INTERVIEW: Counting Down to Count with Ibrahim Moustafa

Revenge is a dish best served as a 136-page graphic novel.  Count, written and drawn by Ibrahim Moustafa, with colours from Brad Simpson and letters from Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, comes out on March 16th, 2021, and ahead of the book’s release, I sat down with Ibrahim to ask about his creative journey, both as a writer-artist extraordinaire and a surprisingly talented break-dancer.  The interview took place over video chat on a chilly (by both Toronto and Portland standards) Thursday afternoon, transcribed for your pleasure.

[Ed. Note: this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

Lan M: Thanks for sitting down with us Ibrahim.  We’ll start off easy [laughs], what’s what life like working in quarantine for this past year?

Ibrahim Moustafa: Honestly, it’s not much different than normal circumstances. For me, I don’t get out a lot anyway; I don’t go a lot of places because I typically work long hours, and I work from home. So, in that respect, I’ve been very fortunate that it hasn’t changed too much for me. I’ve also been cutting my own hair since I was 15, and those are the two main things that people worry about: going to work and cutting their hair, and I can do both from here, so I’ve been lucky.

LM: Can you give us a brief summary of your creative journey from your first steps as an artist in the industry to getting your deal with Humanoids?

IM: When I started trying to learn the ins and outs of comics and how to break in, it became fairly clear to me that there were sort of two pathways to do it, in a general sense; one being that you go to conventions and show your work to editors and portfolio reviews, and if you’re good enough, they’ll hire you. The other was the creator-owned path where you put out work that you make on your own, and if it is good enough, and is well enough received, that will also catch the eye of editors, and then they’ll reach out to you for work. 

He said, “No, man, you’re a storyteller. Just pitch me something”, and I went “Oh yeah”.

I had tried the first path, and didn’t really have any success (and to be fair, I wasn’t very good). Then I found someone to collaborate with on a book, and that was High Crimes, which I did with writer Chris Sebela. That ended up being our sort of working resume to get in the industry, and then from there, it was just, you know, taking jobs as they were offered and eventually developing a sense of what I wanted to do for myself storytelling wise and really learning that I could also write my own work. 

An Excerpt from High Crimes (2015).

I had really bought into the binary aspect of comics early on, you know, “There’s a writer and there’s an artist”.  My buddy Jim Gibbons (who used to be an editor at Dark Horse, he started working for this digital-only publisher) said, “Hey, you know, why don’t you pitch me something?” and I said, “Oh, you mean like finding a writer to work?” He said, “No, man, you’re a storyteller. Just pitch me something”, and I went “Oh yeah”, because I had this idea that I had been trying to find a writer to write for me. That was kind of the push I needed that said, “Nah, man, you can do it”. Then I thought, you know what, he’s right! 

I was lucky enough to get an Eisner nomination for [Jaeger], and that helped in terms of securing other work as a writer-artist. So from there, I was trying to build on that resume while still taking work for hire stuff. I was able to get an arc of James Bond Origin that I co-wrote with Jeff Parker, as well as doing the art myself. While I was doing that, I finished developing a very polished pitch for Count. Then the opportunity came up to pitch it to Humanoids, and I did, and they liked it, and so here we are.

LM: So you’re, if I got it correctly, still based in Portland, right?

IM: Correct.

LM: Portland is a hotbed for comics talent. When it comes to the comics industry, what was it like both growing up as an artist (and also just growing up in general) in Portland? How did that affect the way you navigated the comics industry?

IM: It’s interesting; I wasn’t really aware of it growing up because I had sort of left comics to the side. Like, I read them as a little kid and was very into the Superman movies and cartoons, Batman ‘66, you know, all the stuff that most people get into. It wasn’t until probably midway or the latter half of high school that I started watching Smallville, and that reminded me that I really loved Superman growing up. So from there, I got a book as a gift from somebody that was called Superman: The Complete History. Inside it there were Alex Ross paintings, and that just absolutely floored me because I had never seen Superman depicted in such a realistic way in art before. I was always drawn to realism, especially when taking something fantastical and making it believable and tangible in that way. 

The cover of Superman: The Complete History.

