Interview - Jeff Mariotte
Award-winning author. Check! Senior Editor of multiple comic book publishers. Check! VP of Marketing for WildStorm Productions. Check! Jeff Mariotte has done it all, and done it successfully! You can imagine the excitement that overcame us when Jeff agreed to sit down and answer some questions about his experience with WildStorm!
By WildStormsCCG.com Staff
Before working at Homage/WildStorm, you were already a published writer. Can you talk a bit about your work at that time, your goals, and how that all led to you working at the studio?
I managed Hunter's Books in La Jolla, CA, from 1983-1992. It was a general bookstore in a busy tourist area, with a luxury hotel right across the street. Hunter's was a southern California/Arizona chain, part of the broader Books Inc. chain headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was transferred from the San Jose Books Inc. store, which was strong in the genre fiction that I loved--science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery--so when I came to Hunter's, I transformed and enlarged those sections, and used my connections to set up an aggressive series of author appearances, signings, etc. We brought in folks like Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker, Douglas Adams, Roger Zelazny, Robert B. Parker, James Lee Burke, James Ellroy, Ross Thomas, and many, many more.
The San Diego Comic-Con was an ongoing institution already--though much smaller than it would become in a few years--so my first year at Hunter's, I took a booth there, mostly bringing signed stock by those genre authors, and organizing signings with authors who were invited by the con--most of those worked in both comics and prose. I was the first bookseller at SDCC selling regular prose fiction, without pictures and word balloons, and many of my sales were to the guests, so I got to meet more comics folk that way.
Studio shot of Jeff from the 1993 Killer Instinct Tour Book.
Anyway, I was also interested in writing. I had published some journalism in college, and won a literary award for a short story, but hadn't yet sold any fiction. While I was at Hunter's, an editor I'd met through the bookstore was soliciting short fiction for a SF anthology called Full Spectrum. I submitted a story, and it was accepted, so that became my first professional sale. Of course, when the book was released, I displayed it prominently at the store. My goal was to become a novelist, and I'd written a couple of novels by that point, but hadn't been able to sell them.
Somewhere around that time, I hired a new employee named Angie Vorhies. It turned out she was really smart, and quickly became my assistant manager. It also turned out she was married to a guy named Jim Lee, some comic artist who'd made a big splash with the X-Men. They were living in an apartment in Pacific Beach, because X-Men #1 hadn't quite happened yet. When it did, they bought a big house and property in the La Jolla hills. And Jim and some other pals left Marvel and formed a company you might've heard of, Image Comics.
It's too late to make a long story short, but a lot of things happened more or less at once. Books Inc. decided to close all of the Hunter's Books stores, including mine. Knowing I was going to be out of a job, and knowing that San Diego was losing its main source for those genre books (there was a mystery bookstore, but it was barely hanging on), I conspired with my then-wife and another partner and opened an independent genre bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy. That was great--BUT, it wasn't likely to pay me any money for a long time. Conveniently, I got a call from Jim (who I'd gotten to know through Angie). He'd made a trading card deal with Topps for a series of WildC.A.T.S cards, and he needed someone to write the text on the backs of the cards. Angie had given him a copy of Full Spectrum, and he liked my story, so he asked me if I would be interested. I jumped at it, and for that set of 100 cards, made more than a month's salary as a bookstore manager.
From there, Jim asked me to write some more things--a couple of sourcebooks, to start with. Then he and John Nee asked me to come on as a full-time employee.
And thanks in large part to Jim and John, I actually became a novelist. My first novel was Gen13: Netherwar, a collaboration with my pal Christopher Golden. WildStorm had produced a Gen13 animated feature film and sold it to Disney for domestic distribution. When that happened, Ace Books took a license to publish three novels, working through a packager named Byron Preiss. Chris was asked to write the first one, and he asked me to write it with him. That led to a career as a novelist--21 years this year, and more than 50 novels., several awards, and tons of other works besides. So working for WildStorm really changed my life in significant ways.
You wore many hats while working at WildStorm: writer, editor, marketing, etc… Can you talk about where you started at the company and how you found yourself in each role?
I was initially hired as a writer for those odd projects. But it turned out that WildStorm was getting a ton of fan mail--all paper mail in those days, not email. One of my tasks became to read all of that, respond to what I could, and compile letters pages for each book. Periodically I'd write brief messages on a huge stack of postcards, and stick them in front of Jim so he could sign them. That way, everybody who wrote in would get a personal message with Jim's autograph on it.
