This week sees the launch of Black Market by writer Frank Barbiere and artist Victor Santos and published by BOOM! Studios.
Ray Willis is a broken man, a disgraced medical examiner making ends meet by preparing corpses at a funeral parlor. His scientific genius is being wasted—that is, until his estranged criminal brother Denny shows up on his doorstep, supposedly cleaned up and proposing a once-in-a-lifetime partnership to cure not just cancer, but all disease. The catch? It exists within the DNA of superheroes.
We got a chance to sit down and chat with Frank for what wound up being close to two hours. Below is just the stuff having to do with his new series, expect another interview down the road. Warning, if you haven’t read the first issue, there’s some spoilers.
Graphic Policy: How long have you been working on Black Market?
Frank Barbiere: Almost a year now. I had talked to BOOM! Studio at last year’s San Diego Comic-Con. I went out to lunch with them, and we talked about possibly working together. I think I pitched it to them at that point, and they were responsive. And we got really ahead. It was a book I wanted to do years ago before I really got into writing comics. I initially was going to co-write it with my friend. We worked on some script stuff, and it didn’t click. Some friends of mine who are great artists tried to do some stuff, and it just didn’t work. We never even ended up sending it anywhere, because it just didn’t come together. And it just sat in the back of my head. So when I pitched it to BOOM! it was really the loosest concept, I didn’t send them a script or anything, and they really dug the concept. And we reinvented every aspect. I was looking at the original concept from a few years ago and it changed so much, for the better. I’m really with how it ended up. For the longest time, we were just talking about it, and what it would be, and then Victor Santos came on board, and I got really excited because I love his stuff. And we went from there.
Victor is a very fast artist which is amazing. We’re all done already before issue one is even out. BOOM! is really good with planning.
GP: So how did you get hooked up with artist Victor Santos? He’s a hot artist right now with Mice Templar, Polar, and Furious.
FB: That was all BOOM!. I had no idea he’d end up doing it. It’s another case of a book ending up looking better than I expected. I love his Polar. He’s done really awesome stuff. I’ve liked what he’s been doing on Furious too. There’s stuff in Black Market he did a really good job with. He really ramped it up as we went forward. I like working with artists with a good identity and letting them be them. I’d rather artists do their version of the comic, not how I envision them doing the comic.
GP: When it comes to Victor, the thing I noticed with his art is he has an amazing handle on page layout and the flow. And jumping between the past and present which he had to do in Furious.
FB: Some credit is to the colorist Adam Metcalfe, who gave a specific pallet for the past and present that you pick up if you notice. It’s consistent throughout the series which is nice. This is a book I really paid attention to the page turns on. Every page turn is a cliffhanger with the book. It’s made to be a page turner.
GP: I normally read review copies on my iPad and on this one I read it on my laptop, and reading it panel by panel…
FB: That’s Victor. I write the same way for every artist, a full script. I don’t do shot descriptions most of the time. The point where they get pulled over, it’s such a smart elegant layout, I’d have never thought about it. That’s why working with great artists is amazing. They figure out how to take the beats you lay out and work it into such a… and he’s insane, he’s one of the best artists working right now. When I found out he was working on the book, I started writing more mini-panels.
There’s some stuff in issue three that’s so gnarly, I can’t even believe… yeah… soon. Even his covers are astounding. I tried to do it with a few different artists and could never get the covers I’d like. Then Victor on his first try, nails it, he manages embody a quarter of the book in one image.
One of the things about working with BOOM!, is they’re great at pairing content and artist.
GP: Where did the idea for the series evolve from? You said you were working on it with a friend, but where did the idea come from?
FB: I really didn’t want to pitch a creator owned super hero series, because that was a death-knell. I remember reading an interview with Brian Michael Bendis who said “I never want to try to do my own superhero stuff until I had something unique to say about it.” It’s the genre that’s been done to death in comics. We have people who can sell it, Marvel and DC. I’ve been thrilled to see some other stuff pop up here and there. I feel like there needs to be a unique take.
Breaking Bad was a huge influence. I remember watching it and wondered, “what would this be like as a superhero show. What would the hook be?” And that was the jump off for me. I liked the idea of seeing a man who thought he was being altruistic, but truly really bad. I didn’t want to ape it to hard. The initial pitch was much more like the show, there was a son… I liked the idea of it being normal people who find out there’s a cure in superhero blood, but the superheroes aren’t going to just give it up. I really got into this idea, that this was a world of superheroes, but they’re kind of dicks…
GP: That’s one of the first things that struck me. I read it and was thinking if it’s a known thing their blood cures disease, why haven’t the superheroes just hand it over? It’s got to come up in the story.
FB: It is kind of a secret. We see Ray discover it throughout the series. The time line is very amorphous which helped us get a lot in the four issues. There’s the main narrative is, which is what we start off with. It all makes sense in the end. It’s fun to play with the timeline like that. We had to be very organized and I have to give it up to my editors, who helped put that together. There’s stuff that happens in issue two that technically happens before issue one. So people do need to pay attention. It’s fun to withhold some information. In the beginning of issue two, we don’t know if it’s in the present or past and on the third page we get the time stamp.
