Thursday, October 15, 2009

For the Love of Comics #03: Jeff Newelt ACT-I-VATEs the Hype

Words & Pictures: Seth Kushner

I arranged to talk to Jeff Newelt on the rooftop of the building that houses Deep 6 studios, in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It’s the type of location where one would almost expect to meet a superhero, or a superhero’s publicist, in this case. The phallic Williamsburg Bank Building looms in the distance, it’s clock telling me that Jeff is running late. No signal beam is needed to call upon him, just an iPhone to call to check on his status.

Jeff arrives wearing a Paul Pope designed t-shirt and carrying a bag of comics. He wastes no time hurling info at me at lightning speed. “My role in comics in general, is being the guy who connects all the superheroes,” Jeff tells me matter-of-factly as the F train rattles by. “I get them together and make sure they all know each other so they could all team up to expose everybody to each other's awesome stuff and of course battle some evil cosmic force sure to invade earth in the months to come. I look at ACT-I-VATE as an Avengers, and Paul Pope, who I also work with, as a Batman, and Royal Flush Magazine as a Legion of Substitute Heroes (kidding Josh!!) or SMITH Mag as a Justice League - all compatible and equal entities.”

I don’t know when I first met Jeff. I remember him introducing himself to me at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a few years back, when I was covering it and he was doing PR for Samsung at the time. But I already knew him then; we were myspace friends, and he was comics editor for Heeb, a magazine I freelanced for as well. But, thinking back, he worked at The Art Director’s Club back in the 90’s when I frequently attended events. Wait, didn’t he also used to date my friend Emily’s friend? Maybe we went to kindergarten together?

Jeff Newelt, AKA JahFurry, is a self-described social media expert/pioneer. He’s also a reggae performer and promotes jazz & reggae shows. Jeff also is the comics editor of SMITH, HEEB, (where he’s also written many comic creator profiles and reviews) and Royal Flush (announced later in this article) Magazines, as well as editor of The Pekar Project for SMITH Mag. Not enough? Okay, Jeff also is the PR/Social Media consultant for artists such as Paul Pope, Doug Rushkoff, Rick Veitch, Larry Marder, NBM Publishing, Molly Crabapple, David Lloyd, DJ Spooky and others. That must be it, right? Nope. He also is the co-host of ProtocolsNYC an off-the-record salon, and teaches social media to female entrepreneurs.

When does this guy sleep? I think I know since I’ve often received emails from Jeff at three or four AM and never anytime during the day before noon. “JahFurries are nocturnal,” he tells me.

Jeff is feeding me too much information all at once. Time to start the questioning.

Seth Kushner - Tell me about ACT-I-VATE; how did you start with them?

Jeff Newelt – “I first came to ACT-I-VATE because I was comics editor of SMITH magazine and we were publishing online,Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, who was also in ACT-I-VATE. So, while promoting and hyping Shooting War, I also promoted ACT-I-VATE, because I was a fan of what they do. I always saw ACT-I-VATE as a sort of sister or brother site to SMITH. Part of my shtick is I uberblab about things I like, so I’d been telling people about AIV, and after seeing what I’d done promoting Shooting War, Dean Haspiel and Dan Goldman asked if I’d officially be one of them as ‘Minister Of Hype.’ I said, ‘Lemme think abou.... I’m in!’ Since then, I’ve been the fifth Beatle, or the twenty-seventh Beatle in this case. I’m the one guy who doesn’t do comics, but I’ll stick my two cents in a lot of different ways.”

SK - What does a “Minister of Hype” do?

JN - “I run in a lot of circles and speak to a lot of media spreading the word that AIV is the ultimate webcomics collective because I believe it. I send people to AIV who may not have ever read a graphic novel as an entry point to not only webcomics, but to the comics medium in general. I also marshal the forces as social media general reminding everybody to link to AIV on their Facebook profile, to Tweet when you put up a new comic, stuff like that.”

“What I consider to be one of my specialties, and has been since I was six years old, is being able to turn people on to comics. When AIV has a big party, I make sure the guest list is 25 to 50% non-comics fans. Most comics related parties are 95% comics fans. I frame AIV, and all the folks I work with, as something someone who is into cool culture would want to be a part of. You don’t have to be a theater buff to see two plays a year, or an independent film freak to see three indie films a year, and you don’t have to be a comics nut to enjoy a few webcomics or buy a graphic novel or three.”

SK – What are webcomics doing for the comics industry?

JN - “Webcomics are not in competition with print comics, but instead they may be the savior of print comics. You can read webcomics while you’re not working at work. You may never pick up and buy a graphic novel, but if I send you a cool image from something that sounds like it might be up your alley, or post one on my Facebook page, you’re just might click, and if you like that, you just may click again onto Amazon. Especially if you're at work, goofing off, and really, when is that not the case? It’s primo procrastination fodder and we’re going to take advantage of that.”

“Without the web, converting someone from maybe buying a graphic novel to actually buying a graphic novel is sometimes almost impossible, but webcomics are the segue in between that, because you can look at a free webcomic for five minutes and be hooked without even knowing you even liked comics in general. I guess that makes my role very similar to being a crack dealer. I give them a taste and they get hooked. AIV is very easy to give a taste of. It tastes like chicken actually. It’s a great gateway for comics in general."