Eventually, that led to me becoming the director of marketing, and finally to VP of marketing. In that role, I handled all the outreach to the distributors, retailers, and readers. I organized and ran the booth at SDCC and at other cons, planned promotional material, wrote ads, and so on. I stayed in that role until DC bought WildStorm in 1999. DC already had a great marketing department, so they offered me the position of senior editor. I'd already done some editorial work in those other capacities, so it was a pretty seamless transition.
I also did other, random tasks over the years. When we moved from Mira Mesa to La Jolla, for instance, we hired an insane architect to build out our space. I had to ride herd on him, to give him space to be creative--the studio space was truly wild--but also to keep it functional, and somewhere in the vicinity of our budget. On one occasion, I had to deliver a million-dollar check to our accountants, and as I drove south on the freeway I couldn't help thinking about how close the Mexican border was. Of course, everybody was tasked with racing packages to whatever FedEx office was open latest. I helped in just about every aspect of the business at one time or another.
Early on, you were very instrumental in helping to flesh out the WildStorm universe of characters. I specifically remember you being very involved with Taboo from the Backlash series. What kinds of characters and input did you have during your time at the studio?
Weirdly, I developed the backstories for a lot of characters that people have no idea about. When I wrote the WildC.A.T.S and StormWatch sourcebooks, there were many characters who weren't much more than a visual design, some powers, and a code name. I made up their civilian names, their histories, little details about them. Those were published in the sourcebooks, at which point they became official. So I had a lot to do with several of the characters from those series, which were really the seeds of the whole WSU.
On Backlash, my main role was really more editorial than creative. The stories and the characters were Brett Booth's and Sean Ruffner's, but neither of them was an actual writer. I took their rough scripts and tried to make them flow cohesively, through dialog and the occasional caption. I suppose it's possible that I had more to do with Taboo's development--that sounds vaguely familiar--but I don't have any specific memory of that.
Of course, there were characters that I created out of whole cloth, like Hazard, the team of StormWatch rookies (some of whom became staples of the WSU, like Swift and Flint), the team from Countdown, and a few others.
From a writing perspective, how would you approach a character or story for the first time whether it was a new character or an already established franchise?
It really depended on the project. My first couple of scripting jobs were for books that had already been plotted and drawn, but for which the regular writers weren't available when it was time to script and letter them and get them out of the door. I had a weekend to script Union #2 for Mike Heisler, because it was on the verge of being late (or was already late, I don't remember). That was my first published comic script, and all I had to go on were Mark Texeira's art, a very rough plot outline, and the first issue. So I had to try to put myself in Mike's head, and figure out what these characters would say. The second scripting job I got was for Gen13 #2, of the original miniseries. Same deal--Brandon Choi's plot, but Brandon wasn't available and we had to get the book out. That one was a little lighter than Union, a little goofier, with those young, hip characters, so I had to adopt a different mindset for that. Around that same time, I started working with Brett and Sean on Backlash.
My first original series for WildStorm was Hazard. I wanted it to have a kind of hard-boiled edge--he was a superhero, but without a costume and all the accessories superheroes are supposed to have. And he had limited control over his own future, because his powers were the result of nanotech inserted into his body against his will, and the scientist who'd developed the nanotech had ultimate control over it. He wanted Hazard to be his assassin, but Hazard had different ideas.
Ultimately, the project I was best known for was Desperadoes, for Homage Comics, our creator-owned line. We had originally signed Kurt Busiek's Astro City, and then a new series by James Robinson and Paul Smith called Leave it to Chance. I knew Terry Moore from some cons, so Jim asked me to call him and see if I could bring Strangers in Paradise into the fold, which I did. But Jim wanted to expand Homage Comics into other genres, and he knew I liked westerns, so he asked me to develop a western series. That became Desperadoes, the "weird western" series. I liked writing all those things, and all the WildStorm characters I wrote--WildC.A.T.s, StormWatch, Wetworks, etc., but I really put my heart and soul into Desperadoes, and I think it showed.
Delving into marketing, the Club Homage newsletter was one of the first pieces of merchandise I recall your name being attached to. How did the idea for that come together and how successful was it?
I don't remember if the idea was originally Jim's or John Nee's, or both together. They brought it to me and asked me to run it. We developed some goodies that all members would get, and then I put together the newsletter. Top Cow was still part of Homage Studios at the time, so I had to cover their products, as well. I don't recall what our membership numbers were, but I know we sent out a ton of merchandise, and probably did four or five issues of the newsletter before we folded it.
The marketing and graphic design team at WildStorm appeared to have an aggressive and forward thinking mentality. Ads, solicitations, and merchandise were everywhere. What was your approach to building the brand and how did it evolve from the beginning of the studio until the DC purchase?