So that kind of set me on the path of trying to become a better artist; then I went down the rabbit hole, through following [Ross’] work, and then eventually the work of the writers that he worked with, such as Mark waid, and so on. That is what led me to wanting to make comics. By then, I was still fairly unaware of Portland being such a hotbed for comics creators. People would say, “Oh yeah, Dark Horse”, and I knew Dark Horse was around town somewhere colloquially, but I didn’t really know anything about it beyond that. 

As I began to try to break in, it’s funny; the conventions were still the main vehicle for finding others. It certainly helped to find out that there were people in town that I could talk to, and that opened the door, just conversationally. But it hasn’t really had much of a bearing on my development, which is kind of antithetical to what one would think, right? Because a lot of us don’t even see each other until we all go to a convention out of state. So, y’know, we all meet up in Seattle or whatever. 

LM: So there’s no Secret Portland Cabal or Congregation.

IM: [laughs] We have Helioscope Studios here, which is spearheaded by Steve Lieber. And there’s a lot of great writers and artists that are members. There’s Colleen Coover, Paul Tobin, and Jeff Parker, to name a few. Joelle Jones was a member there for a while. I visited there a few times. Steve was organizing a kind of monthly meetup at one point, and then COVID curtailed that. I was unfortunately never able to make it anyway; I always had an intent on going and then something came up or a deadline happened or whatever. So yeah, there are certainly people who meet up and hang out. But it’s not what one would think or hope it is, at least from my perspective; I think we’re all kind of just tucked away in our holes, making our work.

LM: You got the opportunity to do the DC Artists Workshop in 2016. What compelled you to apply for it, and do you think it’s had a positive impact on your career?

IM: So yes, let me let me parse that out into a couple of different [answers]. Andy Kubert and Klaus Janson were the instructors for [the workshop] and they’re just two of the greatest guys you could ever meet, just such a wealth of knowledge. Andy’s just a real salt of the earth guy, and they were so generous with their time and expertise. 

I applied for it at the encouragement of some folks from DC. I thought that I was probably not in the running for it because I had already done some work at DC, and I even asked and said, “Should I apply for this?” I was told, “Well, you already have your foot in the door”, [so] I said, “Okay, cool”. I just didn’t want to seem disinterested, or like I wasn’t willing to do it. Then I was later encouraged by someone separately to apply, so I did and was subject to the same kind of [application process] with tryout pages. There were a couple of rounds you had to make it through. 

But just from a personal, creative and artistic standpoint, it was one of the best experiences I could ask for.

So we got to go and spend a week and a half in Burbank, and they treated us incredibly well. It was excellent. At the time, I had just been given a Vertigo miniseries [Ed. Note: Savage Things (2017)]. I was already doing work at DC, essentially, so I don’t know that it helped my career from a sense of being on the inside track all that much necessarily? It wasn’t a guaranteed-to-get-work-at-DC kind of thing. But just from a personal, creative and artistic standpoint, it was one of the best experiences I could ask for. It really reaffirmed a lot of the basics that every artist should know. Andy and Klaus’s instruction taught me to approach every page in a very specific way that I think has made me a better storyteller moving forward. So yeah, experience of a lifetime. I’m super happy that I was able to do it.

LM: With the three-book deal at humanoids, what kind of schedule are you setting for yourself with both releasing and also working on these books?

IM: So the release schedule is subject to several things. In terms of when the books are done, the quarterly sales periods where the book distribution company, Simon and Schuster, essentially have their sales teams that pitch these books to booksellers. That happens quarterly, I believe. So you have to have a certain amount of the book done by the time they send out those quarterly packages. 

As far as my personal schedule, it’s pretty much whatever is a reasonable amount of time to do the book, and I’m kind of a workaholic, so I probably have more of a tendency to set it a little tighter for myself. But also, you got to get paid, right? It’s only so much work over a period of time. But yeah, I’m already halfway through my next book, as Count is about to be released. So I’m keeping a good pace as far as that’s concerned.

LM: If you were to condense Count into a brief elevator pitch, how would you describe it?