"My main role is gradually and sinisterly getting it into the consciousness of the culturatti that AIV is the badass all-star webcomics collective. "

SK – What about the Pekar project; how did you get involved with Harvey?

JN – “We at SMITH had a code-word for A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge, the serialized nonfiction Katrina graphic novel by Josh Neufeld, before it even started, which was ‘American Splendor 2.0,’ meaning our benchmark for quality of nonfiction comics on SMITH was the work of Harvey Pekar. The 2.0 meant the multimedia and blog extras our format can provide, and Josh happened to be an actual frequent Pekar collaborator. Our next SMITH comics series was Next-Door Neighbor, an anthology of true-life tales edited by AIV's own Dean Haspiel, another frequent Pekar collaborator. Harvey himself contributed a story to NDN, and it was my contribution to pair him with Rick Veitch, and Harvey was real happy with how that story came out and the reception it received. Around that time Harvey was working with a gifted illustrator/designer, Tara Seibel who was starting to do comics with Harvey, and he was energized, knowing the two of them if they kept going would get into some deep avante garde shit. So he called Dean and said, ‘What about that SMITH online thing…think me and Tara could do something?’ I was looking for the next big SMITH project, and Dean knew I was also itching to hone my hands-on editor's chops, so Dean connected us. I immediately had Harvey and Tara do a strip for HEEB's politics issue and the seeds were sown. At the same time Harvey started working with artist Joseph Remnant, whose style was opposite of Tara's, very Crumb-like, but who Harvey was also enjoying working with. Harvey also did a strip illustrated by young Sean Pryor for Royal Flush, which Harvey also dug, and then Rick Parker, the veteran who always wanted to draw for Pekar threw his hat into the ring and a band was formed."
"Working with Harvey is a treat. He is way more sweet, humble and appreciative than he is a ‘curmudgeon.’ We quickly got into a groove and just started to literally jam. Harvey calls me up and reads me stories over the phone and I even would up in one of them, 'Legendary Vienna.' This is also the first time that Harvey isn't working just one-to-one-to-one with all the artists. This is a team. Tara's been instrumental in getting the whole thing rolling, coming up with the badass logo that just sealed the deal, and all four artists are bringing their A-game. We even all went to Cleveland for his 70th birthday to do a Pekar Project gallery show and it felt like a family reunion even though most of us just met for the first time.”

SK – How did the “Harvey Heads” gallery come into being?

JN - "I came up with the Harvey Heads idea on the subway. I didn’t know what was I going to get Harvey for his 70th birthday, and then I thought, how about something that shows this super humble man how much he's loved in the comics community! What if I got 70 artists to draw 70 Harvey heads in tribute? Turns out we got over 100, and more keep coming in. So with a week from conception, to execution, the Harvey Heads gallery came into being, and it wound up being not only a present he loved, but a veritable buzz bomb because its just so fucking cool, and brought a lot of attention to the Pekar Project that we're all working are heinies off on and also very proud of the results. I'm of the school that if you built it awesomely, they will come. If someone asks how can they get folks to write about what they do or their product I say first make sure whatever it is, is awesome. Otherwise don't waste your time; there are plenty of awesome things for media to write about over a not-awesome thing with a spin."

SK – What else do you have going on?

JN – “I'll also take this time in this article to announce that I’ve become comics editor of a third magazine, Royal Flush, the new issue of which is, to quote my own press release, "Part pop culture mag, part rock art carnival, part comic book, and all irreverent fun." I wrote an article about Frank Zappa and Jack Kirby's friendship, and my pal Rick Veitch did a killer illustration of Zappa as a Kirby New God. I also worked with Harvey Pekar on a piece. Flush publisher Josh Bernstein and I brainstormed on how the fuck to get Pekar into the magazine, especially because artist Sean Pryor (now in Pekar Project) was dying to work with him. So we decided to send him some metal and punk CDs to review, knowing that would set him off on an entertaining rant, and it did. And in the spirit of a team-up, this Royal Flush Pekar story will be previewed exclusively on the Pekar Project on SMITH. Sean kicked ass on the art, and was then asked to be part of the Pekar Project and Paul Pope provided a sexy pull-out centerfold.”

SK – I’m exhausted just listening to you. How do you manage to keep track of so many different things?

JN – “Like Wolverine, who’s on the X-Men and the Avengers and who is also hirsute, I'm on multiple teams with equal allegiance to each. It would always frustrate me when the superheroes would fight in the comics. I instinctually see the common points where all the different individual entities can team-up, share audiences... It’s like, if you like the comics on ACT-I-VATE, you’ll probably like the clothes Paul Pope designed for DKNY Jeans, or Rick Veitch's graphic novel, Brat Pack, and so on.... So I coordinate all the superheroes of comics to a greater good of a greater audience for each other and for comics in general.”

With those final words, Jeff takes off, not off the side of the roof, but down the stairs, undoubtedly on his way to make something happen. Or, maybe he’s just going off to read his comics.

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