For some, John Barber is known as the long-time editor of Marvel's Ultimate line, and to others he is the long-time editor of many of IDW's licensed and creator-owned books. But now the editor is hanging it up to become a full-time writer.
It's not like Barber hasn't been doing it already, though.
While working as an IDW editor, Barber moonlighted as writer of Transformers, Back to the Future, Action Man, and the recently-launched event title Revolution. But after leaving his IDW position this summer after five years, the webcartoonist-turned-editor-turned-writer is expanding his horizons beginning with the upcoming Doctor Strange/Punisher: Magic Bullets title from Marvel.
Newsarama caught up with Barber as he makes that segue from full-time editor to full-time writer, and how he's jumping between universes and publishers, and finally taking the leap to betting on himself.
Newsarama: John, what are you working on today?
John Barber: Literally right now I’m finishing the dialogue on the Transformers: Revolution one-shot. It’s the last Transformers issue by Andrew Griffith and me, after working together since, if I recall correctly, the 1851 Crystal Palace exhibition in London.
Nrama: For readers at home, I must clarify that is a joke. [laughs]
Barber: [laughs] We’ve been working Marvel-style the last few years - where I write the plot, he draws it, I come back in and do the dialogue. It’s Thundercracker and his pet dog, Buster, teaming up with Marissa Faireborn (the leader of the Earth Defense Command) to save the White House. It’s a fun story to go out on, but a little bittersweet to end our run at all. But Andrew wanted to try his hand at something else, which I completely understand. We had a good time!
I finished a draft of the script to the first Optimus Prime issue for Kei Zama at a quarter to one this morning, so I’m relieved to have that done. Until Carlos Guzman (our editor) gives notes, anyway - he always gives great notes, so that’s not a complaint! But I feel like I have a grasp on what that book is, and I can’t wait to see what Kei does with it.
Then this morning, after I dropped my daughter off at pre-school, I met up with a former intern who wanted some advice on his portfolio, which looked great.
An hour ago I had a short phone call with another party about a potential comic project.
After I finish the Optimus Prime script I want to try to get started on breaking down a draft of the next issue’s plot for Revolution to send to co-writer Cullen Bunn - we’ve been taking turns breaking the outline into plot form to get over to Fico Ossio to draw it.
It’s been hectic!
Nrama: You recently stepped down as IDW's Senior Editor after five years. What led to that decision?
Barber: There were a few things... I’d been editing comics professionally for more than 10 years, and... that’s a lot. You either get really good - like, there are great editors out there - or you sort of realize this isn’t where you should be.
It was definitely a case of "It's not you, it's me" - I love IDW and all the people there; they’ve all been so great during all this.
Another part was - well, I’m not getting any younger and doing what I really want to do isn’t going to get any easier. And I was finding the writing way more rewarding... I just felt less bad about myself when I was writing. Plus, this year has been kind of terrible, and even before things really seemed to unravel worldwide, when David Bowie and Prince died, that was a blow to me. Those were my two favorite... not just musicians, but artists in general. I really admired them and loved their work. And it sort of drove home that you don’t get forever to do stuff.
On top of all that, I was writing a lot already, and I really wanted to get better. And that’s real hard with a full-time job and doing writing freelance, at least given how much I wound up writing. I don’t really want to be an ok writer, I want to do the work and get better and write better things.
Nrama: Just days after it that was announced, Marvel announced you as writer of the upcoming Doctor Strange/Punisher: Magic Bullets miniseries. What led you to go back to Marvel, in a writer capacity?
Barber: Well, I’d done a short story a while back, while at IDW, and that led to some Ultimate Spider-Man digital comics (some of which are out already!) for editor Devin Lewis, which let to me pitching supervising editor Nick Lowe on the Magic Bullets idea. Like, I was leaving IDW - people there knew it, but it wasn’t public - and in the midst of the Spider-Man stuff, I wanted to throw out a crazy idea that would convince Nick I was maybe good for writing something down the road. It didn’t occur to me that they’d actually want to do Magic Bullets. But he liked it, and put me in touch with Darren Shan who’s editing it. And they had some ideas, and we hammered it into an actual story, and I couldn’t be more excited. This was really a story I wanted to tell, and it’s astonishing I get to tell it - and that they announced it so fast. The timeline seemed crazy.
Nrama: You worked for several years at Marvel as an editor for several years, running at one time or another the Ultimate line, the X-Men line, and even editing Mark Millar's early Icon work. What's it like returning now, but as a writer?
Barber: I was always friendly with everybody at Marvel. The editors I came up with were pretty close-knit, and a bunch of them have gone other places but many are still there... it’s really an amazing dream come true to get to work on Transformers, Spider-Man, Back to the Future, Punisher, and Doctor Strange all at once. It’s really different being on this side of the desk, but so far it’s been great!
Nrama: So would you say your days as an editor - freelance or staff - are done and over?
Barber: Yeah. I guess never say never, but I don’t think I want to do that again.
Nrama: Prior to IDW and Marvel, you started out in creator-owned webcomics - including using Flash in your work. Do you plan to go back to webcomics and/or creator-owned work?
Barber: I definitely want to do creator-owned work. For me, that’s the ultimate thing - I mean, I love what I’m working on, I can’t envision a world where I wouldn’t want to work on company-owned stuff, too. And in a practical sense, what we’ve done with Transformers over the years - 58 issues and an annual with Andrew drawing the first and last issues (and most in between) is like getting to work on The Sandman or something. That’s really extraordinary, and it doesn’t escape my attention how lucky I am.
