New Gangster-Noir Series The White Suits Is Nearly Here – The Bleeding Cool Double Interview With Frank Barbiere and Toby Cypress

The new Dark Horse gangster-noir series The White Suits is coming to publication on February 19th, and it’s a property with a fairly long history as one of Five Ghosts writer Frank Barbiere’s personal dreams come true. It was a concept long before it was a reality, and its first incarnation appeared in the pages of Dark Horse Presents with artist Toby Cypress creating a radical indie pulp-noir feel for the story through his highly individualistic art style.

Now we get the full dose of this unusual story with equally unusual art about the New York gangster underworld, a team of assassins in white suits who seem to be hunting them down, and a man whose patchy memory may be the key to understanding the mysterious, frenetic violence the reader is thrown into. Both Frank Barbiere and Toby Cypress talk to us here at Bleeding Cool about their respective crafts on the book and why it has such a powerful, unique feel as a series.

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Hannah Means-Shannon: So you’ve handled a gaggle of fiction genres in Five Ghosts, but it looks like you were holding a few in reserve here for The White Suits. What do you think has shaped your view of organized crime stories and detective noir stories the most? What about spy stories?

Frank Barbiere: Being a kid of the 80’s the biggest touchstones for me growing up were obvious things like James Bond, Mission: Impossible, etc.  When I was a bit older I really started to enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s movies–Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, and then when I was in college, Kill Bill.  Now, as an adult, I’ve been digging more into actual pulp and true crime–especially highlighted by Darwyn Cooke’s recent wonderful Parker adaptations, and even more contemporary comics things like Ed Brubaker’s Criminal and Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets.  Clearly Sin City was a huge impact on me–I read the books when I was a kid and revisited them also while in college when the movie came out.  It’s not too hard to connect the dots and see how much of an effect Sin City had on me creating The White Suits, but I feel like we’ve been able to carve out a more specific vision than just a watered down version of Sin City.  It is funny that it’s coming out with Dark Horse though, and I think there’s a nice bit of symmetry there.

I think what’s interesting about the more modern takes on genre fiction is that we (my contemporaries and I) are students of so many genres, so many stories, that it’s become more about our reconstruction/interpretation of genre than keeping inline with the tried and true.  I think I’ve absorbed a real love of pulp aesthetic, over the top action, mystery, and the dark and interesting characters that inhabit pulp and film noir.  I’ll be the first to say that White Suits is still very much an action story at its core (the same with Five Ghosts), but I feel like it’s fun to get some of the more specific genre elements in as well–such as the main character with amnesia, a femme fatale of sorts, and faceless, brooding villains.

HMS: Why is writing a story about a man with a fragmented memory interesting to you? What do you hope the effect will be on the reader?

FB: I think that firstly there are a lot of great opportunities for Toby [Cypress] to work his artistic magic in fractured, visual tableaux–in comics, after all, it’s about the visual.  I didn’t want to just have mountains of captions with hard boiled statements like “Who the fuck am I?”–I wanted to see fractured images, interpretive art, and really take some chances.  It’s why I’m so happy to have Toby as a co-creator here–he has really taken the material to a new level and made it his own.

I think it also makes for a great hook and will keep people reading.  At the core, this is a mystery–what happened to the man known as Prizrak?  Who are the White Suits?  How do Anderson and her father tie in?  We will get these answers in the four issues, and the promise of that (and that the answers will be exciting and challenging for the reader) is something that I hope compels people to read on–that and Toby’s astonishing art.

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HMS: What was your process on White Suits? Did it start as an image, an idea? What pushed you to develop it as opposed to other ideas you might have in passing as a comics writer?

