Jeff Marsick and Scott Barnett invite you to attend a Dead Man’s Party! An assassin puts a contract out on his own head and a select group of peers have thirty days to fulfill it. For the world-renowned hit man known only as Ghost, ordering a Party is a last resort, a way to go out on his terms, at the top of his game. The invitations are sent, the killers are coming… and that’s when things go horribly wrong…
A former military officer, Jeff Marsick writes novels, screenplays, and comic books. He’s also a regular contributor to the comic book and pop-culture website, Newsarama, as well as the writer and co-creator of the self-published comic series Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers. He recently won Darby Pop Publishing’s “Breaking Into Comics” script writing contest, and from that will come Indestructible: Stingray #1, to be published by IDW/Darby Pop in May.
Scott Barnett is an illustrator, designer, storyboard artist and 3D modeler/animator. His comic book work can be found on painted covers, trading cards, and pin-ups for the comic book and card industry. He’s had work published by Image, Malibu, Chaos, Avatar, London Night Studios, Topps, and several others.
IM: Tell us about how you first met and decided to collaborate on a comic book series?
SB: Jeff and I had actually known each other for years before we collaborated on Dead Man’s Party.
JM: We frequented the same comic book shop, Heroes Cards and Comics in Norwalk, Connecticut, and we’d always talk about storylines and ideas that we had of our own. I knew that Scott was an artist, but I was kind of new to writing comics, so it didn’t immediately dawn on me to collaborate on something.
SB: Yeah, it wasn’t until about five years ago that we finally started throwing ideas around and getting serious about doing something. I emailed Jeff with this idea of a hitman putting a hit out on himself, and he came back with this concept of a competition he called a ‘Dead Man’s Party.’
JM: It was crazy. Hand to God, I’ve had this idea for decades, all the way back to when I was in college. And yes, Oingo Boingo is involved. For some reason, this concept of a bastardized Viking funeral/Irish wake has always been the movie that plays in my head when I hear their ‘Dead Man’s Party’. But I’ve never known what to do with it. So when Scott emails me, my response is “Ooh! I’ve got it!”
SB: And our ideas meshed together perfectly into what you’re reading now.
IM: Who are some of your creative idols and influences and how important are they to the creation of this series?
SB: For me, it’s John Byrne, Joe Jusko, and Alex Ross. How important are they to the creation of THIS series? Well, I used to describe my art style on DMP as ‘Alex Ross meets Sin City’. By no means am I suggesting I’m as good as Alex Ross, by the way. Byrne’s influence shows up in my panel layouts—at least I hope it does—because I think Byrne is a master at laying out a page. And Jusko? I just simply wanted to BE him when I was younger. His Marvel Masterpieces card set is still a dream job of mine…
JM: As a comic writer, there are a couple altars that I pray at: Peter David, Brian Michael Bendis, and Ed Brubaker in particular. But I’m also influenced by a wide variety of novelists and screenwriters: Dennis Lehane, Duane Swierczynski, Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Elmore Leonard, David Benioff… this list can go on and on.
SB: It usually does. You’re showing surprising restraint.
JM: Haven’t had my coffee yet. As for how important these influences have been to the series’ creation, I wouldn’t say they’ve been instrumental in its CREATION, but they have been important to me as a writer and helping me find my voice and how I envision a story to unfold.
IM: This story was set up as a four-issue series. Are there any plans for a sequel or prequel?
SB: First of all, we’d found we couldn’t reach the conclusion we wanted in four issues, so there will, in fact, be—
JM: Wait for it, wait for it…
SB: A fifth issue.
SB: But to answer your question, we have a lot of plans for this series. Not only do we have ideas for sequels, I’d be interested in exploring some of the supporting characters we’ve introduced here. Jeff has done an amazing job creating characters that have had very small roles but had so much depth from a character development standpoint that I want to revisit them. For instance, there’s a character that shows up in issue four that I hadn’t expected to appear at all in the series. Jeff mentioned him briefly in the first issue, but I thought it was a throwaway line, just something that Ghost mentioned simply to prove a point. I had no idea he would show up later in the series. Now that I’ve ‘met’ him, I want to learn more.
