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February 27, 2008


A Short Interview With Joe Casey About The Act of Promoting His Comics

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imageYou see them all over the comics Internet: mainstream American comic book creators doing short interviews and profiles in relation to a new project, a kind of comics version of the talk-show circuit. What's that experience like for the creator? Is it time well-spent? How does one walk the fine line between promoting your work and overselling it? Is creator-directed promotion a necessary evil? Is it necessary? Is it evil? CR pal and writer Joe Casey is one of the more prominent comics creators out there in terms of maintaining a public presence through hyping his latest works -- or is that maintaining the hype for his latest work by fashioning a public presence? In the midst of his latest campaign, for a Marvel Comics project called The Last Defenders, Casey answers some questions about feeding the publicity machine and keeping sane while doing so.

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TOM SPURGEON: First, let me get some context. How important do you think being active in publicizing your work has been for your career? Have you ever considered just withdrawing from that element of the industry?

JOE CASEY: Every moment of every day, Tom. I mean, it's not exactly part of my job description, is it? Here's some hyperbole for you... self-marketing is a necessary evil, emphasis on "evil." But in today's Direct Market, awareness is everything. Back in the day, I would spin my wheels to gain awareness for myself as some sort of entity in the industry, which was an attempt to help build my career, but now it's all about the work. Doesn't make it any easier. OK, maybe a little easier. Nevertheless, it's damn important. Unfortunately, these days it seems like it's almost as important as the work itself actually being good. A sad state of affairs, my friend...

SPURGEON: At what point when you're working on a project do you start to think about how you can support it in the marketplace. Do you have a menu, a basic plan that you adapt to individual books?

CASEY: For my own creator-owned stuff, as soon as I get a sense of when it's going to come out, when we're going to solicit. For work-for-hire stuff, as soon as its green-lit. Different projects demand different promotional agendas. For instance, the promotion I'm doing for The Last Defenders is as extensive as any pimping I've ever done, all of it geared specifically for this particular book. That is to say, I couldn't take that marketing plan and superimpose it onto another project.

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SPURGEON: Can you describe in a bit of detail how you conceptualized your promotion for The Last Defenders, then? Have there been any mid-course corrections, or do things tend to work out pretty well according to plan?

CASEY: I guess I figured, in the midst of what I'm sure will be a massive marketing campaign for this big Skrull story that Marvel's doing, I should go for more of a grassroots approach... doing what I can to speak directly to readers -- and, to be honest, retailers -- who might dig this kind of superhero team book. At least, as directly as the Net will allow. And I want it to be interesting, as well. So, working with Newsarama, it'll be a series of interviews with various members of the creative team, it'll be individual character profiles, it'll be process stories (how we actually put the book together), it'll be Q&A's with the Newsarama posters. All of these are simply different ways of disseminating information about the book, even as each issue is coming out. Some of it, folks have already seen. We're just in the opening stages of this thing. So far, so good.

SPURGEON: Does part of how you hype a book depend on accessing non-comics sources or is most of what you do tied into the comics press and comics-interested press?

CASEY: I might be somewhat short-sighted, but I really have no interest in outreach promo anymore. That is, I abandoned chasing anything that stinks of the "mainstream media" long ago. The thing about the dedicated comic book press is simply this... those guys like comics. They like to talk comics and so do I. My aim for creating awareness for something like Defenders is to hook in those readers who want a cool Marvel superhero team book. I know they're still out there, because I'm one of 'em. I talk to the comics press because we speak the same language. And I like that language.

SPURGEON: Do you or any of the creators that you know feel pressured by the companies you work for to go out and hype a book? If someone was to refuse to do interviews for whatever reason, would that have an impact on their career or your ability to get work? How much is expected of you guys?

CASEY: That, I really couldn't answer. I certainly never feel any direct pressure by publishers to interact with the press. Formal requests directly from marketing departments are few and far between. Even "mainstream" print journalists pretty much find me on their own. Now, having said that, I would think that a creator who does get out there and shoot their mouth off is more attractive to publishers because it can often aid in the marketing of a particular project. It certainly worked for me at a certain stage of my career.