FB: The White Suits is a pretty old “concept”–it was one of the original ideas I had when I started trying to break into the industry.  First and foremost I wanted something that would be visually striking.  This lead to the idea of a group of characters who wore white suits–it was a great way to be iconic without being too obvious or cheesy.  Then, to shroud these characters in mystery, give them a rich history, and have them be slowly eliminating the crime families of New York–these elements all came into play and started making a story, more importantly a plot, and through it all I started to find something to say with the piece, what I really wanted it to represent.  Through it’s been a long path to end up here, I think the project has grown into something very unique and special, and I wouldn’t trade all the missteps and obstacles that lead to us being here, as it’s only gone on to make the project stronger.  I simply cannot mention the project without mentioning my editor Chris Warner who has been by our side the whole time, fought to keep the project alive, and really steered us through the whole process.  Chris actually gave me my first real shot in comics, so I’m so honored to still be working with him.  Plus, he’s a bit of a silent legend in the industry, so the opportunity to learn from him and interact regularly is a real blessing.

HMS: There’s a lot of violence in White Suits, though that’s certainly appropriate to the genres you are drawing on. What does violence mean for you in terms of a narrative? Does it move action, or is it a bigger theme of competition, mental toughness etc.?

FB: On one hand it certainly delivers the “action” part of the narrative–for better or worse, violence is exciting, and I think when you have an amazing, interpretive artist like Toby, he’s able to present that creatively and thematically with his art, and it can truly build towards something purposeful.

This story is very much about violence and revenge, and in the end we are going to get three very different reactions–the violence in our story is going to result in three very different outcomes.  Personally, I don’t believe in violence as a way to solve problems, but some of the characters I’m writing do–so we’ll definitely follow their stories and see where it takes them.  It really becomes a narrative about people who think guns and violence can change the world and people who think a person, rather than a weapon or manmade tool, can make a difference.

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HMS: You are a very innovative artist, Toby (just getting that out of the way). What makes you feel like you can take such risks in terms of originality in the mainstream? Is there anyone inspirational to you who you think has paved the way for breaking with traditional comic styles?

Toby Cypress: Thank You! Hahah, that’s a great question. Honestly, I wish I had an opportunity to follow what’s happening in mainstream comics.  I’m using design and composition principles, as a structure, not just spitting out a drawing.  So, I think my stylized drawing is still relatable.

Mainstream comics have their own thing going on. I liked when Mike Mignola did a couple Batman books, or when Moebius did a Silver Surfer. It seems to me that these things are still possible, although I’d rather see artists do their own thing, and the mainstream audience come around to meet them.

My main concern is to draw what I would buy, and somehow this principle allows me to be a lot less self-conscious. Many people have said, “It looks like you are having fun”, and it’s true. I’m not trying to be unique. I want to have fun in art, and for me that means I’m creating something that I would buy. I figure I’m not the only comics fan that likes something different in comics, so I’m hoping to pull plenty of other comic fans with me.

I like artists like Moebius, Jorge Zaffino, Jack Kirby, Hugo Pratt, Sergio Toppi. Their drawings tend to feel like penmanship, natural, not overly designed, or forced into a look. They definitely paved the way for me to feel comfortable breaking away from traditional looking styles in favor of expressive natural comics. Drawing is hard work, why make it tougher by drawing unnaturally?  As long as I use basic composition principles, it keeps things simple, and that helps me feel confident that no matter how wild I draw a scene, it will make perfect sense. To me, if I can do that in a drawing then I’m having fun, and I’m going to want to buy it.

I don’t worry about what mainstream comics are doing because that is sort of a separate commercial medium. Mainstream comics are created in synergy with various media properties so cinematic, and photo-realistic art, makes sense in a marketing strategy.

HMS: Can you tell us a little about how you came up with the cover design for Issue #1 of The White Suits? I see that it has a kind of division that’s very interesting between a kind of hellish underworld with the White Suits above, and a white, falling space of people below. It’s almost the opposite of what you might expect to see.

TC: Cover one was very tough because I didn’t want an average cover. I was so happy that Frank, and Chris, our editor, chose that design of the many thumbnails I submitted. I didn’t want to tip my hand with suggesting which cover I preferred, sometimes that can be embarrassing or heartbreaking when I’m out-voted so, I let them make a case for which cover they liked. Hopefully I’ve made my case for a cover by drawing some great designs to choose.