IM: Well, there’s two ways to do that, because I can say it’s The Count of Monte Cristo but sci-fi and that’s obviously predicated on people knowing what that is. So let me do the elevator pitch for the layperson. 

Count is about a young man who is wrongfully imprisoned for treason and conspired against by jealous rivals, and he finds a means of escaping that prison with the knowledge of where a buried treasure is hidden. He uses that treasure to re-emerge as a man of status and exact his revenge on his transgressors. In the process, he finds himself at the center of a revolution for social justice within the city, and has to decide between his own vengeance or being a part of the solution. 

An Excerpt from Count.

LM: For your first book with Humanoids, you chose to do a reimagining of The Count of Monte Cristo. Tell us a bit about what compelled you to choose that story in particular, and why you chose to take it into a sci-fi context.

IM: I love revenge stories. I love stories about deserving people receiving their comeuppance. You know, there’s this kind of cathartic quality to that sort of thing. I was in the headspace of just thinking about revenge stories, and I was thinking about The Count of Monte Cristo and how it’s really the godfather of the genre, in a lot of ways. 

I thought, what if you made this cool, and then I started to think about what that would look like.

Then I thought, it’s a very long protracted soap operatic kind of story. Dumas was paid for by the word and I think the book itself is over 1000 pages, right? [Ed. note: the Penguin Classics edition of the book clocks in at 1138 pages]  I thought it’d be cool if you took that concept and put it in a more interesting (not that not that Victorian era of France specifically wasn’t interesting, but you know) [laughs] I thought, what if you made this cool, and then I started to think about what that would look like. 

An Excerpt from Count.

Then it was me applying elements that I enjoy, which is action, sword fights, floating islands and hovering vehicles and stuff like that. I just kind of put it all through that lens. You know, I have an email that I sent myself like, three and a half, maybe four years ago, that just said, “Count of Monte Cristo, but sci-fi” that I found when I was going through some of my files. I really thought about this a long time ago, and then developed it from there. 

LM: Since you brought it up, what are your top three favorite revenge stories?

IM: I think John Wick has to be number one. I love the Mask of Zorro.  I don’t know if it qualifies as a revenge story, but Taken? Yeah, I guess it’s more of a rescue thing, but it’s got revenge connotations. I just love that movie. 

…it was important for me to do my part to show that you can have the action movie style, story,  characters and whatnot, but they can look like people that tick the other box on the form.

LM: The cast of Count is very diverse. As a Person of Color yourself, what was it like bringing that diversity into your work, especially when adapting something like The Count of Monte Cristo?

IM: Well, it’s something that’s very important to me. I haven’t grown up seeing myself reflected in comics much, as so many of us don’t, and typically, when there is Arab or Middle Eastern representation, it’s always the bad guy; the terrorists, the convenience store guy, the cab driver, etc. So it was important for me to do my part to show that you can have the action movie style, story,  characters and whatnot, but they can look like people that tick the other box on the form. I hope to help in my own small way to normalize that in the media that we consume.

An Excerpt from Count.

LM: I was having a conversation with my friends the other day about how, especially when it comes to comics, so much of it is an outsider experience for us, just because there’s so very few heroes and you know, characters in general who look like us.

IM: Yeah, and the main character in Count, Redxan, is very intentionally ethnically ambiguous. He could be Middle Eastern, he could be of Latinx descent, he could be South Asian, he could be any number of races in that other category. So, I wanted people to be able to see themselves in the main character in a way that, you know, maybe they haven’t in the past.

…you kind of go, “Well, I wouldn’t wear this to an important job interview, or like a first date or something”, right?

LM: Count isn’t your first foray into wearing both the writer hat and the artist hat, as you’ve done so in the past with books like Jaeger. What’s it like taking on both of those responsibilities, and how has that changed since the last time you’ve done it?

IM: Well, the nice thing about Jaeger and Count is that I had free rein to do pretty much whatever I wanted, because I wasn’t working from a standpoint of a licensed character, or that kind of thing. I wrote and drew a James Bond one-shot after Jaeger [Ed. note: JAMES BOND: Solstice], which was sort of a dream project for me because I’m a big, big James Bond fan, and I have a pretty strong knowledge of the literary version of Bond from the novels. That was the version of the character that is in the comics, so I had a really easy time [doing] that too, thankfully, because I think that the folks at Ian Fleming publications understood that I understood the character, so they were pleased with what I did. 