The pressure you can feel is when you're not getting boatloads of marketing support from the publisher. You do want to create awareness for what you're working on... so you ask yourself, "Do I put myself out there and try to move the sales needle, or do I follow my own personal sensibilities and shut the hell up and let the chips fall where they may?" Look what I'm doing with The Last Defenders. It's a full court press, countless pieces that will hit Newsarama over the next few months. Is Marvel asking me to do it? No. But, then again, they didn't ask me to do the book in the first place. I pitched it to them. And, having pitched it to them -- in a sense, convinced them that the book was worth publishing -- I want it to succeed.

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SPURGEON: Would you prefer for your publishers to provide a more concerted effort in publicizing your books?

CASEY: The easy answer to that is, "Of course." I say that because it would mean I could spend more time writing comics. But I'm too aware of the limitations of marketing departments, even at the big publishers. There's just not enough manpower to promote everything with equal vigor. And I'd be completely naive if I blamed them for that, not to mention a real asshole. So I don't blame them at all. Some of these people are friends of mine.

SPURGEON: What about the notion that's been floated that you guys don't know about sales and therefore the market would be better off if this were taken out of your hands and returned to professional sales people? Are you really your best advocate?

CASEY: That's a really good question. I honestly couldn't say whether or not I'm my best advocate for myself or my work. Probably not. But most of the time, I don't have a choice. Comics is still a relatively small business in that respect. My version of "market research" is simply to ask myself whether or not the book I'm pimping is something that I'd want to read. It's really an extension of why I'm doing the book in the first place. Having said that, nothing would please me more than having crack marketing departments that were laser precise in targeting their promotions and knowing the unique virtues of every project... but it's just not practical.

imageSPURGEON: How big a role does timing play in setting up hype? Is there such a thing as mistiming the hype for a book?

CASEY: As they say, timing is everything. There are definitely windows of opportunity. We announced the Defenders book a week before March '08 solicitations hit the 'Net. We did that to give both readers and retailers a chance to digest the idea of the book and the fact that its on the way before the onslaught of March solicitations hit. In Marvel's case, they're pretty much Skrull crazy at the moment so anything outside of that publishing initiative has to fight even harder to grab eyeballs. You need to hit people with a lot of press right when retailers are ordering the book... which is three months before the book hits the stands. On the other hand, almost two years ago I announced a new Image book I'm doing called Charlatan Ball. It ended up taking a lot longer in production so I stopped talking about it because I didn't want to blow my wad before I had to do real promotion for it when it does get solicited. Constantly talking about a book that was still quite a ways off would've let all the air out of the balloon.

SPURGEON: Is promoting a work at Image any different than publishing one through Marvel? Is there a difference in terms of the support you get from either company, what they can do for you?

CASEY: For me, at this point in my career, the promotion is pretty much the same, in so far as I'm still talking directly to comic book press. Oddly enough, the support issues are the same, as well... I wish both companies had more personel in their marketing departments. Just form a manpower standpoint, there's too much product and not enough hours in the day to give all of them the attention they deserve. Right now, they're doing the best they can with what they've got. Once again, it's pretty much down to the creator and his (or her) enthusiasm for getting the word out, getting it out there on time. With Image especially, it's very much a partnership between the publisher and creator. Granted that puts an onus on the creator to be somewhat savvy in the marketing of their product, maybe more than some of them are comfortable with... but that's the world we live in.

SPURGEON: You sort of began to touch on this earlier, but is there a two-tier approach to hype -- is some hype aimed at the buyers/retailers, and others at fans? How are those kinds of hype qualitatively different?

CASEY: Absolutely... although right now I'm experimenting with something that breaks away from the two-tier approach. With Last Defenders, I'm working with the guys at Newsarama to keep the light on us for the entirety of the run of the series... from first issue solicitation until the release of issue #6. That's basically a nine-month period. The balancing act there is not to be obnoxious about it. And, the great thing is, the "hype" doesn't have to differentiate between reader and retailer... mainly because the best retailers are readers, too. I like it when retailers are excited by a new project as a fan, not just as a businessman. That's when the industry can really be fun for everyone involved.