We didn't have an internet to promote our products. What we had were magazines--Wizard, of course, being the top of the heap in those days. And we had Diamond Comics and Capital City, our two main distributors, each of whom put out a catalog that would not only go to retailers but would be seen by a lot of fans. So those were our main outlets for news, information, and solicitations. I tried to develop good working relationships with the key people at those companies--relationships that, despite changes in all our lives, in some cases are still strong today. I tried to make every deal win-win--we could buy an ad in Wizard, and a lot of people would see it. But alternatively, we could buy a spread or a foldout in Wizard, which was more expensive, AND I could get Jim Lee to do a cover for Wizard, and a LOT more people would see all of that. I tried to keep Jim's name--and to a slightly lesser extent all the other creators we had on our roster, folks like J. Scott Campbell and Scott Clark and Brett Booth and Travis Charest, etc. and many more as the years went by and we kept expanding--in front of the comics-buying public at all times. I didn't want them to pick up a copy of Wizard or Fan or Combo or Diamond Previews and not see those names, and the WildStorm characters. I didn't want anyone to walk into a comic shop and not see a poster of whatever we were launching next.
I wrote basically all of the ads, no matter where they appeared. Our marketing department was small--basically me. But I had the services of one of the best designers in the business, Robbie Robbins, who became one of the founders of IDW. For a little while, I had an assistant, Anthony Bozzi, who was very gung-ho and could work miracles. And, of course, I had access to the best artists in the business, so the ads always looked great.
Obviously, the internet changed things. I had to be on "social media" before it was called that. We built a website, and I was active on AOL and CompuServe, and switched a lot of our communication from mail to email as that came in. By the time DC bought us, that old paper fan mail was a thing of the past, and more and more of our marketing efforts had shifted to online.
We also did some crazy things that drove retailers nuts, like 13 covers on Gen13 #1, chromium covers and chromium cards, 3D, you name it. In the long run, yes, some of those stunts might have been bad for the business, because they drove people to buy too many copies of books, thinking they'd be "collectible," but when you print a million copies of something, it's never gonna be rare. That said, we were responding to the market conditions of the time. People wanted those things, as evidenced by the orders we got for them. We weren't twisting anybody's arm to buy them (well, I had to do a little arm-twisting sometimes, but as VP of marketing, that was my job). And who's to say that those efforts didn't extend the boom, rather than helping to end it? We can't know what didn't happen, only what did, and what happened was that WildStorm was very successful for a very long time.
Let’s say a new product is almost ready to come to market (we can use WSCCG as an example here but it could be anything). How much advance notice would you have to begin the marketing machine and what steps were typically involved from campaign creation to product release?
Boy, that really varies. Some things had a long lead time--Wetworks, anyone? Others were thrown together pretty quickly, or else the creative teams shifted around. Or, in one case, I kept having to send out corrections when, ahead of Gen13's launch, J. Scott Campbell kept changing his name. I think he was Jeff Campbell, Scott Campbell, and J. Scott Campbell, all before the book came out.
Being able to run house ads for merchandise in comics appeared to be a big focus of product marketing. How did you take advantage of this and how did you market the comics to ensure a return on those advertisements inside?
That was "free" ad space. For awhile, we signed on with a company that packaged our ad pages along with those of other publishers, so somebody buying an ad would be guaranteed a certain number of views, but that didn't last long. So for the most part, we used those pages to promote our own stuff, or we swapped ads with licensing partners, etc. Sometimes those pages were essentially wasted--promoting your best-selling book in your worst-selling book is kind of a wash, after all. But promoting your new books or your lower sellers in your best-selling books can be very helpful. Of course, we might have overdone the concept of giant crossovers, but those helped goose the lower-selling books, too.
Every year WildStorm was on the road with a promotional tour that highlighted book launches and crossovers. What was your role in creating these events and how did the process evolve over time?
Mostly, those were a matter of talking to various stores and lining up the creators who'd be appearing, and trying to get some promotional money out of them to help defray expenses. Sometimes I set them up, sometimes Jim did it himself if there was a place he wanted to go, or had John do it. There was a trip to Hawaii to promote our pogs, for example. I'm pretty sure that was paid for by Skybox, the company that made the pogs, or by the Hawaiian retailers who wanted us there. Almost the whole studio went, not just the talent. Fun times.
Later on, we got a little more organized about it and hired a tour promoter who'd put together tours for rock groups, etc. A bus, a driver, all that stuff. But initially it was very haphazard.
With (or a little before) the split of Marc Silvestri from the Homage Studios space, there was a shift in brand identity from the Homage name to WildStorm Productions. Can you recall a bit about that process and what went into making that successful transition?
