Ed Catto has not only been a lifelong fan of comics, he has turned his passion into career opportunities, bringing together his hobby and professional skills. Catto has used his knowledge in marketing to develop Captain Action Enterprises, the Bonfire Agency, and Agendae, as well as co-teaching a college course on planning, promoting, and running a convention. Catto took some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Overstreet advisor and Scoop contributor Art Cloos about his history as a comics fan and his career.
Scoop: Ed, I’m really excited to have a sit down with the co-owner of Captain Action Enterprises.
Ed Catto (EC): You bet, Art. It’s great to be with you. And I love Scoop, it’s a must read every Friday morning.
Scoop: Have you always been a comic book fan?
ED: Yes, I sure have. I was originally one of those fans who came to it from the Adam West show. But every Sunday, after the big Italian family dinner at my grandmother’s, my dad would take me and my brother to Pauline’s Newsstand. We could pick out one thing. He usually chose a squirt gun or some plastic toy, and I’d always choose a comic book.
Scoop: It was the Batman TV show that got you started on comics? Was Batman your first comic book exposure?
EC: Yes, he sure was. Although I remember seeing those early Justice Leagues and being captivated by the idea that Batman had all these other superhero friends. I was ravenous to learn all about them.
Scoop: How old would you have been around this time?
EC: I think I was about 4 or 5. By the time Space Ghost and the Saturday morning TV superheroes were on I was all in.
Scoop: For me I had been collecting comics for about two years when the TV show started. I am assuming DC was your favorite company at this time?
EC: Yes, DC was. But the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man cartoons showed me the comics world was bigger than just DC. Also I tended to get a Classics Illustrated once in a while too.
Scoop: Were you a reader or a collector?
EC: Kind of both. I was a voracious reader and read every comic I could get my hands on. Coverless, 3/4 cover, they were all good. Soon I became a collector and was looking to fill in runs of certain comics and series. As I’ve gotten older, curiously, I’ve become less of a collector. I’d rather read a stack of ratty comics and collected comics in a hardcover than just get one high grade comic. That being said, I still have trouble parting with my high grade comics and key issues.
Scoop: Did your comic obsession continue into high school and did you have friends that you shared your hobby with?
EC: I had a neighborhood cadre of pals who liked comics. One guy loved war books. My brother was into Spider-Man and Marvel westerns. Another guy was working on filling in his Fantastic Four run. I liked them all. In high school I didn’t have any comic friends, but I kept at it. Every week I’d buy the new stuff. I remember it was always difficult to admit to a potential girlfriend that I was a comics fan. We had a fantastic convention nearby called the Ithacon. That was an annual event and I was always able to see other fans there. There was a local guy who sold back issues too. It was before The Overstreet Comic Price Guide and he used the Passaic Book Guide as his pricing bible. And then a local comic shop, Kim’s Collective Comics and Records opened up. I just happened to be their first customer and I was always very proud of that.
Scoop: Yes, the Passaic Book sales list were an early guide for buying and selling comics. I have a couple of them in my collection.
EC: I love stumbling across the ads for them in the old ’70s comics too.
Scoop: Where did you grow up?
EC: I grew up in a small town in central New York State. We often call that area the Finger Lakes now. It was glorious and a great place to grow up. I was a third generation Italian kid there so I had so many cousins and relatives. The weird part is that now my wife and I are empty nesters and we’ve returned to the area.
Scoop: As high school ended did you ever step away from comics as a lot of collectors (myself included) did?
EC: [laughs] I never did. I developed an interest in girls and dating and getting into mischief and sports, but for whatever reason I never let go of comics. I know that is kind of unusual. I think that’s because I loved the mythology, the artwork and the stories and professionals behind the scenes too. Plus I got into pulps and old radio shows and movies so it all tended to overlap in a way.
Scoop: You cover a wide spectrum of the hobby in your interests. Very cool?
EC: Yes, and there has always been a bit of toy collecting shoehorned in there too.
Scoop: Wow you and I have a lot in common. Did you ever turn to selling things in order to buy more things?
EC: Sometimes, but not often. My comic collection is a bit overgrown so I did take to pruning it a few years ago, but that was more about reducing the size of it.
Scoop: After high school what came next?
EC: During high school I still read comics and did a lot of comic type drawing, but I was the only one of my friends who did. One pal liked Green Lantern and Daredevil, but otherwise it was only me. Not a problem, though. I had a great group of friends and everyone was very accepting. Back then it was a quirk. Now I am the go-to guy like, everyone reading this column probably is, whenever a “civilian” has a question about a comic book movie. After high school, when I went to Cornell, I joined the Comic Book Club of Ithaca, the organization that was based in town, not on campus that organized and ran the long running Ithacon. Now it’s the second longest running convention in the US.
Scoop: After Cornell did you have any thoughts about going into the comics field?
EC: Well, I did, but I thought I should be more reasonable about it. But to skip ahead after I graduated from Cornell I did. I earned my MBA from UNC, and interviewed for all these traditional marketing jobs at traditional companies. But I networked to get an interview at Archie Comics. It was so much fun. But I was too far ahead of my time. At that time nobody imagined that one day every company would have business, development and partnership people looking to build their brands. I really enjoyed meeting everyone then, including the recently departed Victor Gorelick, and we all parted as friends. But I think they thought I was crazy. “Why would this MBA guy want to work here?”
Scoop: Where did you take that MBA to?
EC: Unilever, the US division was Lever Bros. I was on Park Avenue in New York City and working in the marketing department on brands like Snuggle and Lever 2000.
Scoop: Are you still working there today?
EC: Oh, no. That was early on my career. I went on to other traditional jobs at big companies like Nabisco and agencies like Ogilvy.
Scoop: When did you decide to strike out on your own and open your own business?
EC: Well, I’m not really a serial entrepreneur, but currently Agendae is my third company. Before it I had started Captain Action Enterprises with my pal, Joe Ahearn, then after that I started Bonfire Agency with my pal Steve Rotterdam, and most recently I started the Agendae group. We’re a strategic consulting and marketing firm, specializing in helping mid-size companies and start-ups. I have some wonderful folks onboard and we’re having a ball and doing some stellar work.
Scoop: How did Captain Action enter your life?
EC: One fateful Christmas morning Santa brought some amazing Captain Action toys. However, I never did get the Batman outfit though I pined for it. For whatever reason we simply couldn’t find it here in the small town we were in.
Scoop: How did you end up co-owning the rights to the character?
EC: In the late ’90s/early 2000s, there was an online group of Captain Action collectors. I tried to set up a happy hour or something for the New York City-based folks, but it never happened. Joe Ahearn was the only one who was game for it. We’d get together over beers now and again in Hoboken. Then when he learned the property was available, he came to me with the suggestion that we team up for a new Captain Action company. The rest has been history.
Scoop: I was and still am in that group today. Tell us about where you have taken the good Captain under your stewardship.
EC: We’ve had so much fun. We started with comics, then developed collectibles, apparel and more. We worked with Round 2 to bring back the 1/6th scale toys with a Marvel co-license but also created so many other action figures. The comics have especially been a blast as we used the opportunity to work with all our favorite creators including Paul Gulacy, Steven Grant, Fabian Niceiza, Murphy Anderson, Mark Wheatly, Tony Lee, Marv Wolfman, Ron Frenz, Ed Hannigan, Dan Parent – the list goes on and on.
Scoop: Are there any future plans for the good Captain that you care to talk about?
EC: Oh there sure are. First, we just released those new action figures from ZICA. They came out better than expected, and the response has been incredible. Second, we’re already looking at wave two with Lady Action and Action Boy. Let’s face it, Captain Action really is best as a 1/6th scale figure, but these other projects are so much fun and help introduce him to a new audience. Third we are also working with IDW to finally reprint those 1960s DC issues. This book will be gorgeous. Scott Dunbier is the editor and he makes every book that he publishers look like some lost treasure so we couldn’t be happier. Fourth we are working hard on more 1/6th scale figures, but the trade war with China, and now COVID-19 have knocked us on our heels a bit. We’re still working on these but everything is taking a little longer than before. Without Toys “R” Us in the world the toy landscape for us is so different. Last we are really digging it out with our animation project. That’s been quite the idea to wrestle to the ground, but we are so excited for this and can’t wait to make some public announcements with it as we continue to go forward. Joe and I work really hard on this, and our new partner, Mike Polis, is just amazing in this arena of animation.
Scoop: How much has the loss of Toys “R” Us affected you getting the stuff out for sale?
EC: Its closing has really clobbered things. Without their ordering substantial quantities of the toys, we’ve had to find other ways to design, produce, ship, and distribute the products. They had their problems, that’s for sure, but it’s a totally different business landscape without them.
Scoop: You are writing now too. Tell us about some of what you have done with that?
EC: Oh sure. I really enjoy writing my weekly column, “With Further Ado” for Pop Culture Squad. I also write articles for Back Issue Magazine and a local column called Finger Lakes Pop focusing on pop culture here.
Scoop: What are some of the areas you focus on?
EC: For my column on Pop Culture Squad I tend to focus on one, the overlap of entrepreneurism and pop culture. Two interviewing creatives and three lost treasures.
Scoop: Tell us about your Back Issue work. What do you focus on there?
EC: My Back Issue stuff has ranged from a deep dive into DC Elseworlds to Skull & Bones, from Ed Hannigan, to Thriller, the DC Comic, to the Red Circle Sorcery comics from Archie. It’s all so much fun. I’m working on two more, one is all about Marvel’s War Is Hell comics and another is all about Lancelot Link Secret Chimp. Oh and there is one other top secret Lost Story article I’m also doing.
Scoop: You have worked with Craig Yoe, I believe?
EC: I recently collaborated with Craig and his Yoe Books, and we created a collection of pirate comics from the Golden Age. It’s just about on sale and published by Clover Press and co-editing that was fun.
Scoop: How did you come to work with Craig?
EC: I’ve known Craig for a while. A few years back, I had just read, and enjoyed, one of his books and then I saw him at the convention center lobby at San Diego Comic-Con. He has such a distinctive look that I recognized him immediately. I introduced myself and said how much I liked the book, and he was very humble. And then last year, when we were organizing Ithacon 44, I thought he’d make a great guest. I knew our fans, who are really comic fans at the core of it, would love his Yoe Books too. So he and Clizia Gussoni set up a table, offered amazing deals to fans and dealers and everyone was elated. Oh, and when I moderated his panel at Ithacon. I use the word loosely because I soon lost control, he turned it into the looniest, most fun panel I remember in a long time. He was just cracking up our audience. And that was before he got out of his seat and laid on top of the table.
Scoop: Craig is quite a guy. His interview with me was a highlight of my career. You are writing now for J.C. Vaughn, I believe?
EC: I blackmailed him with pictures after that wild night at Billy Tucci’s bachelor party years ago, just kidding. J.C.’s been an amazing supporter of everything I do. He’s always full of insights and enthusiasm, heaped with a ton of public kindness. I love his writing too and I jumped at the chance to contribute to his innovative comic series, Bedtime Stories for Impressionable Children, and just got assigned another story.
Scoop: Let’s talk about your involvement with Ithacon. How long have you worked with the show?
EC: Well that’s a long story. As a young kid, I remember seeing a flyer on a bulletin board at Fay’s Drug Store. I begged my mom to take me and my brother, and she relented. Plus, dad went to Cornell, which is also in Ithaca, so we would go to that town often. That was either Ithacon #1 or #2.
Scoop: Did it become an annual event for you?
EC: Yes, it did become an annual event. I went a bunch of times, and then when I went to Cornell, I got involved in the Ithaca Comic Book Club, which was the group that plan, ran and managed the convention. Over the years I met so many fantastic pros. People like Walter Simonson, Al Milgrom, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, John Byrne, Jim Sherman, Curt Swan, Jim Shooter even Frank Miller before he was Frank Miller, if you know what I mean. I was over the moon meeting the great Murphy Anderson, and got reacquainted with him years later through our Captain Action project, and enjoyed a lovely friendship with him and his family.
Scoop: And you are a co-chairman of the show now if I am not mistaken?
EC: A few years ago, Ithacon struck a deal with Ithaca College. Katherine Kittredge worked with the college and founder Bill Turner to set it up. And as a result of that, as I joined the faculty of the Business School at Ithaca College, I developed a business course centered on trade shows, conventions, geek culture, and Ithacon. I co-teach with Darlynne Overbaugh. We have a team that manages the convention now, Bill Turner, Prof. Overbaugh, Prof. Kittredge, Rebecca Gray – we’re all working so hard to develop this convention along with the hardworking Ithaca College students too.
Scoop: Very cool. So where do you see the future of comics going? Will they continue to be published or will they go the way of the dinosaur?
EC: I am an optimist! I think there’ll be comics for a long time. And this is from a guy who never expected to see the return of vinyl records. I dig the stuff from the big two companies, and the amazing creativity from other publishers like Aftershock, Ahoy, Archie and that’s those that begin with the letter A.
Scoop: Is your family into comics?
EC: My family is tolerant of my affliction for comics. My wife is my secret weapon, and she makes everything I do that much better from offstage. But she’s at the point where she’ll now say “oh, that’s a nice Wally Wood drawing” or “Gee that Neal Adams is talented,” so that all makes me smile. My kids enjoy it, albeit now and then, but aren’t super nuts about it all like me. We are expecting two granddaughters this year, however so I am already stocking up on Batgirl baby onesies. And I’ll wear my Batman socks for my daughter’s wedding this August. Oh, and my other daughter’s fiancé loves David Bowie, so I need to get him a copy of that beautiful Mike Allred David Bowie graphic novel.
Scoop: Is Batman is your favorite comic character?
EC: I was a child of the Batman ’66 TV show, and I wore my terrycloth Batcape all the time. My mom jokes I wore it until I was about 23 years old. And I am thrilled to contribute an essay and four interior illustrations to Jim Beard’s new Batman book, Zlonk! Zok! Zowie. Plus, Jim has just greenlit a second volume covering the second season. I’ve been assigned a King Tut episode. (I love Victor Buono) I’m thrilled and can’t believe I can say things like this to my wife now, “honey I have to watch this episode of Batman for work.”
Scoop: Ed, it has been a real pleasure to have you sit down for this talk.
EC: Thanks, Art. It’s always a pleasure to catch up with you too. Thanks again, my friend.