SPURGEON: How do you "not be obnoxious about it"? What is the kind of hype that goes over the line, in your opinion?

CASEY: Hell, Tom... it's all around us. Mainstream comics sold with a Pro Wrestling mentality. There's no point in pointing fingers or naming names. Even the solicitations read like they were written by slicko used car salesmen. Now, c'mon, when solicitations come across as obnoxious, something's gone horribly wrong, don't you think...?

SPURGEON: Beyond the garishness of some hype, do you think creators have the responsibility to do their best to make sure what is written about them is the truth, or is allowing people to write things about you that may or may not be true just part of the publicity game?

CASEY: I think this is one of the few entertainment-related fields where -- in the absence of bone fide publicists on anyone's payroll -- a creator can control what's written about him (or her). We can have a message board, we can have a blog, we give lots of interviews to a multitude of news outlets. Lots of opportunities to speak.

The point is, we're able to represent ourselves quite a bit in our own words, so in a very real sense, we're able to shape our own public personas. Comic book journalists -- the ones who pride themselves on being journalists -- seem to me to be a pretty principled bunch. They don't make shit up that doesn't have some basis in reality. Even a guy like Rich Johnston, who traffics in rumor and gossip, applies pretty high standards to what he does. So it's the creators themselves who set a tone for how they're perceived.

There was a time when I could actually get behind the old chestnut, "any press is good press". But it's just not true. The "garishness" you're mentioning... it comes from our side, the creators, the professional side. The press isn't goading us into talking like pro wrestlers. Obviously, there are nice guys and assholes on every block, but oftentimes it feels like the assholes are outnumbering the nice guys, because the assholes make more noise. These days, how many times do we see a creator spout off about something, causing massive amounts of general eye-rolling? Okay, none of us are running for public office here, but I sure as hell didn't grow up reading articles about -- or interviews with -- my favorite creators where I somehow ended up resenting them in the end. Hearing about how much money they're making, how much their books sell, how they're the envy of the rest of the industry... I don't think I would've been very inspired to try and get in the game myself. That's kind of where it all falls for me.

imageSPURGEON: Have you ever been upset about something that's been written about you or a way you've been presented or a reaction someone's had to you in the course of getting your books out there to be promoted?

CASEY: Not upset, really. But it's definitely happened. The X-Men relaunch I was a part of in 2001 was a hyperbolic clusterfuck on many levels... lots of grand, sweeping statements flying around and I definitely made more than my share of them. I certainly said things that went overboard in the hype department and I was called to the mat on it, even before the books came out. And rightly so. I look back now and realize that the only positive thing to come out of that experience was that the Morrison-Quitely X-Men book was so good. Mine certainly wasn't. It sold well enough, I guess (which might be an argument for hype)... but ultimately who cares if the quality of the work's not there? I suppose I wasn't upset because I realized everyone was right. Tough pill to swallow, but sometimes the truth hurts. I was more upset at myself because I didn't bring my A-game to the gig. Hopefully, I've learned a lot since then.

SPURGEON: Is there any prioritizing that goes on when you're publicizing a new work? For instance, do you target a couple of magazines over the rest?

CASEY: I've got a pretty good relationship with the Newsarama guys, one that stretches pretty much over the entirety of both of our careers. We started pretty much around the same time, and it just so happens that they are the top site for comic book news. No one else comes close. Christ almighty, there are folks who work at major movie studios that cruise that site every day...! Now, I'm happy to talk to almost anyone who seeks me out, but I personally go to Newsarama well in advance to plan things out strategically.

SPURGEON: Does anyone ever ask for exclusive access, or a story or interview first? Has Newsarama ever asked for an exclusive or for something first? How do you negotiate that when it comes up?

