[The beginning of the year saw a new entity on the comics scene, The Bonfire Agency, a geek/nerd-demographic targeted advertising agency headed by former DC SVP of Sales and Marketing Steve Rotterdam and veteran marketer/Captain Action master Ed Catto. Together they bring many smarts and skill sets to an industry that still needs business people who can think outside the box. While the agency already has a few clients on board, their jobs are not just putting together modern marketing campaigns for brands that want to reach the nerd dollar. They are already looking at putting together an ad network, a “fan pan” consumer testing group and consulting with industry mainstays like Free Comic Book Day and the CBLDF.
In a time of great change for the industry we wanted to see where Catto and Rotterdam see things going and how they hope to approach their business. First, an interview with Catto who has made his mark on the comics scene with his retro yet fresh relaunch of the Captain Action brand of toys and comics. Catto discusses how he put that deal together and where he sees Bonfire going in the following interview.]
ED CATTO: Yes, but more than that, I’m a passionate comic/toy fan and collector. In fact, I first tried to understand the world through the lens of 60’s superheroes: the Batman TV Show, comics, and Captain Action. My parents always encouraged reading in all forms, so a weekly trip to the newsstand (after Sunday pasta dinner) always meant another comic. It didn’t hurt that my parents loved and traded comics as kids too. My mom loved Wonder Woman and my dad liked Crimebuster and the Phantom. But the original Captain Action toy, with the associated properties, was also the launchpad from which I’d been introduced to so many other comics – Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon, Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon, Kirby/Ayers/Severin’s Sgt. Fury, etc.
THE BEAT: There are tons of old licenses that people resurrect, but you seem to have put a lot of thought and energy into revitalizing the brand. Can you talk about how you approached bringing this back and making it relevant for today’s audience?
CATTO: When Joe Ahearn and I decided to resurrect Captain Action, we knew that we wanted to harness the enthusiasm and passion of the fans, and then channel their excitement to help spread the word. Instead of just trying to remake the toy on day one, we started with a comic and a few licensing deals. We established a vision and approached our comic, published by Moonstone, like hosting a party. We invited a lot of cool folks and the response was awesome. Favorites like Paul Gulacy, Fabian Nicieza, Dick Giordano, Murphy Anderson, Ed Hannigan, Marv Wolfman, Steven Grant, Thomas Yeates, Mark Wheatley, Mike Allred (the list goes on and on) all jumped onboard. Moonstone backed us up and we worked hard to make a comic that we’d be proud to read and proud to collect.
As far as making it relevant, I find there is a tension between being faithful to the original concept while still being flexible enough to change with the times. So we tried to keep our character true to who he was, and decided to expand and embellish. We added to Captain Action’s history and gave him a son. We stretched and created more female characters. We broadened his mission, his antagonists and his world. But all the while, we tried to stay true to the core idea of Captain Action: “You can be anything or anyone you want, but being yourself is pretty cool, too”.
THE BEAT: Also, what kind of merchandising did you do for Captain Action? I’ve seen figures dolls toys…how does the comic fit into all of this?
CATTO: In the early stages, we also wanted to establish licensing deals with strong partners that the core fan base respected. So we worked with companies like Graphitti, Sideshow/Electric Tiki and Medicom. We supported groups like CBLDF with our products and donations. We were proud of what we created and by getting it in front of fans and delivering it with quality, the word spread.
Our next big phase starts very soon, Heidi. We’ll be announcing our national toy line for Q4, 2011. We’ve been working with the talented professionals at Round 2 to create new 12” figures of Captain Action..complete with an entire line of superhero outfits. Just like in the 60’s, Captain Action will be able to change into top superheroes. We’ve developed a co-licensing deal with a major publisher, so this yuletide season Captain Action will be able to transform into superheroes that kids (and collectors) have seen in movies and read about in the comics. Toys R Us will be our major retailer, but Captain Action toys will be in comic shops, too, via Diamond. More on this very soon.
And the comic? The comic serves as a way to extend the experience. Nothing would make us happier than if we can bring a few new fans into a comic shop as a direct result of our toy line.
THE BEAT: Who have you found that it most appeals to?
CATTO: We find that the various Captain Action comic series appeal to the core fan that enjoys heroic fiction and/or follows certain creators. We also have a strong nostalgia fan base, but we’re expanding beyond that. For instance, our Lady Action series, essentially spy stories with a strong female protagonist, seems to connect with fans who don’t necessarily have the toy on their radar. What’s not to like about a British spy who can kick butt?
Moving forward, our national toy deal will put Captain Action squarely on the radar for young kids and reinvigorate the property for toy collectors. And we’re excited to cross-pollinate and get some of these kids reading comics.
THE BEAT: I believe you are branching out this year with some Jungle Girl action comics, as well with Savage Beauty. How do you make Jungle Girl comics fun and not just exploitative stories about a woman in a leopard skin bikini?
CATTO: Savage Beauty #1 is out next month from Moonstone. We have affection for so many of the lost genre of “jungle comics”. But this is a little bit more than that.