Also, we’re currently talking with another creator about a crossover between our titles. We can’t say anything about it yet, but it’d be very cool if we can make it happen. And I think we will.
JM: The thing about this world we’ve created is that there are so many characters and plots that we can explore. I wrote a couple pieces of flash fiction for the noir and pulp website, Out Of The Gutter Online, and there are some new characters that we can bring out into the light.
IM: Scott, you draw the series at the actual print size. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s ever done that. How did you get so comfortable drawing realistic people and actions on such a small canvas? Is this a standard procedure for your other comics and professional work?
SB: Does that mean I’m a trailblazer?! Awesome! For those not familiar with the process, comic art pages are generally drawn at 11″x17″, which helps tighten up the artwork when it’s reduced for printing. The reason I chose to work as small as I do is to try and reduce the time it takes to create a page, given that I work on the series in my spare time. So far, I’ve only employed this approach on Dead Man’s Party, but then again, this is also the first time I’ve done sequential interiors. I used to work much larger, but I started painting sketch cards several years ago, and after—literally!—a few thousand of them, I became pretty comfortable at working smaller.
IM: Is it a coincidence the main character looks like the artist? Who would you cast if series was optioned as a live action feature or mini-series?
JM: Man, you should see the eyes light up when people come to our booth at conventions, get hooked by the pitch, then do a double-take between the cover and Scott standing behind the table. “Hey, is that YOU?” Never gets old.
SB: And it’s not a coincidence that Ghost resembles me. As you can probably imagine from my art style, I tend to use a fair amount of photo reference. In order to get the shots I wanted, I started having others photograph me ‘acting’ out the scenes. In another attempt to save time, I suggested to Jeff that we use our likenesses for the major characters, but before I’d gotten to start using Jeff’s likeness, he wrote out of the series the character who we had planned to ‘be’ him.
JM: Ah, writer’s prerogative.
SB: Well, I hope we bring that character back at some point, since we’ve developed a rich backstory for him.
JM: I keep wondering if I’ve offended Scott in the past because he’s awfully eager to either put me in a comic in a compromising position or have me killed at some point.
SB: You don’t remember what happened in Jersey back in ’09?
SB: Well, there you go.
JM: Wait. What?
SB: As for casting: have you seen Hugh Jackman in Prisoners? I dare you to tell me that guy isn’t a dead ringer for Ghost! In fact, because I share a passing resemblance to him, many people assume that’s who I patterned Ghost after. Until they meet me, and then they ask why I’m a shorter version of him!
JM: Someone at a convention thought you were patterning after Pacino, remember?
SB: Oh, yeah. And I appreciate you resisting the urge to quote that line from Scarface, “Say hello to my little friend!” while we were talking to that guy!
JM: It’s funny because I’ve written Dead Man’s Party as a TV pilot for a mini-series and I’m writing it as a feature film, too. I actually think that, given how recent action movie roles are going to an older generation of veteran—Kevin Costner, Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington, and Sean Penn—that this could be a good role for someone like Kurt Russell to relight their career.
IM: Jeff, you used to work in the financial industry. Do you find that background helps when it comes to creating assassins and other unsavory characters for the book, or are financial types too evil to be hit men?
JM: Oh no, there’s plenty of depravity and immorality in finance to fuel a couple hundred issues of a comic book series. It’s an industry that prides itself on hiring testosterone-fueled alpha-male types who consider themselves, on some level, assassins of a sort. Drugs, gambling, prostitution, rigging financial markets, money-laundering, scheming clients out of their hard-earned nest eggs…yeah, there’s an underbelly that’s a gold mine to plumb.
IM: Tell us how, if at all, your military background helps you develop your characters.
JM: The biggest benefit is that my familiarity helps me write characters with a military background in a way that feels genuine. Real. I’m familiar with tactics and jargon and operating procedures, and, especially, with dialogue. I think I’m good at having a veteran sound like he was once in uniform, and not like someone playing at it.
SB: You’re a geek about that stuff: weapons and tactics and lingo.
JM: I am. It’s got to sound legit.