CASEY: Those situations can crop up between publishers and news outlets. Mainly, I know it happens between major publishers and WIZARD Magazine. And, of course, there was a time when Rich Johnston was a severe pain in publishers' asses (and God bless him for it), so there would always be a bit of negotiation going on with him. But the fact is, I don't really work on projects that command the kind of attention or interest on a level that would necessitate any kind of exclusivity with any one news outlet.

SPURGEON: How much is hyping your work a subject of discussion with your and your fellow comics professionals? Have you ever received a worthwhile tip or pointer from another pro that you use in taking a book out?

CASEY: Honestly, I can only speak for myself here. I've joked about it with a few of my friends in the business, but I haven't talked to them enough to know for sure if anybody thinks about this stuff the way I do, or as much as I do. More than likely, everyone has their own way of dealing with the press.

SPURGEON: How much are you conscious of building your own name brand in the process of discussing a work? Is there ever any conflict between those two things, is it possible to get yourself over and have people leave with a positive impression of you but not the book. How do you balance that?

CASEY: For better or worse, I think I built a brand for myself a few years ago. I did what I had to do at the time, and now I'm kinda' over it. Not to date myself, but there was a time when only a few of us were really using the 'Net (and the press, as well) to create that kind of creator-specific brand, that cult of personality. And basically we were all following in -- what were at the time -- the still-fresh footsteps of Mr. Warren Ellis. So, I've been there, done that. Here's what I'm conscious of... it's not the game I like to play anymore. I'd rather talk about the work exclusively.

In the past few years, I think I've become more and more of a private person. So, unlike most creators who you see online a lot... while my company has a work blog -- updated semi-regularly, I'll admit -- I don't have my own creator-centric message board, I don't engage in the excessive name dropping/back slapping that's gotten ridiculous, I don't talk about my family, I don't brag about what I got for Christmas, I don't try to turn a news piece into a lifestyle piece. I don't want to be famous. That is to say, I don't desire large groups of people to be envious of me because I'm constantly -- and painfully -- trying to convince them that I'm living the life they wish they were living. Actually, I find that kind of thing pretty distasteful, but different strokes for different folks. When I talk to the comic book press, I'm talking to them as a comic book writer, not as a faux celebrity who assumes that the readers give a rat's ass about what I had for breakfast or who I hung out with at San Diego last year or what meetings I'm taking in Hollywood. These days, all I care about talking about is the work. What it's about, when it's available, where it came from, etc.

SPURGEON: How has this change in attitude had an effect on the hype itself? Do you feel you'd have more opportunities to hype your work if you did play that game?

CASEY: I don't know. That's a interesting question, though. Is a potential reader more inclined to pick up something if the creator comes across as some kind of rock star? Are we really at that point where, the bigger the asshole (in public, I should clarify), the bigger the sales figures? I'm probably enough of an asshole in private... so I do my best to not be one in public.

Now, I don't think it limits my opportunities, because that's not how the Net works. If you or I say something either 1) overly perceptive or 2) completely incendiary... then it'll spread all over the place. Other news sites, message boards, blogs, etc. Just like a virus...

SPURGEON: Do any of the news sources ever edit the material you provide them, like answers to interview questions. How frustrating is it to have that kind of material changed, or taken out of your hands?

CASEY: It happened recently with an interview I did -- not for Newsarama -- talking about, of course, Last Defenders. I guess I was having a good day, so I had a little fun with that one, just taking the piss out of things, having a laugh... and those were the bits that were cut out of the final article. Even if it's a goof, it can be entertaining and sometimes that's all you can ask for in some of these interview articles. It's a different type of performance... but then they cut out the performance. Lesson learned there, believe me.

SPURGEON: What lesson is that?

CASEY: Probably to avoid talking to guys I don't know all that well. The guys I do know wouldn't cut anything, they'd know when I was having a laugh. And they damn sure wouldn't do it without talking to me about it first.

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SPURGEON: How much of what you do in hype is spin? Have you ever been in a situation where you've had to negotiate the way something was received at the initial announcement stage, or from a rumor? How do you approach those moments?

