Talking comics marketing magnate Jeff Newelt, aka ‘Jah Furry’
There are more comics being produced now than ever before — from new releases to reprints and re-issues to comics coming in from outside the United States. And while the number of comics arriving weekly to your favorite store grows every year, the shelf space doesn’t. As comic books fight for your attention, some of the more entrepreneurial-minded creators are engaging their public directly. They do it with forums, newsletters, Facebook, Twitter and interviews with the comics press — but when does that leave time to … you know… create comics?
That’s where publicity person and uber-fan Jeff Newelt comes in. Newelt, who often goes by the moniker of “Jah Furry,” worked for years as a publicity director for major companies such as Samsung, but left it all to go solo and to take his love of comics — and the craft of making comics — to the people.
As the minister of hype for webcomics collective ACT-I-VATE and working with friends such as Paul Pope, Newelt has brought attention to their work by reaching out to journalists and by communicating directly with fans through Twitter and Facebook.
He’s also parlayed his skills into editing, as the comics editor for the online magazine SMITH and in gigs for Heeb and Royal Flush. He also headed up the recent grassroots Harvey Heads gallery, with artists from all over the world drawing a rendition of Harvey Pekar. Newelt also edited The Pekar Project, and is speaking at the “Remembering Harvey Pekar” panel next weekend at New York Comic Con.
Through it all, Newelt has become an indispensable part of the comics world, as well as a staple of the New York City comics scene. In many ways he’s a 21st-century Stan Lee — goodwill ambassador for comics to the outside world. He offers a unique perspective on the creators he works with, and the vibrant scene he lives in. Don’t expect any hard-hitting journalism — this is just me seeing what makes the man tick.
Chris Arrant: What do you see your role in comics as?
Jeff Newelt: I gots multiple roles with mad prongs. To nutshell it: 1) I’m both an ambassador of the medium to the uninitiated and a spreader of sublime shite to existing fans on behalf of creators/publishers by way of public relations, social-media shenanigans, event producing/promoting, and boppin’ around with books in my murse. Comics clients of mine include/have included Paul Pope, Rick Veitch, David Lloyd, Molly Crabapple, Dan Goldman, ACT-I-VATE, Larry Marder, Al Jaffee/Harper Collins, Bill Ayers/Teachers College Press, CBLDF, Doug Rushkoff, Bryan Talbot, as well as newcomers like SoulCraft Comics (Tribes: The Dog Years) and ZIP! Comics (Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, coming in 2011).
I’ve been converting people to comics since I was 7 years old; I once got in a teacher’s face with the Kirby/ Lee Thor vs. Hercules “Treasury Edition,” and showed him how I already knew the mythologies we were learning, and that the vocabulary was even more complex in “my” version, forsooth!
I like to think I played a small part in the tectonic shift we’re still experiencing. The boom in interest in graphic novels these past two years is not, as the cynical naysayers might assert, part of a “cycle,” it’s a change. THINGS DONE CHANGED. Here’s the dealio: You don’t have to be an indie-film freak to see a few indie films a year, right? You don’t have to be a theater buff to go to one or two plays; you don’t have to be a jazzhead to see a few shows or download a Miles Davis album. BUT before now, unless you were already into ‘em, or had someone like me literally shoving one in your face, there was little chance you’d be exposed to, let alone read, a comic. Finally, you don’t have to be a comics-store regular to get a few graphic novels a year, or read webcomics regularly … Comics are now just another medium for culture-lovers to consume. This is very much a result of the Internet, in terms of webcomics allowing folks to read comics (often for the first time) while they’re not-working, and also Facebook, Twitter, etc., that has all sorts of folks in each others faces recommending shit to each other all day, and the easy access to Amazon and ordering books online …
2) I’m a connector of comics creators with badarses in other mediums to share audiences and ideas as well as concoct cosmic team-ups. For example, two years ago I mashed Paul Pope with video remix masters Eclectic Method; they really dug each other’s shit and Paul, whose comics exude music, always wanted to DJ. So the EM guys taught Paul a thing or three, he opened for them at the NYCWTF parties and San Diego Comic-Con 2009 CBLDF benefit, and now, training wheels off, PP is an actual DJ Pulphope and headlined a dozen gigs in the past year.