An Excerpt from Jaeger (2016)

So as far as my experience in writing and drawing, it’s been a lot of fun, because I haven’t, you know— I always use this analogy: it’s like picking out your own clothes. Whereas when you work with a writer, it’s kind of like they’re picking out your clothes for you, and you kind of go, “Well, I wouldn’t wear this to an important job interview, or like a first date or something”, right? Because yes, I own both of those articles of clothing, but as a combination, I don’t think they don’t particularly flatter me. So when you’re writing and drawing, you get to play off of your own strengths. If there are things that I feel like I’m more capable of drawing, then I can do those things (as long as they serve the story of course), and it allows me to put my best foot forward I think.

LM: While you’re doing the writing and the lineart for this book, you’re also working with Brad Simpson and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou on colors and lettering respectively. Could you tell us what it’s like working with them, and how the communication between the three of you work?

IM: It’s been absolutely phenomenal, just a dream scenario. Honestly, Brad is so, so good. You get lucky sometimes that your creative collaborators have similar sensibilities to you, and they’re able to intuit a lot of things. There have been numerous instances where I’ve done something in the art and Brad sees the parts that aren’t there because they’re left white on the page or whatever, or he’ll see what I’m intending with the the ink washes that I’m putting down and some of the highlights that I’m adding, and he really accentuates them. In every instance he makes them better. 

An Excerpt from Count.

With Hass, he is, to my mind, one of the best letterers in comics. He does things to aid the storytelling that you don’t see a lot, because I think he feels that he has the free rein to try this stuff. He knows that I’m such a fan of his work that I think that (hopefully) empowers him to make some more bold choices.

I’m just so proud of the work that they put into this book, and I’m very, very happy to get to share a cover and credits page with them. They’re working on the next book with me too, so that’s great.

LM: That’s awesome. Who’s the editor on the book? I don’t think I’ve actually been able to find that online.

IM: That’d be Rob Levin, and you know, to say more praises, Rob is absolutely fantastic. The best editor I’ve had the opportunity to work with. He always asks the right questions, and all of his notes make everything better. I’ve never seen a note from him where I thought, “Man, what is he talking about?” It’s always me slapping my face going, “Duh, I should have done that”, or “Why didn’t I see that?” So yeah, Rob is absolutely fantastic.

LM: The three book deal with Humanoids entails a three OGN [Original Graphic Novel] deal. The debate about bypassing the single issue periodical in favor of the IGN has been around for a while. What’s your take on the debate, especially with regards to the work you’re doing with Humanoids, and your previous work in the periodical format?

IM: Yeah, I would love to do something long form in a periodical format, like Scalped, or, you know, many Vertigo titles that were, you know, 40,50, or 60 issues. But unfortunately, I don’t think that that is a reality in comics anymore unless you’re a really, really big name, right? [Even if] you can move that many units, even then, the attrition rate is usually about 50% per subsequent issue. I’m not a huge name in the industry, so I think the OGN format is really great because you just get to show everyone your best outing in one go. It’s a one time purchase. 

I also enjoy trying to format a story in a way that makes you feel like maybe you just sat down and watched a good movie.

From what I understand they’re decent for stores too, in terms of [sales] margins. So I’m a big fan of it, and I would much rather do a 120 page OGN versus maybe a four-issue miniseries. Most publishers, [the four-issue miniseries is] about what they’re willing to take a risk on. So in that respect, [it] gives me 40 more pages to tell a story in an OGN format. 

I also enjoy trying to format a story in a way that makes you feel like maybe you just sat down and watched a good movie. That’s not to say that I’m trying to make comics that are going to be movies or anything like that, but that’s an experience I enjoy; being able to, especially as a very busy person, sit down and read a book cover-to-cover in a couple of hours and have a similar kind of experience. 