IM: Give us an overview of your comic book career before you started Dead Man’s Party. What other titles have you worked on?
SB: Before Dead Man’s Party, I was mainly a cover and pin-up artist. My biggest claims to fame were doing a Spawn/Angela pin-up for Spawn, a pin-up and some cards of Lady Death for Chaos! Comics, and a cover for the old Mortal Kombat book for Malibu/Marvel. Recently, I’ve done a pin-up for Red Anvil’s The Mighty Titan and a cover for the assassin book, M3, from Vice Press.
Jeff: My comic book career started by taking an introduction to comic writing course with Comics Experience, led by former Marvel editor Andy Schmidt. It was an eye-opener that, hey, I don’t need to land at Marvel or DC to get published; I can go out and self-publish my own stuff, on my own terms. I actually had Nick Spencer in my class, before he went on to become big with Marvel and Image.
But right before we started Dead Man’s Party, I had started Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, another self-published title I co-created with Kirk Manley, who is also the artist.
IM: You’ve both worked for other editors and companies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing versus working for another company and fitting into their editorial/artistic guidelines?
SB: I’ve had pretty decent experiences working for other companies, particularly for Spawn, The Mighty Titan and M3; I’d say the advantage to working for other companies is the exposure.
JM: The only experience I have with an actual company is with Darby Pop Publishing after I won their Breaking Into Comics script contest. That script is becoming a one-shot in their Indestructible universe, called Indestructible: Stingray #1, and I cannot rave about the editors—Jeff Kline and Renae Geerlings—enough. Working with them has been terrific and I highly recommend that everyone get a chance to.
SB: The major difference between mainstream and self-publishing is the obvious creator control that Jeff and I have on Dead Man’s Party, since it’s our property. It’s very exciting, being able to do anything we want. Nothing is off-limits, so long as it’s in service of the story. You can’t always do that with someone else’s characters, especially if they have an established history.
JM: The other thing is that since we’re both the co-creators, this is our baby. That means we can’t phone it in, quality-wise. We tried to rush issue four in order to get it to the printer on time to make the New York Comicon, but it would have meant a sacrifice in quality.
SB: Which neither of us is willing to compromise on.
JM: And I’ve always said that this experience is going to spoil me for projects with publishers in the future, because Scott and I have such a great working relationship. We can toss ideas back and forth and tell the other person if something doesn’t quite work or if the story is missing the mark somewhere.
SB: Plus, he’s ex-military; I’m afraid to disagree with him.
IM: What other titles do you currently work on besides Dead Man’s Party?
SB: Currently, Dead Man’s Party is the only book I’m working on, as it’s pretty time consuming penciling, painting, and lettering the series. Once we’ve wrapped this first miniseries, Jeff and I would like to explore some of the other concepts we’ve discussed over the years.
JM: I am working on the first issue of the next arc of Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, writing the Dead Man’s Party screenplay, and working on another feature film screenplay. I’ve also started a thriller novel, and am plotting a children’s book.
SB: Jeff doesn’t sleep.
JM: Nope. Too busy over-achieving.
IM: Did you get a lot of positive reinforcement from friends and family when you first started out in comics, or did you get comments like “get a real job,” and the like?
SB: I’m happy to say I’ve always gotten a ton of support from my friends and family. It was the industry itself that dictated I move on to other areas back in the 90s. It wasn’t until Jeff and I started discussing projects that we said, ‘Screw it. We’ve got some great ideas. If no one else wants to publish them, let’s do it ourselves!’
JM: We actually HAVE real jobs. I think everyone knows that this is a labor of love and that we’re carving it out of the margins—what little there are—of our personal lives and careers. I have never gotten anything but respect for what I’m doing and admiration that I’m able to do it while working and attending to my family’s needs.
IM: How hard is it to find the time to dedicate time to the series when you have your day jobs and family life?
SB: Honestly, it can be very difficult. It’s no secret to readers of Dead Man’s Party that we’ve had some major delays, most of which are due to me. Between a full time job as a 3D artist and raising a son, the book has been tough to give time to, especially this past year, but as I adjust to life as a dad, I’m learning how to make time.
