Barbiere Embarks on a Strange Journey in "New Avengers Annual" #1

The heroes of the Marvel Universe routinely risk their lives to protect their world from dangerous threats, but what if a threat arose that demanded they put something greater on the line? Is there a menace large enough to cause a hero to surrender their very soul for the power to stop it? If you ask Doctor Stephen Strange, Earth's Sorcerer Supreme, he would answer in the affirmative. In the pages of "New Avengers," writer Jonathan Hickman is chronicling the attempts of Strange and his fellow Illuminati members to protect their world from the mysterious and destructive cosmic phenomenon known as "Incursions" that occur when two Earths from different realities occupy the same space -- ending, rather tragically -- with the destruction of one or both of the planets.

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Strange grew frustrated in recent issues of "New Avengers" over his inability to stop the Incursion phenomenon and voluntarily exchanged his soul for greatly enhanced power. Just how much power he gained and how the bargain will affect him in the long run remains to be seen. Writer Frank J. Barbiere ("Five Ghosts," "White Suits") and artist Marco Rudy ("Marvel Knights: Spider-Man") will examine Strange's new status quo in June's "New Avengers Annual" #1, a story that puts the focus squarely on Doctor Strange. CBR News spoke with Barbiere about the issue, which marks his Marvel Comics debut and what he has planned for Doctor Strange.

CBR News: Frank, your career really took off last year with the launch of "Five Ghosts" from Image. Earlier this year you recently launched a new creator-owned book at Dark Horse, "The White Suits," and this June you're writing your first Marvel book. How did it feel to be asked to write "New Avengers Annual" #1?

Frank J. Barbiere: It was really out of left field. I was really excited and I had to pitch for the book. That was horrifying in a way as it always is. [Laughs] You get offered stuff and you want to do it really bad so you're trying to put your best foot forward. I know they had seen "Five Ghosts" and editor Jake Thomas reached out to me and said, "Hey, would you be interested in pitching for this book?" And of course I was. [Laughs] So I answered back.

They wanted to do a standalone character Annual that was still connected. Jake suggested Strange because he does have a lot of interesting stuff coming up. I read "New Avengers" and I'm really excited about where they're taking the character. So a story very quickly popped into my head. I pitched it and they said, "We really like this" and we were on from there.

I actually have it all written already because, as such goes with comics, you work on a project and it doesn't get announced for a long time. I'm really happy with the story. It was a sudden burst of inspiration. I really credit it to a lot of the awesome work that Jonathan Hickman has done on the book. There's a lot of interesting things going on in "New Avengers" that despite me not being a Strange super fan (I always thought he was cool, I'm not super well versed with the character, though) helped spark a character driven story with a really cool setting.

We get to see a lot of cool action with Strange, which I feel like we haven't seen a lot of. I think people are going to be excited and surprised by that in the story, and Marco Rudy's drawing it. He's beyond amazing. The stuff I've already seen is so over the top in the best way with his style. He's actually water coloring the entire issue himself. So it's going to be a real visual feast, to use a corny line. [Laughs]

I'm so excited that he's handling the art because it does have a lot cool astral plane stuff and some flashbacks. Having different visual styles helps elevate the story. As an Annual it's a 30-page issue so we've got a nice chunk of story in there, and it's a self-contained story.

I'm really happy. I got all I asked for. I did my best with the script and now to see art coming in that takes it to the next level is great.

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Which elements of Strange did you find especially interesting? Which aspects of his character did you want to explore with this story?

I think Strange is in a really interesting place in "New Avengers." During "Infinity" he was possessed by the Ebony Maw and that really shook him up. It showed that there were holes in his power, which led to his possession. I feel like that echoes a lot of the nature of Strange. He's a character with extreme hubris.

He's the Sorcerer Supreme. He thinks he's the best at what he's doing, and that mirrors a lot of what he was doing when he was a neurosurgeon. He thought he was a great doctor, and that led to him becoming Doctor Strange. He went and studied as a way to get his power back, and now that he is powered up from selling his soul we throw him head first into a situation with another impossible solution. I want it to echo what's going on in "New Avengers" where they're faced with this impossible problem and it really just explores the idea of how would these characters who should be objectively good handle a situation where they need to do something in a kind of gray area?

What's going on here is removed from the Incursion events, but I was really happy that we found a lot of cool connective tissue to put in so it doesn't feel like a story out of left field. It feels like a story organic to Strange's world. It's something that he would go handle, but it does tie into a lot of the Avengers stuff with people mining other dimensions and we do call back to some of Strange's recent history. Our story takes place directly after we saw Strange powering up by selling his soul, which happened in "New Avengers" #14.

What I really wanted to hone in on, and what spoke to me when I went to tell the story was I wanted to see Strange facing an impossible problem with his new abilities and call back to some of his past hubris. We do have a flashback B-story happening that involves a moment from his past. It was really fun to put that in. Any time you get to go back and add to a character's cannon is really exciting. That really helps drive home the theme of who Strange is without having to retell his origin.

What's your sense of Strange's current level of magical abilities and the way magic works in the Marvel Universe? Can you talk about how you'll approach it?

We get a lot of fun action and I was a huge fan of [Brian] Bendis' second volume of "New Avengers," where every time Strange would cast a spell the name of it and the book it was from would be shown across the bottom of the panel. I really wanted to get a lot of that and show that Strange is at a whole new level so we have a really cool fight sequence in the meat of the issue where we see Strange on the Astral Plane using aggressive attack magic.