But I definitely want to write creator-owned comics - there’s one thing in particular I’m anxious to get going with a particular artist who’s amazing that I’ve worked with but never in a writer/artist capacity - and I’d really like to work on a creator0owned thing with some of the artists I’ve written for, too!
Plus, I bought some pens, and I kinda want to get back to drawing something. Maybe for fun, maybe online. I have the title and premise, but I haven’t really started working on it. Working with Tom Scioli - “working” in the sense that he did absolutely everything and deserves all the credit for Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe - really inspired that. He was telling me at Comic-Con International: San Diego how he thinks everybody should draw a comic once in a while, and he’s right.
Nrama: While you're not Senior Editor at IDW anymore, you're still involved as a writer both on Revolution and Optimus Prime. What do you think of the potential this whole Revolution event has for IDW?
Barber: I am super-excited. Fico is amazing, it’s a blast working with Cullen Bunn, colorist Sebastian Cheng is astounding, Tom Long is killing on letters, and editor David Hedgecock is somehow holding it all together brilliantly.
The whole Revolution thing started with Chris Ryall, David, and me, so I’m totally on-board. I love where this is going. I think it manages to take nothing away from Transformers, Rom, or Micronauts but it adds so much more depth and richness to the universe. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get to be on the ground floor of something like this. Plus, I really liked the IDW G.I. Joe comics, and I’m really excited to have them still have happened... like, I wasn’t sure if there would have ever been another comic in that world. I’m really glad the Chuck Dixon comics, and the Mike Costa/Christos Gage/Antonio Fuso Chuckles story still occurred in this comics universe.
But the potential for the future is even more fantastic - it’s making the environment of these comics bigger and richer and bringing in more pieces to play with... I think having this cohesive universe for these comics is great, and I’m also super-excited that Sarah Gaydos is going to be running it editorially. She’s great, and I think she’ll bring a whole lot to the table.
I have never been more excited to be working on these comics!
Nrama: And what do you have planned for Optimus Prime, with it being a solo title compared to the previous Transformers series you wrote?
Barber: That’s interesting... it was my idea to make it Optimus Prime rather than, say, “Transformers: More Of It!”. So I had to figure out what that meant.
The new series has to work for people coming in just on issue one, or coming in off of REVOLUTION. But on top of that, I’ve laid a bunch of groundwork over the past five years that all still needs to pay off, and the things set in motion have to have repercussions for the comic to make sense.
At the end of the Transformers comic, in “All Hail Optimus,” Optimus really went out of his way to make the series about him. It was still an ensemble, but he was taking a big action - and at the end of the series, his actions need to have big reactions.
So a lot of the cast of Transformers is back in Optimus Prime, but by the nature of the story, they’re all sort of in orbit around Optimus, and what he’s trying to do - which is to make Earth a part of Cybertron’s Council of Worlds. The fact that this is the same Earth as in M.A.S.K. and G.I. Joe and Micronauts and Rom raises the stakes considerably - if it’s just the Earth in the Transformers comic, everything that happens happens in relation to Transformers anyway, so in a way its fate doesn’t matter as much.
But focusing on Optimus, and having the Earth being this rich setting of several comics... that’s really big.
For the first story arc, “New Cybertron,” Kei and I will follow through with what’s happened in “All Hail Optimus” and Revolution as Optimus has a very specific goal in mind that gets interrupted by some new arrivals. But we also have a parallel story set in Cybertron’s past - in a part of Optimus’ life that we know had to happen but haven’t seen yet - that will reflect upon what he’s doing in the present day, and how what he’s doing affects Arcee, Victorion, Jazz, Jetfire, Starscream, and everybody.
Nrama: You're also continuing to do Back to the Future. You were there when renewed interest peaked with Back to the Future day, but how do you see the interest in the franchise renewed?
Barber: It was kind of amazing to see how many people love Back to the Future. It’s astounding... I really didn’t understand the size of the fan base before I started working on it. In my day-to-day life, people are always kinda amazed to hear about the comic - interest is still really high, and I think there are a lot of people who might potentially be into it who don’t even know to look for it, yet.
And our next story, being drawn as we speak by Emma Vieceli, is the best yet. I loved the arc we did with Marcelo Ferreia, he’s great - and Emma is taking the challenge and rising to the occasion. Her art brings a totally new feel to the comic for year two!
The most incredible part of all of it for me is getting to co-write with Bob Gale. I mean, there’s so much to learn from him, he’s delightful to work with, and it is out of control that I get to spend hours on the phone talking to Bob Gale about what Marty McFly does next.
Nrama: So, big picture, what are your big goals now that you're freelance once again, making your own hours?
Barber: Right now I want to unbury myself from recent comic conventions - they were a ton of fun, but I have a lot of work to catch up on.
Big picture - I want to continue on the projects I’m doing, get some more work-for-hire gigs - but I kinda can’t control that - and get some creator-owned things going - which you kinda can control, or at least have a good shot at making work. I’d like to get some interesting and unique books under my belt (well, the belt shared by me and the artists) in the next year.
Nrama: Are there any big projects, big characters, or big ideas on your bucket list you're angling to do now?
Barber: Definitely a couple big ideas I want to do, that I’m not ready to talk about yet.
There are a lot of characters I’d love to get a shot at - Fantastic Four is maybe my dream book, in terms of characters that exist, or maybe the Shadow or... aw, there’s way too many to list. I was going to start rattling thing off, but I like too much stuff. There’s a whole lot I’d love to do.