JM: Here’s what I’ve learned as a writer, and this is what I tell everyone who comes to me and asks me how I do it: Unless your sole means of income is as a writer and you can spend eight hours a day writing…do NOT live in a fantasy world where you believe you can’t get it done unless you have a daily one, two, or three-hour block of time to write. It’ll never happen. If you’ve got a movie in your head or a song in your heart that HAS to get down on paper, you’ll have to guerrilla-write.
SB: Is that your phrase?
JM: It is. I should trademark it, right? So, what I mean is, write during your breaks at work. If you sit at a desk all day, have your company spreadsheets and whatnot on the screen, but ALSO have a document open that is your novel/comic/screenplay/memoir. Do a little work for the company, take a five-minute “me” break and hammer out a couple sentences or even a paragraph. Five minutes every hour, and at the end of the day you’ve only got 40-45 minutes of writing time in, sure, but maybe you’ve also gotten eight or nine paragraphs written, or you’ve worked out a complete scene of dialogue. That’s not nothing. Do that every day and you’d be surprised what you’ve gotten accomplished in a month.
Aspiring comic book writers: take the issue you’re working on, break it down into scenes. How many do you have in your 22-page issue? Eight? Ten? Okay, do one scene a day. That’s your whole purpose from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed, that one scene. The next day, it’s another scene. In two weeks you’ll have a rough draft that you’ve had time to edit and refine. Boom. It’s great to be able to say, “My goal for the day is ten pages or 2,000 words, whichever comes first.” But if you’re working, raising a family, and have other commitments, it’s impractical and daunting. Breaking the larger task down into smaller ones makes it more likely that you’ll find success.
IM: What are some of the compromises you have to make to balance out real life and comic book life and how do your families react? Do they have your back or wish it would go away?
SB: My son is a toddler, so I can’t tell him, ‘Hey, Daddy has to draw now,’ nor would I want to. I don’t want to miss out on watching him grow. And I don’t want to be an absentee husband, either. I married my wife for a reason—I kinda dig her. Of course, the day job is what ensures the lights stay on. So the comic work has to come after that. There’s just no way around it. But I still have as much passion for creating comics—and Dead Man’s Party, specifically—as ever. My wife’s a musician, so she values creativity as much as I do and fully supports it. She’s one of Dead Man’s Party’s biggest fans. My son? Well, we’ll see when he’s old enough to tell me.
JM: “Son, no pressure now, but if you don’t like Daddy’s most favoritest project ever…you’re outta the family.”
SB: It actually might go something like that.
JM: For me, in order to have balance, I just have to make it happen. It’s like working out or spending quality family time, finding time to write just has to happen. And I have to accept that hey, today I could only write for five minutes. Yesterday I got an hour, but today, just five minutes. Well, it’s forward progress, like a round of golf. I have to keep moving the project forward. And there’s no better way to “steal” time from yourself than chiseling away at your sleep. Figure out how little you can operate on for a short period, like a week or two, and go all out. When the project’s done, THEN you can sleep in.
IM: How do your co-workers at the day job react to your comic book work? Do you keep it quiet? Do your employers ever worry you’ll jump ship if the comics take off?
SB: I’m lucky in this regard, as well. Many of my coworkers—and one of my bosses—are fans of the book and are patiently waiting for the next installment. My bosses know how committed I am to their company and I doubt I’d ever leave for the comic work, unless someone in Hollywood writes Jeff and me a big, fat check for Dead Man’s Party: The Movie! Truth is, we’re doing this because we’ve got stories to tell. I doubt I’m ever getting rich off it.
JM: My co-workers have always been fascinated with the fact that I write comics. It’s like they’ve always heard about this comic book world, but have never known anyone who does it. So there’s always this “Wow, that’s so cool!” aspect about it. I don’t keep it quiet and, while I don’t think my employers are ever worried that I’ll jump ship if it gets big—I don’t think they can conceptualize that being a possible reality—I think the only concern they might have is that being so involved might take away my commitment to the company.
SB: My boss has, on more than one occasion, told me if DMP takes off, I’d better pursue it, even if he has to fire me. At first, I was flattered, but now I think he may be trying to tell me something.