I feel like he's one of those fun characters because they've clearly been spinning toward trying to have magic be more of a science-driven thing, especially in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, though, we see him really going nuts; using magic in clever ways and fighting really aggressively. The fight scene does take place on the Astral Plane so it's a little more interpretive magic. We're not trying to say he's bringing stuff into reality. It's an Astral Plane-style fight where we show a lot of the ways that Strange has powered up. He's using aggressive magic that he may not necessarily be known for, but that's why I think the character is in such a fun space. He's trying to find new ways to use these powers that he's brought onto himself at the expense of his soul.

Going back to what you said in the previous question, would you say that in this story he's definitely a man with something to prove to himself?

Absolutely. That's what really interested me about telling a Strange-focused story at this point. He has something to prove. He's saying, "Hey, I haven't really been at my best lately, but now I'm ready to take things beyond the next level" and he's doing that at the expense of his own soul, which is a huge move. I wanted to take some time to show what was going on with Strange and why he chose to do that. I feel like we found a lot of good echoes to call back to and help contextualize the character a bit more.

What else can you tell us about the plot of your "New Avengers Annual?" What sets the story in motion?

Strange has always been one of those characters who has a network of contacts within the arcane community and I really wanted to get him away from the main conflict in "New Avengers" for this. I wanted to do something that only Strange was suited to do. The solicits mention that he's called upon by an enclave of techno monks. So it's a fun way to have him go to a monastery, but it's not a normal monastery because we've seen him in that type of setting before.
We establish that Strange encountered the monks back when he was first searching for his power, but they've evolved since then as well. They're actually cybernetic and into new technologies. They've called on Strange because something has gone very wrong with what they're researching. That leads us into a problem that falls into a gray area and doesn't have an analog good or bad solution. They've called on Strange because they know he's the Sorcerer Supreme and can navigate the Astral Plane much better than they can.

What can you tell us about the antagonists Strange is up against in this story?

The techno monks have kind of been mining other realities in the same way that A.I.M. has been in "Avengers" and they've pulled something out that they really can't control.

It sounds like he'll be up against a Lovecraftian-style entity. Is that a fair comparison?

A little bit. There is a fun, classic, demonic presence. It's not like they pulled out a big robot or something like that. It's a being that plays to who Strange is and is very much in his wheelhouse. That's what I really wanted to get in there because I know a lot of people love the more demonesquse Doctor Strange stuff. So I made sure that was in there, but in a context that made sense with all the things that were going on in "New Avengers."

As I said, I feel like being a fan of the book helped quite a bit. [Laughs] Because the story didn't come out of left field. We wanted this to spotlight one particular character, but we didn't want it to feel like a totally disconnected thing. So it really worked out. With all the story stuff going on it was really a good point to pull Strange aside and say this is a way we can really contextualize him.

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Plus, it's really fun to deal with his heightened power set. Strange has always had a lot of cool magical abilities, but here I tried to really show that he's taken things beyond what he's normally known for. I think people are going to be really excited to see that. We get to see him as the focus in combat, which I feel like we haven't seen for a good long while.

So essentially this is a character driven tale that deals with the repercussions from some of Strange's choices in "New Avengers?"

Exactly, and I was really conscious of making sure that we echo exactly what's going on with him and show exactly how he's processing this change in terms of how he's fighting, how he's thinking, and how he's behaving.
We do get a B-story that again goes back to an early point in his life and shows why he's made some of the choices he's made. In the A-story we get quite a lot of action.

It was really fun to take a character like Strange who doesn't normally get to be at the forefront. Usually we see him casting spells in support of other characters, but here we only see him up against a really tough adversary.

"New Avengers Annual" #1 is going to be a really good spotlight on Strange. If you're a fan of the Avengers or Strange in any way you very much want to check it out. We were given a lot of fun room to work with a character who gets sidelined a lot. I know there's lot of Strange fans out there, and hopefully this is a fun new look at the character and where he fits into the Marvel Universe.

Plus, Marco Rudy is an insanely talented artist, and Strange is one of his favorite characters. So he's pulling out all the stops on this. From what I've seen already it looks like it's going to be a real show stopper visually. So I'm really excited.

Finally, are you discussing any other work with Marvel? And we mentioned your creator-owned books "Five Ghosts" and "White Suits" at the beginning, but what do you want readers who might be curious about those books to know?

There's nothing else really going on with the Marvel stuff. This is all very fresh right now though so I'm really excited to get this out and hopefully broaden my audience a little bit by getting such a high profile book out. I'd love to do more work with Marvel. So we'll see what happens.

In the meantime, I'm really excited to be wrapping our second arc of "Five Ghosts." The second trade will be out in June and we'll be back in September with issue #13. The trade is a really nice collection. It's got seven issues in it, #6-12. Plus issue #6 was oversized. So it's almost a 200-page trade for $14.99.

The plan really is to just keep barreling through we've been really lucky that we have a good reader base and they've stuck with us. We have a really big story we want to tell and we're about half way through it. So we'll be on the shelves as long as humanly possible.

I know everyone says this constantly, but I think issue #13 is going to be a really good jumping on point. With the second trade hitting in June and #13 hitting in September there's a lot of good entry points into the series. So with two trades behind us we're barreling forward, and thankfully the plots in "Five Ghosts" lend themselves to being story arcs. You don't necessarily need to know what's happened previously, but it will enhance your enjoyment.

The next arc is going to be fun. We just did pirates and the high seas and now we're going to get a little more horror focused.

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Then "White Suits" has been a lot of fun. Toby Cypress is one of my favorite artists working in the medium right now and he's doing career defining work on this book. It doesn't look like anything I've ever seen. It's a four-issue miniseries so it's going to wrap up in May. We're not exactly sure where we're at with that right now. There will be room for more. It's a pretty tightly wound story that takes place in the middle of the bigger "White Suits" universe, so to speak. So we'll see what happens, and the trade for that comes in the fall.

"New Avengers Annual" #1 by Frank J. Barbiere & Marco Rudy is on sale in June.

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