So yeah, I’m a big fan of it, and I and I hope to do more like this moving forward. I mean, that’s what my current project, which is my second book in my Humanoids contract, is: another 120-page Graphic Novel. 

LM: Without spoiling too much, is your second book for Humanoids going to be another reimagining? Or is this going to be something that’s conceptually built from the ground up by you?

IM: It’s the latter. Yeah, this is a unique story that I came up with based on a genre that I was interested in. So it’ll be way, way different from Count in terms of theme and content and stuff like that.

The “Reimagining a Classic” approach is super fun, and I certainly would like to do more stuff in that vein. I think it’s really fun to take something that people are familiar with, turn it on its head, and subvert expectations, or you know, imagine cool new reasonings behind the things that are in the classic. So yeah, it’s all kind of on the table, which is fun.

LM: So recently on your Twitter, to promote Count, you did The Robot. Could you tell us a little bit about how you learned to do the robot and how you got so good at it? 

IM: Thank you. Yeah, I had always had an interest in dancing from a young age, just from seeing other people do it here and there. It really does feel like you just saw a magic trick, and I’ve always enjoyed that feeling of awe and wonder about things that people can do. 

When I was 15 years old, I went to a Boys and Girls Club After School Program that they did on Friday nights at the middle school that I had attended; it was called “Night Court”. It was a Friday night basketball thing [where] you can just play pickup games and sometimes you could win tickets to see the Trailblazers, play, etc. I wasn’t particularly good at basketball, nor did I have much of an interest in it, but I was a poor kid, and it was something to do that was free. 

A lot of people confuse Popping and Locking, but they’re two separate things.

So my friend and I went, and there were some other guys who were our age who were there. One of the counselors from the Boys and Girls Club, who was probably in his mid 30s at the time, was showing them some dance moves in the gym. I kind of laughed it off like, “I’ll humor this guy”, and I [was] into dancing, so whatever. Then he started to do some of the more illusionary stuff. You know, Popping and waving and stuff like that, and I was just like, “Wait, what?”, because the first thing he taught was Locking, which is like— A lot of people confuse Popping and Locking, but they’re two separate things. Popping is this [Ed. note: Ibrahim started Popping on camera here] kind of hit right? Locking is like this [Ed. note: Ibrahim started Locking on camera here] kind of corny rerun, you know? 

So when he started Popping and waving, I was just like, “Oh my god, teach me”, and so I went back every week to this Boys and Girls Club night. Willie was the guy’s name. He was an old-school break-dancer and graffiti writer from Spanish Harlem in New York, and he was around during the inception and growth of Hip Hop. He really became my real life Mr. Miyagi, and we became very close; he’s like a father to me now. 

I just kept going and kept learning from him, and that was also around the time that the internet really democratized learning in a way that it hadn’t quite yet [before that point]. I went to LA for a couple years in a row for this thing called the B-Boy Summit, which was kind of like the San Diego Comic Con of breakdancing. [It’s] where you just meet people from all over the world, you all just get down in circles together, and eventually, you could start to see footage [of it] online. That was around the time when longform internet videos were starting to finally become a thing. 

I had to make a choice between that or getting much better at drawing.

Everybody had their bootlegs that they’d trade, [like] breakdance battle videos on CD-DVD, and so it was very much kind of this underground sort of thing that I became involved with. From there, I taught classes, and I did performances and competed and whatnot. So yeah, it’s something that was a huge, huge part of my life that I kind of— I had to make a choice between that or getting much better at drawing. I didn’t really see much of a future in the dancing part of [my life]. I felt like I had taken it as far as I could, and I was okay with that. But every now and then, it becomes necessary. [laughs]

LM: So you’re saying there’s an alternate universe where there’s an Ibrahim who was a professional dancer? 

IM: I mean, that was the thing; that universe happened, and then it was kind of like, “Okay, either I really want to hustle and travel constantly to try to do workshops and battles in different places, and kind of live on the road, or I can stay at home and get better at [drawing] and cultivate my relationships”. So I picked [the latter] because it seemed like the most realistic thing, and also I completely fell in love with comics again, and now I’m here doing The Robot and drawing.

Count comes out on March 16th at retailers and comic shops.

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