IM: You’ve been a mainstay at Connecticut ComiCONN and managed to grab a sweet spot near the Marvel Exhibits at NYCC the past few years. How do fans react when they see your work for the first time, as opposed to mainstream superheroes?
SB: Comic fans have known for a while that the industry is more than just superheroes. Some people are looking for something new, regardless of the genre. When people stop by our booth, they generally react one of two ways: they either look at us like we’re crazy when we tell them our hitman is forced to put a contract out on himself, or they exclaim, ‘Dude, that would make a SICK action movie!’
JM: I think the spectacle of the superheroes and cosplay brings people in to the cons, but then once they walk the aisles and peruse what’s out there, they’re looking for something different and unique, not just another “Guy/girl puts on a cape and fights bad guys in bold colors” story. I think, with TV shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad giving us morally questionable protagonists, or shows like Lost turning the traditional storytelling paradigm on its head, fans at cons are sort of pre-loaded to seek out the same in their comic books.
IM: How are the fans different between the two conventions? Does one cater more to comic fans than the other?
SB: New York Comicon is a show about all media, not just comics, and it’s so large, it’s like the Super Bowl for us. Scoring a spot near the Marvel Comics booth doesn’t hurt, either! It’s a great place for a ton of people to see us in a single weekend and a great place to make contacts.
Connecticut ComiCONN, on the other hand, is a little more intimate. It’s a smaller show, but getting bigger every year. The promoters do a great job, making a growing show still all about the medium of comic books. And I noticed it feeling more family-oriented than ever last year.
JM: Yeah, I’d say that ComiCONN is definitely for fans who want to come and meet creators and artists and have a little more interaction without having to deal with the crush of over 100,000 people clotting up the aisles. We definitely chat up fans much longer at ComiCONN.
IM: Does the convention scene pay for itself, or is it part of the cost of building the brand?
SB: The big shows are the most expensive and, pretty much, the cost of building the brand, but it’s necessary to get out there, meet people, and pitch to them face-to-face.
JM: I don’t think we have done a convention yet where we made back the cost of our table in sales. But, like Scott said, that’s the price of building the brand. We’ve met publishers, distributors, journalists, TV reporters, studio scouts… none of that would be possible if we were merely selling to a store. And they’re a lot of fun, the conventions, so while it would be nice to one day be profitable at a convention, we’ll continue to do it because we love it.
IM: What else do you do to promote the series?
SB: Run a website, offer our books from many different outlets in print and digital formats, do as much social media as we can, run e-mail campaigns through our mailing list, have related websites review the issues for us, do interviews on websites and radio, visit new comic shops, and I think we see Kickstarter in our future, too. Not just as an avenue for funding, but as another place to market our product.
JM: ABM. Always Be Marketing. It’s all about getting in and staying in the public eye. At cons, I’ll grab everyone walking by who has a camera or a microphone and see if they’ll do an interview or talk with us. I don’t care if they’ve got a podcast that only three people listen to; that’s three people who didn’t know about us before.
IM: Tell our readers where they can find your work.
SB: The easiest way is to visit us at www.DeadMansParty.org. From there, you can order either print versions or digital versions and the links will take you directly to the outlets that carry us, like Comixology and the Amazon Kindle store. There’s also a page that shows which retailers carry us, so you can go to a local shop and service a small business. And there’s always Connecticut ComiCONN and New York Comicon, too!
If your local comic shop doesn’t carry us, tell them about us and have them visit the site. Until we get carried by Diamond Distributors, the grassroots approach is how we reach them!
JM: If you’re looking for an adventure story with a strong female lead character, check out my Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers, about a unique special ops team led by a centuries-old female zombie and her teammates, who are human hosts of ancient Chinese warrior spirits. Together they take on all manner of monster and demon that are trying to wipe out humanity. You can find out more information on www.ZGirl.org. And this May will come Indestructible: Stingray #1 from IDW/Darby Pop Publishing, and that can be ordered right now at your local comic shop.
Learn more about our interviewer at: Steven Pennella