3) As comics editor of SMITH Magazine, I’m a curator/producer of ambitious webcomix projects, each of which has gone on to become a book or is on its way to, knock on wood. The first was Shooting War, by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, then A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge, by Josh Neufeld, the Next-Door Neighbor anthology edited by Dean Haspiel, and currently, my first all-out editor gig, The Pekar Project, Harvey Pekar’s (RIP) webcomics series. For “The Pekar Project” my role was/is actually three-fold: editor/producer/promoter. I edited the comics, meaning Harvey read me the scripts over the phone and we’d jam, then I would work with the artists on manifesting his story; I produced the website, wrote blogs concocted, special features like the Harvey Heads gallery for Harvey’s 70th birthday; I promoted/publicized it, knowing in my gut that so many more people could be into Harvey’s work, even after the American Splendor movie. Before Seinfeld had an episode in a Chinese restaurant, Harvey had comics that took place at the supermarket, etc. I treated working on this project like I was a record producer, and Harvey was the composer/band leader, the artists the musicians/soloists. For example, I teamed-up Harvey and Doug Rushkoff for a “conversational comic.” Harvey went on Doug’s WFMU radio show, but even before they chatted on-air, I knew the results would be a raw extended track for us to edit, remix and produce the final album, which is a four-part comic illustrated by Sean Pryor. It felt like putting Duke Ellington and John Coltrane together in the studio, knowing it would work and be a spectacular simpatico one-off. And Pryor did a terrific job of illustrating the conversation itself, not two people talking.
4) I’m comics editor of Heeb and Royal Flush magazines, and also a frequent moderator of panels at various cons. In my journalism work, I act more as an appreciator then as a critic; I only write for non-comics publications and I don’t do any negative reviews. My criteria for what’s covered is that the work should be something appealing to both the aficionado and the newbie. For example for Heeb I’ve done profiles on Gary Panter, Paul Pope, Mike Allred, Jeff Smith, etc., and every year I get to be the first in comics to pop out a best-of list, because the Jewish New Year comes first! I recently chose my Top 10 Comics of 5770. For Royal Flush I did a fun piece on the friendship between Jack Kirby and Frank Zappa, by way of an interview with Ahmet Zappa, and got Rick Veitch to draw “Zappa as a Kirby New God.” I co-curated the MoCCA Fest 2010 with Brian Heater, and got to moderate a dream panel, “The Art of the Superhero,” with Frank Miller, Kyle Baker, Jaime Hernandez, Paul Pope and Dean Haspiel, and also throw a helluva after party with DJ Pulphope, DJ Crosshatch (Brian Heater of The Daily Cross Hatch), and DJ Man-Size (Dean Haspiel)
Arrant: What do you do for comic creators — are you a manager, agent or the comics equivalent to a superhero’s tech guy? And what are some projects you are working on now.
Newelt: It’s a mixture, I do different things for different clients/cohorts. For the most part, I provide a combination of public relations and social-media services, meaning I help score articles ranging from The New York Times features like this one for Molly Crabapple, to interviews in cool blogs like Robot 6 [laughs]; I advise on/help run Twitter/Facebook accounts, and act as a media outlet myself by popping goodies from clients into my own robust feeds. But I can’t be paid to promote something I don’t adore — that would poison my feeds and defeat the porpoise of love.
I enthuse about so many things I adore that its tough to tell whom my clients are. Only so many hours in a day, so clients get priority, but I’m perpetually pimpin’ anything I think rocks heiny. I do act as occasional agent, scoring gigs for creators for a commission. I also throw a mean launch soiree. I usually do it as a team-up, for example we did a party to launch Next-Door Neighbor true-life webcomix anthology, edited by Dean Haspiel, combined with Doug Rushkoff’s Life Inc., which brought together both complementary fan bases that wouldn’t necessarily know about the other’s work without a nudge.
I also help produce and perform live comix readings, like the one ACT-I-VATE did this past weekend in Dumbo. The comics were projected, dialogue read aloud, and each strip had its own soundtrack. I wound up doing four voices, including my specialty, Harvey Pekar’s, and ’twas quite a delight. Photos here. I’ll be performing an encore of Pekar pieces I read at the RIO Comic Con in November.
Some recent fun projects: I’m working on promoting Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, a biography written by Mary-Lou Weisman with 65-plus new illos by Al. It’s a fucking page-turner and a tearjerker. He had an abysmal childhood, with a nutty mom who not only locked him and his brothers in an apartment with nothing but a piss bucket to run around giving all her money to beggars, but after Al’s dad got the family out of Lithuania to the U.S., she kidnapped them and took them back! Just in time for Hitler! So no wonder he’s the ultimate sillyhead, he escaped all that misery by entertaining himself and others. I set up a Facebook page for Al Jaffee, which I take pride in doing just right, with the right mix of content in the right places to provide an instant hearty, enticing and real introduction to the “product.”
Bill Ayers! What a treat to work with someone Sarah Palin hates! If Sarah hates them, I wanna hug ‘em. I helped promote To Teach: The Journey, In Comics, his kick-ass teaching memoir/manifesto. A lazier “celebrity” would have handed his original book to an artist and said, “Adapt this.” But no, Ryan Alexander-Tanner lived with Bill for six months, and they recreated his memoir from the ground-up. ‘Twas a privilege to work with such a passionate creative duo. Bill got the hang of Facebook, but I still owe him a tweetorial.
