“That’s the Hustle”: Writer Frank Gogol on Writing Comics, Finding Audiences and Building Hits

As you likely know, I’m someone who appreciates people who take unconventional approaches to comics, whether that’s in the stories they tell or how they publish them. Comics are a malleable medium, and those who think outside the box often earn my attention. That works in other ways too, not the least of which is when it comes to marketing, something that’s of great interest to me if only because that overlaps with my day job in advertising.

That’s why writer Frank Gogol came to my attention. It’s not that I wasn’t intrigued by his recent titles in Dead End Kids and No Heroine; it’s just I appreciated the hell out of his endless efforts to find audiences for those titles and the success he found from the work he put in. Making your own comics can be a grind, and if you don’t do it right, it can be the storytelling equivalent of a tree falling in a forest, even if it’s the greatest story no one ever read.

Gogol’s someone who is doing it right, at least in the sense that his efforts are having an impact and drawing attention towards his books. So naturally, I had to talk with the guy. That’s what today’s chat is, as Gogol and I discuss his comic origins, his plan to garner attention for his comics, Dead End Kids and No Heroine, some of the more unconventional plans he had to draw the eyes of retailers, the hustle that goes into building a fanbase, speculators vs. collectors, and a whole lot more. Give it a read, and hey, keep an eye out for No Heroine, which sees its second issue arrive tomorrow in comic shops everywhere.

Let’s start broadly and at the beginning. What made you want to get into writing comics? What was the appeal of the art form?

Frank Gogol: It was, honestly, a couple of things: I was a child in the early-90’s, so I grew up on a healthy diet of things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man: The Animated Series, and Batman: The Animated Series. So, those were sort of a backdoor into comics for me. 

But beyond that, I didn’t have a very good home life and things like comics and TV shows offered me some much-needed escapism. 

Then, later in the Nineties, a little show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer started airing and, I think, I saw for the first time that storytelling as a craft was a thing and that stories could deal with some heavy topics. That was pretty much the jumping-off point for me wanting to be a storyteller and comics has always felt like the right medium for me to tell stories in. 

The comic market, and more specifically, the direct market, are loaded with releases these days. It can take a lot to stand out. When you were first getting into comics, how important was it to you to not just make your comics, but to try new things in terms of connecting with readers and retailers? Did you know you just couldn’t roll out the same ol’ same ol’ plan to gain attention and interest with these audiences?

FG: The truth is I’m just a pretty practical guy. Even before I started writing comics four years ago, I realized that a person could be the next Alan Moore and could write the next Watchmen, but if no one knows about it and no one reads it, it really doesn’t matter. 

So when I started making comics, I made a decision to divorce myself from any of the romantic notions that if I build it, they will come. Right out the gate, I made audience acquisition my #2 mission, after trying to tell the best stories I can.

Luckily, my day-job career is in marketing, so there were a lot of transferable ideas and skills there that helped me do things like building an email list so that I have a direct way to communicate with fans; figuring out who the influencers in the industry are and connecting with them; and implementing technologies that have helped me track everything and stay organized. 

There’s A LOT that goes into a comics career and about 80% of it happens after you finish making the comic.

Nenad Cvitcanin’s cover to Dead End Kids #1

That last bit is something many people struggle to adapt to, or at the very least are astonished by when they’re confronted by that fact. 

The amount of work that happens in the build up and after the conclusion of the actual writing of a comic can tower over the creative side. But it seemed like you went into comics with your eyes open and with your research being done. In your experience, what does the work outside of the making of the comic entail, and what did you do to make sure you minimized surprises before you started releasing your own comics?

FG: Let me answer that second part first. It’s a bit cliche, but there’s no such thing as over-preparing. So when I knew I had a book on the calendar, I started reaching out to every single creator I knew who’d released a book and I called them, took them out for coffee at a con, or emailed them to talk about their experience. 

Going into the release of Dead End Kids #1, I felt like I knew what to expect, and it turned out I was prepared for a lot of it. But somethings you just can’t see coming — like retailers calling your personal cell phone because they’ve sold out of your book and want to know if you can help them get more copies. 

And using your network to gather information is one of the best things a creator can do to make life easier. It’s definitely getting better, but right now there’s not sort of definitive approach to creating and getting the word out about your comics. So when you can talk to people who’ve already done the hard work of learning, you can streamline the process for yourself. 

But with comics, there’s a lot to learn and do, especially after the comic’s created. Pitching is a skill set unto itself. Then there’s getting the word out about your comic, which is probably the most monumental game of Which Came First, The Chicken or the Egg

Essentially, when you’re promoting a comic, there are two different audiences you need to sell it to — retailers and readers. You want to get retailers on board because they are the main influencers of readers at the hyper-local level. But the most powerful way to get retailers on board is to have their customers preorder the book and show that it has legs. Promoting a book is really the art of doing both of those things at the same time.

I know you’re a Comics Experience alumni, which is a fantastic online school for those learning to make comics. How important was that experience in terms of helping you prepare for making comics and everything that goes into them?

FG: I knew for a long time that I wanted to make comics a career one day — long enough that I spent a considerable amount of energy planning my college education around the idea. I was a double English and Communications major with minors in graphic design and creative writing. I did a two-year run as Editor-in-Chief of my school’s newspaper so I could learn about print production, project management, and working on deadlines. I went on to get two graduate degrees in creative writing. 

Then, for about five years after graduating, I made exactly zero comics, and not for lack of trying. I had a lot of the tools I thought I needed to make comics, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to start building stories with them. So, I enrolled in the Intro to Writing Comics class with Andy Schmidt. 

I could honestly talk all day about how valuable an asset CE was for helping organize the skills I had and for rounding out what I was missing. But it might be shorter to just point out the proof of concept — guys like David Pepose (Spencer & Locke), Ram V (Justice League Dark), and myself, all of whom went through CE and found measures of success. 

It’s like I was saying earlier, it’s always going to be easier to go to the people who’ve already done the hard work of learning a thing and let them teach you the distilled version of that information.

Dead End Kids was an indie hit last year, and it earned a lot of acclaim and fan desire seemingly out of nowhere. It was like it wasn’t there, and then I was seeing it everywhere for a bit. While it wasn’t your first project, it was a coming-out party to a degree. What made a coming-of-age story mixed with a murder mystery an appealing project for you? Is there any practicality behind the potential audience for a genre or story type, or is it purely about the stories that inspire you at the moment?

FG: Publishing Dead End Kids was the wildest experience of my life. You’re right, it just kind of blew up and I was experiencing that with everyone else.

Everything I write comes from something I want to talk about, really. I’ve had some pretty rough experiences in my life, especially in my younger years, and there’s a lot of stuff I’m processing now as an adult. So, while Dead End Kids (DEK) is a sort of a coming-of-age murder mystery, it’s really, to me at least, an exploration of childhood trauma. No Heroine, my most recent book, is very much in the vein of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I wanted to write about looking closer at the journey of a recovering drug addict without romanticizing or vilifying that experience. 

As I’ve produced more content, I’ve started to get some ideas about what might make a comic sell better, but it still always starts with an idea I want to explore. 

Ahmed Raafat’s cover to No Heroine #1

Dead End Kids gained considerable visibility at least in part because it quickly became what I said earlier: a hit. You mentioned earlier that you found transferable ideas from your day job in marketing. When the release of Dead End Kids, or at least FOC for Dead End Kids, was approaching, what did the hustle to connect that book with a willing – if they only discovered it – audience look like?

FG: Since DEK was, really, my first foray into pushing a miniseries, I kind of took the approach of throwing as many ideas at the wall as I could and seeing what stuck. It did a lot of cold-calling retailers. I did a lot of podcast interviews. I answered a lot of interview questions. I created a lot of social media graphics. And so on and so on. 

Pretty much any person, place, or thing that had an audience of comic book readers and would let me use its platform to talk about Dead End Kids was fair game. 

I did a rough count of about how many hours I put into pushing DEK and it worked out to about 300 hours over five months — or a little more than 12 days of my life. I was up at 5 am and down at 12 am every single day. Somewhere in the middle, I’d work for my day job, but the rest of the time I had my nose to the grindstone trying to get the word out about the book. But that’s the hustle.

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