CASEY: I'm not a fan of spin, Tom. It's a goddamn parlor trick. Spin means staying "on message" to such a ridiculous extent -- sticking with your story and never backing down -- that you drown out the truth. You replace the truth with your version of it. And it's infected the way our industry interacts with the readers to such an intense degree, it's kind of horrifying. I think it's gotten so bad that it's a "boy crying wolf" situation now... that even an honest admission comes off as spin. Although it usually occurs more after a particular work or book has come out.

And it's really a wider issue... spin is the product of a media-saturated culture. And the comic book industry -- the "mainstream" area of it, anyway -- is always in such a hurry to be a part of the wider entertainment landscape that it ends up adopting the worst, most superficial aspects of it. And when I see other professionals -- people I respect, in some cases -- resorting to it, I just shake my head. It devalues what we do.

Look, here's the thing... back in the 60's, in Marvel's creative heyday, there were more than a few missteps taken. It happens. Books went through creative ups and downs, series were canceled, creators came and went. And I don't know if anyone can go back and point to an instance where Stan Lee didn't step up and -- in his own affable way -- take it on the chin. Stan gave us a window into Marvel... its successes as well as its failures, always with the vibe of, "We screwed up, but we'll try harder next time!" He kept it light so the readers kept it light... kind of a mutual agreement to keep it fun, to not act like it's a tragedy if something came out that people didn't like. But spin is manipulation that suggests that the stakes are incredibly high. And maybe they are... maybe jobs are on the line and guys in positions of bona fide power have to go out and perform massive amounts of damage control. But, jeezus, the world's not going to end if a bad comic book escapes the printer. Not every issue or storyline or "event" is going to resonate with readers. So let's not act like it was the readers' fault when that happens.

But, at the end of the day, I can't help but look at it like this... the industry exists in a climate where readers, after reading the books, start asking questions, they demand the dirt, they request editorial motivation, they want the story behind the story more often than not. And, for whatever reason, the industry is moved to respond, to acquiesce, to give explanation. But it reminds me of a saying I read somewhere: "Failure has a thousand explanations. Success doesn't need one."

Then, of course, there's the possibility that makes me shudder... that there are quite a few drama queens in our industry that couldn't live without the juice, the constant tension between pro and fan. Me? I prefer to keep the drama in the comics themselves.

Hell, I have no doubt that people reading this will accuse me of spinning right now.

SPURGEON: Have you ever caught yourself slipping into an insincere voice when doing promotion?

CASEY: Early on, yes. Mainly because I was inexperienced in talking to the press -- such as it was back then -- and when you're in that circumstance your default position is usually to take on some sort of pose just to get through it. You fake it till you make it.

These days, any time I'm confronted with an interview question that treads on "sensitive" areas of my career, like canceled books or franchise runs that weren't well-received, there's definitely a temptation to avoid looking bad. The temptation to spin. But I do what I can to get over myself and just deal with the truth, whatever that may be. I haven't been telling the readers that The Last Defenders will change their lives or that they're f**king morons if they don't buy it. I'm simply saying, "I've having fun working on this book and, if you like the characters or the ideas or the history of the team, you might have some fun, too." That's as sincere as I can be, Tom.

SPURGEON: Are there benefits to the exercise of participating in a book's promotion beyond getting more people to buy it? Has it helped you as a creator to boil down or think of your work in that specific way? Have you ever created differently because of an experience in promoting a work?

CASEY: No, because it's all part of the same conversation, the one I'm having with the people who read the stuff I write. Certainly, the more you deal with the press, the more savvy you get in how you promote your work. But I look at being more savvy as an opportunity to be more direct, to be more honest with the readers. In the same way my writing evolves over years in this business, so do my pimping techniques.

SPURGEON: How many of the non-prose avenues (video, podcasts, radio) to promote work have you explored? Is there anything different about that experience, either doing it or the result?

CASEY: Y'know, I've done my share of radio, podcasts, etc. Don't get me wrong, I love the medium. Things like John Siuntres' Word Balloon program are generally outstanding. I, Fanboy's got some life to it, too. But I've learned over time that I'm probably better off being a listener of those shows rather than a participant. A conversation is a fleeting form of communication. It works in the moment... to record it for posterity's sake, or for public consumption... I don't know, it's just don't think it's for me. Unless I get really stoned beforehand, I can't see myself doing them.