I’m having a blast helping photographer Seth Kushner curate his remarkable ACT-I-VATE series CulturePOP: Photocomix Profiles of Real Life Characters. For Season 1, I set him up with jazz sousaphonist Clark Gayton, VJ Jonny Wilson from Eclectic Method, sculptor/graffiti artist Mare139, and Doug Rushkoff. Wait til you see who we lined up for Season 2, which starts October 4th.
You are what you eat and you are what you work on. I’m blessed to be working with terrific creators and creations. Right now I’m promoting two gawjuss graphic novels, Tribes: The Dog Years, a manga-meets-Moebius widescreen sci-fi epic written by Mike Geszel, who along with Larry Smith of SMITH, was my editor-in-chief on 34th Street, the weekly arts mag at UPENN, and illustrated by Inaki Miranda who WILL be a star within one year, and Red Light Properties by Dan Goldman, a now-complete online graphic novel about a real estate firm that performs exorcisms on haunted properties in Miami. Red Light Properties is the comic I wanted to read from Dan ever since I got a taste of his psychedelic prowess with Kelly! I would eat each new Red Light Properties chapter like candy and poop out peppy promotional posts! As a fun way to promote Red Light Properties, interviewed not Dan, but Jude Tobin, the lead character, for ComicsAlliance. It was a unique opportunity to jump into a fictional world a la Purple Rose of Cairo.
I’m also working again with Doug Rushkoff, promoting his new book Program of be Programmed: 10 Commands for a Digital Age; its fun to be a fan, friend and collaborator with your clients! People tell me to stop working, but it’s also my play! Now sometimes I should stop playing AND working and just relax, that’s probably a good idea …
Arrant: What’s your day job, and how does that relate to your work in comics?
Newelt: I left day-job land over two years ago to go solo. For my last fulltime PR gig, I had Samsung as a client for four years. This relates to my work in comics in that I have a corporate PR background, and certain connections I made during that period, I still pitch stories to, but with my shirt tucked out. It was like my secret identity, “Tucked-In Boy,” I fucking hate tucking! And they made me tuck. No one outside of that world would recognize me tucked; I’d see someone on the street, they’d have no idea who I am, then I would untuck and they’d go “JEFF!!!” Now afternoon job is more like it, my eight hours of sleep are 4 a.m. to 12 p.m,. it’s how I’ve always worked and played best, because my play is my work, and vice versa … I often organize outings to jazz and reggae gigs that I also promote, and who joins me but clients, media, artists, etc., so much of my work gets done at night, that I don’t apologize for my unique schedule.
My non-comics clients are cool, too. I’ve become a go-to guy for corporate clients to outsource blog-outreach/social-media work when the project is sweet enough not to pollute my feeds. Recent clients were Volvo, ESPN, the Korean government and the British government; they all needed someone to organically infiltrate on their behalf who would be believed because, not only don’t I bullshit, I can’t — I’d bore myself to death if I ever had to B.S. for a living, or even a minute.
This all relates to comics because I am able to combine my comics peeps with all these other great peeps to make cross medium magic happen. And I’m always noodging journalists who cover cool stuff of all kinds to cover comics, making sure comics are on their radar.
Arrant: Part of what you do is related to the fact you live and work in NYC, where the biggest collection of comic creators live. Could you do what you were doing if you were living in … Muncie, Indiana, or somewhere?
Newelt: No, I couldn’t and I wouldn’t. I can do a lot on the Internet, but the online feeds the offline and vice versa. Only working one side of that equation won’t work, I need to be out and about and within, and, as I said before, I conduct a lot of my “networking” at jazz and reggae shows, etc., I know where the crazy-good shit’s at each night, and I bring together all sorts of folks at those gigs.
Arrant: What would you do if you were promoted from minister of hype at AiV to do it for the entire comics medium?
Newelt: Basically I’d do what I’m already doing. I’m certainly not the only hypester of the medium — there are many — but I do a good job promoting the medium as a whole already.
Arrant: Since you know comics and know New York City: Take me on a walking comics tour of NYC. Where would you go?
Newelt: In Manhattan I’d take you to the offices of DC and Marvel; to Forbidden Planet, Midtown Comics and St. Marks Comics, to the apartment of Heidi MacDonald and Ben McCool to meet their Twitter-famous puking cat, to Landsdowne Road — a pub frequented by many comics peeps, especially after NYCC; in Brooklyn to Deep Six studios to say hi to Dean Haspiel, Simon Fraser, Nathan Schreiber and that lot, to Desert Island and Bergen Street Comics, and out to Rockwood Music Hall midnight on a Tuesday to hear the Dred Scott Trio or to NuBlu to check out Clark Gayton with me, Paul Pope and posse.