As a kid, I was enthralled with the mythical jungle of the Phantom or ERB’s Tarzan. But as an adult, I’m amazed at all the astounding stories of modern Africa every day in the paper. In the past few weeks, stories like the Ivory Coast election or the vote in Sudan makes most TV shows seem dull by comparison. Ongoing issues such as the war in Congo or the pirates in Somalia serve as showcases for both tragedy and triumph of many courageous individuals. There’s so much to learn about Africa and so many stories to be told. Joe Ahearn and I, along with co-creator and series scribe Mike Bullock, developed the adventure series Savage Beauty as a way to, first and foremost, tell an engaging adventure yarn. But we also wanted to mine this rich and relevant vein of stories for a broader audience.
We have another element with this series too. Each month, we’re donating one ad page to charitable causes that make a difference. Our first issue highlights an amazing group called Invisible Children, which is dedicated to using film, creativity and social action to end the use of child soldiers in the violent conflict in Uganda. Future partners include the A21 initiative, Save Darfur and Do Good Day.
That being said, this series also has great art. The first issue will offering a nod to the past: a re-colored a golden age jungle girl story, “lost” concept artwork from the Raquel Welch Sheena movie project and a “jungle essay” by Robot 6’s Michael May.
Sure, we have a woman in cheetah skins. Two of them, in fact. I’d argue that’s just like superhero comics featuring people in masks and tights. But, as you can see, we are working hard to make Savage Beauty so much more.
THE BEAT: Were there any lessons you learned from your experiences with Captain Action that you have brought to starting up the Bonfire?
CATTO: The two big lessons are authenticity and alliances.
The Captain Action experience has reinforced the notion that you can’t fake it or do it half-way. The fan and collector communities are highly intelligent, highly critical and highly networked. They applaud when you do something well and let you know (along with all their friends) when you don’t meet their expectations.
I’ve also learned, or re-learned, the importance of working with good people. Captain Action has blossomed in so many ways because of the strong talent, dedicated effort and kind assistance of a myriad of people. With Bonfire Agency, we’ve diligently developed a number of early-stage alliances with top notch people and companies. That’s not a guarantee of success, but it is certainly part of the recipe.
THE BEAT: Ed, you gave me a lift down to the Baltimore Comic-con one year and we talked all the way about marketing comics. One of the things we talked about — and that people talk about — all the time is moving past the nostalgia factor. What do you think is key about finding new readers and consumers for this kind of material?
CATTO: That was a fun trip and Baltimore is a great show. In regards to that tough question – I still think it’s a fine line we walk. So much of this whole industry is about nostalgia and re-capturing that lightning in a bottle. As you think about it, isn’t so much of entertainment like that? When you watch a football game, aren’t you always – even if it’s just part of it – comparing and contrasting the experience to that one big game? Don’t you hope that maybe this time it will be even more special?
But on the other end of this ongoing tug-of-rope is the accessibility. The industry has been working hard to offer more product in new places: collections via bookstores, more conventions, online offerings, and even digital downloads via libraries. Are we there yet? Certainly not.
At Bonfire, we sincerely hope our efforts will help make the industry a little bit healthier. We will be working with companies outside the industry and essentially saying “here’s some great people that you should be talking to”. This will bring more notice, more understanding and more advertising spending into our “pocket universe”.
THE BEAT: For those who are not as into the world of Madison Avenue, can you explain just what an agency like Bonfire does? It’s more than just coming up with slogans, isn’t it?
CATTO: Bonfire Agency is a full service marketing and advertising agency specializing in helping brands target highly influential (but difficult to engage) pop culture consumers. We’re treating these fans as a demographic. Sometimes they are called geeks, or the comics culture, or even “New Culture” by Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson. And we see them as comprised of intensely passionate and highly influential fans of everything from comic books, video games and action films to underground music, science fiction and cutting-edge adult comedies. We’ll be helping companies reach out and engage with these consumers in an authentic way.
THE BEAT: You’ve mentioned you are starting an advertising network? Will it be print focused or multimedia?
CATTO: Companies want to connect with consumers, and are especially interested in connecting with passionate consumers who will help them spread the word. We’re calling these fans Firestarters. And we’re going to be helping companies engage in a dialog with them across a variety of media. Print will be one, but the advertising network will also include digital and online. Consumers don’t limit their media consumption to only print –so we won’t either.
However, we recognize that print in comics is a strong vehicle for marketers. Comics are read from start to finish so every ad page is seen. And they are often reread and often passed along.
I can name my top ten ads from comics easy- but I can’t do the same for Sports Illustrated. I think that’s pretty typical – and that’s the power of comics.
THE BEAT: What are you looking forward to the most with the Bonfire Agency?
CATTO: By its very nature, working in this field demands innovation and creativity. Companies that Bonfire partners with will have an opportunity to do some of their most creative, edgiest work – and also an opportunity for a very strong return on their efforts. I’m really excited for some big wins -for our clients, for the industry and for the fans.
In November I was talking with (comics legend) Jim Steranko. He’s personable and engaging, but has no patience for the mundane or ordinary. As we were exchanging goodbyes, he looked me in the eye and said, “Ed, do something amazing.” This is it. At Bonfire, we are going to do something amazing.
[Our interview with Steve Rotterdam runs tomorrow.]