SPURGEON: What do you think about social networking systems as a way to self-promote? Have you used them? What have you thought of what you've seen or experienced with people using Facebook or MySpace?

CASEY: I'm sure it's fine for certain people, certain creators. For me, it's not something I'm too interested in... primarily because those sites are designed more to promote the artist as opposed to the art. It's personality-driven, not work-driven. I don't know, maybe I'm cynical but I can't get over the fact that, fundamentally, all these social networking sites are really just the latest way to get laid over the Internet.

imageSPURGEON: As we're doing this, the writer Ed Brubaker's on a big publicity jag for the re-launch his Criminal series. One of the things he's done is write letters directly to retailers, complete with a free item or two. What do you think about direct contact with retailers in this fashion? Have you ever done it? What was that experience like?

CASEY: I've done it before, on a much smaller scale than Ed has. It wasn't a negative experience at all but I don't know if it moved the needle at all. But it's good fun watching Ed campaign for his book, because on a lot of levels, it works for him. It works for Criminal. Not to mention, Ed's one of those guys that's pretty genuine, even when he's in heavy promo mode. I've certainly got nothing against that kind of direct contact with retailers. Of course, you might want to ask the retailers if they'd have anything against that kind of direct contact with me. You never know...

SPURGEON: Where do you see the future of creators promoting themselves? Is it something that is likely increase or decrease? Is it something that will be focused on the Direct Market? Will there be independent PR people hired on a project to project basis? How do you plan to continue pursuing it?

CASEY: Jeezus... I have no idea. I've got three creator-owned books coming out in the next few months, so I'm doing a lot of promotion for them. And then there's the massive Last Defenders orgy of pimping. That's a lot of time spent under the spotlights, much more than I generally do these days. I do know that certain publishers have hired outside PR companies to help spread the word about their product. But I think those examples are more about manpower than insight. Let's face it, someone who majored in marketing might have some really wild ideas about how to promote, but if they're not intimately involved and aware of the various levels of our industry, what good are they? I'm a firm believer that you've got to be in the trenches to know how to navigate them well. Having said that, it's probably safe to say that creators will go on hurling themselves into the public eye, mainly because ego gratification never goes out of style, does it?

SPURGEON: You approached me with the idea for this interview... if someone were to only read this one question and answer, what would you have them know about today's promotional landscape for comics and your feelings about it?

CASEY: Are you asking me to boil this whole thing down to a sound byte, Tom? Can't do it. Not in this forum. But, then again, I didn't do this interview so I could boil it down into a nice, chew-able tablet. The pimping I'm doing for The Last Defenders is a method of communication that is hopefully very direct: a superhero comics writer talking to superhero comics fans about his new superhero comic book. But I guess I had to balance that out with something like this. Because there's another level of creativity to it for me. There has to be, otherwise it's not worth doing. It's got nothing to do with the book itself, it has everything to do with the process of creation.

I saw a TV show where Deepak Chopra was being interviewed and he said that the most creative people he knows are the ones that are the most comfortable with their own insecurity. A pretty fucking powerful statement, because creativity is everything to me. Whether it's an idea about the nature of the Universe or it's an idea about Nighthawk or Iron Man, just being able to conjure up these ideas in the first place is something I don't take lightly. Talkng about this stuff, pulling back the curtain a little bit on an aspect of our job -- a strange aspect that's rarely talked about -- isn't the most comfortable thing to do. Maybe I'd be better off just keping my mouth shut about some of this stuff. I guess I'm admitting an insecurity here because I could easily adopt the kind of pose I used to project when talking about my work or I could simply fall in line with the kind of pose that other pros seem to project these days. Instead, I chose option #3. Because it is all about the work, but it's also about me, too.

SPURGEON: This was all just a ruse to have me promote The Last Defenders, wasn't it?

CASEY: Guilty as charged. I hope you'll be reading it when it comes out.

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