIVE GHOSTS was meant to use the pulpy strengths of Chris’s artwork to evoke a certain feel and style, and I think we’ve really taken it into the DNA of the book. I’ll never use those choices as a crutch, but I think it really informs the way our characters speak (and sometimes act), and it’s a nice guidepost for me as I write. I think a big part of what makes the book special is the style and time period—though I’m quick to remind readers it takes place in an "amorphous '30s", not at an actual point in time (hence some of the fun discrepancies such as pirates existing as well as Nazis)—so it will always be an integral ingredient in the FIVE GHOSTS recipe. It’s also just a nice design principal for the storylines—they homage and hopefully begin to transcend pulp and genre. I think knowing what a project is is very important, and we’ve done enough FIVE GHOSTS at this point to be self-aware and work on making the next volume the very best iteration of it we can!