Like you suggest, the cover is a bit reversed in the Hell/Heaven dynamic. The book is centered on the crime underworld, and assassins, so there really isn’t any room for good guys. I’m attracted to contrast, thick/thin, light/darn, rough/smooth, big/small etc., so I wanted to use as much contrast on the cover as possible. The story screams major contrasts of all sorts. I liked the idea of these assassins placed atop of the composition in dark, with gangsters at the bottom. However, I also wanted to use contrasting body language. The White Suits are calm, clean, versus the gangsters who are animated, and dirty. Initially it was suggested to have some very “comic booky” cover with the Suits standing over some gangsters, and maybe a little more storytelling in the design, but I decided to submit one that might boil all that down more dramatically. I’m glad we all agreed to go for it.

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HMS: One panel that really struck me early on in Issue #1 is of our central character getting shot in the head and talking about memory, and while the bullet hits one side of his head, there’s an explosion of memories on the other side of his head (that shows the USSR etc.), as the exit or result. When you realized you had to depict that part of the narrative, how did you come up with that solution? It’s genius.

TC: Frank described the spread in the script, and I had no idea how to approach it. I really did not look forward to communicating the concept of his memories bleeding out from his head. It’s an important part of the story, so I slept on it, and went back to my golden rule “draw what you like”. It was all a matter of composing the important elements in a way that I enjoyed.  Jack Kirby is my favorite artist when it comes to double page spreads, but Sergio Toppi can be just as powerful with 2 dimensional designs, and collage, so I thought “don’t try to get fancy here, just draw it as you feel it in the script” I went with a very clear composition that puts the violence in your face, and makes something beautiful. Again, contrasting violence with beauty.  I credit Frank for writing without pulling punches, nothing poetic or fancy, but to the point, and honest. I felt inspired. Again, I focused on an honest way of communicating the scene. So I couldn’t get fancy, just make it clear, and rely on my sense of taste to create an image that made me excited; it’s really as simple as that.

HMS: This comic begs me to ask about your choices in color tones from panel to panel. We get inky washes of black and white, some panels with a blocked out single color accent, and then—suddenly—really explosive color confined to one panel. How did you decide on the visual rhythm of those choices? What do you have in mind with this technique?

TC: Frank really pitched me the idea from the beginning that we would want something “different”. And he stressed a black/white/red colored book. I feel like we have a lot of themes to help dictate a color design of the book. Revenge, Soviet Cold War assassins, and violence. So I basically allow the script to dictate how the color shifts, and exploit the red to suggest the soviet backstory, the revenge driven plot, and the violent people in our world.

Our limited color use has its advantages, and drawbacks. Obviously the advantage of limited color is easy to read panels. Heavy color in books are pretty, but distracting to rhythm/pacing in panel to panel storytelling. The drawback is that if I use only red in one panel here/there, and sprinkled throughout the book, then the eye will jump around looking for the visual queues. Again hurting pacing, so when I’m designing the “colored” page as limited as I can, it often takes just as long to color as a full page because I have to be very aware of what I’m doing. I can’t get too fancy, and I can’t be too boring. I want the reader to move gracefully from one panel to the next, and allow the page design to “look” balanced. I also introduce some fully colored panels every so often for punctuation, but I try to build up to it like a climax, and build down gracefully.

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When Frank and I worked on the Dark Horse Presents short story I used grey tones to sort of fill out the overall page more, but Frank thought we go back to simpler black/white/red, and I’m glad he believed in it because I was able to shake off the crutches. Color really isn’t necessary in comics, it just complicates them.  It means that I really don’t have to fit the work into a box of mainstream sensibilities, and can instead focus on storytelling/design. So I’m embracing it. I’m a big fan of full color. I trained as a painter, I’m pretty good at using color to design, but color is a powerful tool that is overused. In comics I believe color hurts panel to panel composition unless it’s monochromatic, so I’m using color as a design “scalpel”, and using it to punctuate the story rather than illustrate.

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Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter