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February 7, 2011

Feature Story: Beetle for a New Generation


“I don’t buy a lot of stuff online. I like to touch things first so I can get a physical connection,” says Darren Romanelli, aka Dr. Romanelli, a custom marketing specialist and owner of several brands in L.A. Romanelli recently partnered with comics legend Mort Walker to promote a new wave of properties for the iconic Beetle Bailey comic strip, bringing it to new life for both a younger generation and an older one who grew up reading the strip daily in newspapers. “For me, I’m totally aware it’s the digital era and that’s why we did a microsite for our Beetle Bailey projects, but I want to bridge the gap between the digital and the physical. That’s something we paid a lot of attention to with this. There was just as much of a physical aspect integrated into this project as a digital one.”

He’s talking about a new wave of Beetle Bailey-inspired products that bring the famous property to life through custom strips and illustrations integrated with fashion, like military-inspired jackets and Converse shoes. We talked to Romanelli about his inspiration and what’s coming next.

So, to start off with, how did you get involved working on this Beetle Bailey project?
In a nutshell, I have this brand called Dr. Romanelli and I own a marketing agency called Street Virus. So together, from both of the companies, we developed the initiatives entitled Beetle Bailey by Dr. Romanelli: Camp Swampy. Basically my agency was brought on by King Features to curate the resurrection and reintroduction of Beetle Bailey to a contemporary consumer. I used my brand as a vehicle to reach the upper tier stratosphere tastemakers. So we basically were brought on to tell this Beetle Bailey story. The cool thing about Beetle Bailey is I grew up reading Beetle Bailey in the comic strips. I wasn’t even really aware of my connection to it. But after seeing something for so long, you grow a strong connection. It’s almost embedded in your DNA. So many years down the line, I started resurrecting these memories I had as a kid with my brand. For a lot of the stuff that I’ve done, I’ve kind of been tagged as a resurrection specialist, where I’m resurrecting these vintage properties, everything from the Looney Tunes to Fraggle Rock to Nike to Converse—there are all these different projects that I work on. It’s been a really interesting run via my brand, Dr. Romanelli, over the last 10 years. I get to dip into these projects and tell some really amazing stories and then move on to the next collaboration or the next project. That’s the cool thing about my brand. It’s a fashion brand, but it’s not a seasonal fashion brand. I’ve shown during Fashion Week and done seasonal collections, but it’s almost like I ride this wave of inspiration and whatever I’m feeling, I’ll execute on.
What is the difference between Dr. Romanelli and Street Virus?
Street Virus is an alternative marketing agency that I started right around the same time as Dr. Romanelli, and it’s a personalized media solutions company. So we create these custom-tailored marketing campaigns for all different types of brands. Basically, together we developed this Beetle Bailey story and we had an opportunity to showcase at a fashion show, PROJECT, New York, which ended up being a huge success. If you look at trends right now in fashion, Americana and military have been around as long as you can remember, but the thing about the military is it’s so prominent in men’s fashion. At the same time, it’s a regurgitated trend that can be so tedious. It’s done by every company and it’s maybe tweaked a little here and there, but it’s always the same shapes, the same color tones, the same color palettes, over and over again. So for me having a showcase at PROJECT in New York at one of the top men’s fashion trade shows, I wanted to tell a whimsical approach to Americana via the Beetle Bailey story. Because if you look at Mort Walker, I think in 1950 he was at the University of Missouri and Beetle was like a collegiate kid. Then he got drafted the same time Mort did, and Beetle ended up at Camp Swampy. So if you look at all the clothing from Beetle when he was a collegiate character into Beetle at Camp Swampy, all the stuff that he was rocking and all the other characters in the Beetle Bailey strip were wearing are really purposed to where trends are right now.
That was the first part of our inspiration. The second part was, after I met Mort, I was so inspired by the fact that he was 87 and still working. I couldn’t believe it. It was so amazing. So we decided to work together on some custom comic strips. We developed Beetle’s journey from Camp Swampy to the PROJECT show in the Big Apple, which was also great—to work on custom strips. Another element that was really fun was I brought a really interesting mix of brands into the equation to tell the story via the clothing. The first part was the cut itself. There’s an amazing Japanese brand called The Real McCoy’s that I love. The gentleman who does it is known as the godfather of Americana and military remaking. He remakes every skew of Americana and military—it’s almost like he went into a store in 1955 and bought whatever he’s working on. He remakes the buttons, the snaps, the lining, the threads. So I went to him and said, “Listen, can we do this Beetle Bailey project together? I’ll curate the graphics and we’ll use your body of work.” He loved it. So we did a really interesting take on the Beetle Bailey graphics. Then we sourced the vintage pieces themselves. We did chain-stitching Beetle Bailey graphics on the vintage military pieces. Then I took those pieces and reconstructed them under the DRX Dr. Romanelli brand, taking those pieces apart and bringing them back to life in a really interesting format, mostly outerwear. And then I worked with Converse to design a Camp Swampy version of their brand. They have a new model called the Converse Bosey that just came out, so we designed the Beetle comics on the inside of the shoe and we made it feel as much like a military shoe as we could in the sneaker shape. So those are all the different pieces of the clothing. We had all the custom comic strips. We had this almost museum-esque retrospective celebrating 1950 to 1976. We had a really cool microsite. It has a timeline, names, it’s soon going to have a video blog from Mort talking about the strips.