That was another period of name confusion. I was handling trademark and copyright issues, in addition to everything else on my plate, and Jim kept changing his mind about what we'd be called. The official company name became Aegis Entertainment, but most fans didn't seem to know how to pronounce that. That was how we became WildStorm. Merge WildC.A.T.s and StormWatch, and there you are. Everybody knew how to say it, and could remember it. Again, there was a round of conflicting press releases as we went through the changes. And the studio was always known, at least to us, as Homage Studios.
The popularity and ease of access to the internet created an interesting paradigm shift in how products were marketed and sold in the second half of the 90s. What were some of the opportunities and challenges that you faced approaching this new medium?
I touched on this a little earlier. I don't think it had much impact on how we sold things, because the vast majority of our products were sold through specialty retailers. Whether those retailers were brick-and-mortar comic shops, or online entertainment mega stores like American Entertainment didn't affect us much, because we were producing them and shipping primarily through Diamond. Ultimately we started selling some of our merchandise online, I think, stuff we could manufacture locally and ship direct-to-consumer.
Wildstorms CCG had a number of interesting promotions: promo cards distributed with popular magazines, retailer purchase incentives, mail-in coupons, personalized cards. Can you elaborate briefly on each of these from inception to finalization and how successful each had been?
Most of that stuff was handled by Ted Adams's group, and I know you've already interviewed him. I was involved in launching the games (that and Fast Break), but that was mostly in the area of creating and placing ads, setting up some play-testing with retailers, and exhibiting at Gen Con, Origins, and the GAMA trade shows. How successful any of that was, I have no idea.
Which project/character/story are you the most proud of? What made that special for you? Which project would you like to go back and revisit if you could?
I'm proud, primarily, that I was part of the executive team that made WildStorm so successful that DC Comics wanted to acquire us. That was obviously the work of a lot of people--I think we had around 130 employees by that time, and when I started, I was the 12th one hired. And it was primarily due to the creative and entrepreneurial talent of Jim Lee and John Nee. Since they're now running DC and Marvel, respectively, I think that demonstrates their ability to innovate and create and inspire.
As far as individual products goes, again, I'm proud of a lot of them. When I ran the Star Trek line, I brought in a bunch of science fiction authors, some of whom had never done comics, but who loved Star Trek and would probably never have written a tie-in novel. I created some original graphic novels with some of them, as well. In both my marketing and editorial roles, and as a writer, I helped launch and/or popularize a lot of artists who are still beloved today, like John Cassaday, J. Scott Campbell, Travis Charest, Mat Broome, Igor Kordey, Charlie Adlard, Dustin Nguyen, etc. I also got to work with writers like Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Adam Warren, and other personal heroes.
In terms of comics projects I created, Desperadoes is still the nearest and dearest--and I might well be revisiting that very soon. And I'm also proud that my son David, who was born in 1994 and basically raised at WildStorm, is now and editor and writer at IDW Publishing, so following in his old man's footsteps.
Today, fans are still passionate about the product that came out of WildStorm. What about this stuff made it so special and what would you say to all the fans out there that still support that universe?
It was special because Jim was an immensely talented guy, first and foremost. His continued presence as one of the most popular artists the field has ever known is a testament to that. On top of that, he was creative, he was smart, he was willing to spend money when necessary and to protect it when that was smarter. Those attributes drew other smart and talented people to him, and he made good hiring decisions most of the time. In the 90s, no studio was putting out better looking books or had a stable of more talented artists than WildStorm. Others tried to copy our style, and had their own successes, but I would venture to say that our product line was groundbreaking, our merchandising was top-notch, and as time went on and we paid more attention to the writing as well as the art, our comics were as good as or better than anything else being published at the time.
And I appreciate all the fans, then and now. As the guy who had to set up the comic-con booths and run them from the start of the show to the end, I met thousands of WildStorm fans. They were, and remain, some of the most enthusiastic, kindest, most generous people I've ever known, and many of them are still friends. I'm so proud to have contributed in some way to that community of comics-lovers, and proud of the comics that some of those people have created, in turn. Thanks to every one of you for being there.
Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!
From left to right: (Top) Alex Sinclair, Mike Heisler, Jeff Mariotte, Alex Garner, John Tighe, JD, Brett Booth, J. Scott Campbell, Trevor Scott, Richard Johnson
(Bottom) Becky Sinclair, Joseph "Dozer" Mendoza, Joanne Mendoza, Sofia Dominguez, Mario Dominguez, Robin Lane, Deborah Marvin
Jeff at a book signing in 2008.