GP: That stood out in the first issue, it does stand out a bunch. We have the present where they kidnap a hero, but I still wasn’t 100% sure.
FB: I’ll confirm that is the present.
GP: Then you get to a point and it’s clear it is the present. This isn’t the falling out in the story, that’s something else.
FB: Someone else told me that. They were confused at first, but by the last page it was apparent.
BS: Clearly there was some adventure in the past between the brothers…
FB: We do get to see that… It’s funny I was looking back in the notes, and Ray and Denny are two brothers who grew up in Boston, in sort of the ghetto. Ray studied and wanted to get out, and Denny becomes a criminal. That’s never outright said, but it comes out. We get Ray saying that he’s supposed to be the smart one and things like that. Which is nice because the first time Ray sees Denny, he decks him.
GP: Which is nice, because Ray is supposed to be the smart guy, and Denny the tough guy, and it shakes that up a little.
FB: They took shape nicely. It came down to a lot of the character conflict of Breaking Bad. I thought it’d be great to see that in a super hero story. We have, what are supposed to be the forces of good, what if someone found out they weren’t doing enough, and there really was a cure for all disease. Would it be right to take it from them? How would you approach it? It came together nicely. The sub text of the book, without getting too heavy handed, is really class war. Stuff aligns so nicely underneath the surface. Again we have Ray trying to make a good life for himself, his brother being a criminal. Super heroes as the ultimate 1 percent. It’s a fun metaphor that works out really well in the end. It’s also about living in a gray area where there is no good and bad, and where do those things meet.
GP: You’ve seen that a little in other books. You have people who can literally move planets, but they don’t do anything about disease, or hunger, or end pollution. This takes that idea on. You have beings that look down on humanity, and stop criminals…
FB: And that’s the fun question. Is that enough? At the end of the day, they stop criminals, what is that really doing other than small spot treatment on the bigger problem.
GP: Do we get more of a motivation as to why the super heroes haven’t?
FB: You see them, but it’s not their story. They’re really a texturing piece. There’s a few we spotlight on. We never learn where they came from, they’re a force we don’t understand and are better than us.
GP: Do you focus, or bring up why they don’t cure these diseases?
FB: They don’t even really know. We see Ray discover it. Ray discovers it. Biochem kind of knows, but Ray is the missing piece who figures out how to do the cure…. It’s a good question, and I’m thinking, “did we answer that?” But, it comes down to the supers don’t know. But the other thing we build, they wouldn’t give a shit if they did. They’re really not great people in the sense of caring about humans.
We wanted to put it into the fun conflict of the people who are powerless having to deal with the people who are super powered. The weird disparity between that and how scary it would be. And that’s really something that came to the surface really well. You see that the more they deal with the super humans, they’re scary, and weird, and make people uncomfortable. If superheroes appeared in the real world there’d be some trepidation. People wouldn’t sit there thinking how someone just punched a hole in a car and that’s awesome. They’d be thinking that’s a problem.
GP: Maybe this is my worldview but you have Biochem a giant corporation. They’re not doing this to be altruistic. They’re not going to give it away and make a dime, they’ll patent it. Are they any better than the heroes because of that?
FB: When you stumble upon ideas that are good, they perpetuate themselves. And this part of the reason I never let this go. All these things came together nicely. I’m super happy with it. It’s a loaded concept that keeps spinning. I’m so, so happy, and have had a great experience with everyone at BOOM! and with Victor.
GP: I got through the first issue, there’s a lot you can do on it. You hint as to what came before, what’s currently going on. It can easily be a maxi-series.
FB: We’re psyched. Black Market works really well as four issues, but that’s a nice feeling, because some times that feels short. But Black Market fit really well into that. But, how the market it is, and how difficult it is to bring in new stuff. Plus with scheduling… When you look at something like Five Ghosts, which is an ongoing, we have to take two to three month breaks between arcs and really kind of work because the team needs the time, and we’re all working on other stuff.
If it does really well, and we all liked it, and there’s a big universe to get back to it, but issue four closes it nice and tight. My editors at BOOM! are very collaborative, which is nice. We came into it with the concept, and I talked it over with them as to where I want to see it go, and they gave me really good feedback on that. It was a really nice, tight unit, we wanted it to read really well as one piece. I’m proud that it reads well in four.
GP: You’ve worked for DC, Marvel, Image, BOOM!, Dynamite, done creator owned, editorial driven, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
FB: You can’t blame bad work on anybody but yourself. At the end of the day, if you’re unhappy it’s going to show. Now knowing how the sausage is made, everything comes down to you. There are no bad stories, or bad characters, it’s your job to find them. Don’t blame it on the editor, or other stuff, it’s up to you. I want to keep getting better, and do a better job. I hope the stuff I do this year is better than what I did last year. There’s growing pains for everyone. Five years from now, if my work isn’t better, I shouldn’t be writing comics. I want people to write across the board. People say brand your work, I just want to brand it as good. I’m fortunate in having done a bunch of different stuff.