What does it take to reintroduce Beetle to a new generation? You’re mixing a younger generation that doesn’t necessarily relate to him in the same way as an older generation who grew up reading him in the newspaper.
Mort is really huge inside the comics space, but outside that space, no matter who you are, if you’re over a certain age demo, you’re going to recognize Beetle Bailey. And if you’re under a certain age demo, you might not recognize Beetle, but you’ll appreciate it if it’s illustrated in the right format. Those are a lot of the ideas we took in when we developed the initiative. The funny thing is, during the fashion show, we saw these younger kids come up and they had no idea what Beetle was, but once they saw the story and the comic strips on the wall, it all made sense and they were definitely appreciative of what we put together. You could see that a lot of the stuff hits them. To answer your question, it takes a really unique angle to celebrate something classic like that that has over 50 years of heritage. I think the icing on the cake was that Mort Walker, 87, strolls into that show like he’s 50 years old, signing autographs, telling stories about when he was in the military, and it’s just really cool to have all those different generations working on an initiative. It’s something you don’t see every day in fashion.

What’s been the most popular item you’ve done so far?
Hands down, the Chuck Taylors. It’s the new model shoe of theirs and it’s just been received incredibly well.
What does Beetle Bailey mean now, 60 years after he was introduced? How do different generations view him?
It’s tough to answer that question. I’ve done a lot of projects this year that have been about “Made in the USA” and celebrating our country’s heritage and Americana as a whole, so for me, I think it’s a nice element to give back.

Are you working on any other comics-related projects?
I am. I did one last year with the band Fallout Boy. I worked closely with Pete Wentz and David Elliot edited it. It’s called Fallout Toy Works; Image put it out. We’re working on motion animation right now with a company called Double Barrel. There’s a lot of great things still bubbling around with that. The trade comes out on Valentine’s Day. And I have another project that’s coming out this year called DRX Velocity. It’s a very impressive story involving a lot of the top NASCAR drivers. It’s a big project. DC is putting it out. It’s cool.
What do you like about comics and how they combine with what you do?
I’m somewhat a designer, somewhat a marketer, and somewhat a storyteller. I look at comics as a great way to tell stories and launch projects. So with Beetle, it’s a little bit of a different angle than creating it from scratch. But there was a piece of the original story element built into the initiative where Mort developed the custom strips upon our direction, which has been great. It’s been such a blessing to have those little strips help support what we’re doing, because it connects everything back to the original thing, and for me that just made it all worthwhile.
Will you do more projects with Mort and Beetle Bailey?
I’m just going to hint at this [laughs]. This is just Phase One. We have a big launch planned in October. We’re tapping into this exciting scene of Army vs. Navy. This was the Phase One launch, so you’ll have to stay tuned for Phase Two. It’s very exciting and it’s groundbreaking where we’re going. The most important thing for me is that we celebrate Mort’s position as one of the icons of the industry. He’s one of the great cartoonists of our time.