Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hot Ayre (Part II) : The Man, the Myths, the Marketing Machine

My last post (Fresh Ayre) discussed the mixed messages that kept last year's Bodog Entertainment’s Ayre Force graphic novel from quite working on several levels. Most critics agreed the strongest aspect of the book was the work of artist Shawn Martinborough.

Shawn Martinbrough shows off the techniques found in his book.

I became aware of Ayre Force after Shawn sent out a video preview of his book, How to Draw Noir Comics: the Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling. I was intrigued by the clever promotional work behind Shawn's books, most notably two prequel Ayre Force webisodes with limited animation. They’re still available on his company website, The first has some very well thought out design and animation based of Martinborough’s designs and storyboard, while the second relies more on dialogue and re-use from the first episode.

The most notable thing about Ayre Force was its use of numerous real-life elements in its plotline. The book is named after Bodog CEO Calvin Ayre, a badass version of whom is featured inside as the head of an elite team of anti-eco terrorist, anti-child abuser, anti-animal abuser commandos. Ayre’s team is composed of various Bodog Entertainment figures; ultimate fight champs, rock and rap stars, and professional poker players. The real-life horror they combat is bear bile farming, one of Ayre’s personal charities. Proceeds from Ayre Force sales even went to combat the practice.

Bodog's Calvin Ayre and real-life executive assistant, Fawn Labrie, get a comic book makeover as international commandos. According to a 2008 Fast Company article, Ayre's publicist had informed writer Josh Dean "via email, that one of Labrie's skills was the ability "to pull hot girls out of her ass anywhere in the world." Labrie's childhood best friend, aspiring actress Zara Taylor, "played the part" of Ayre's girlfriend for Bodog events in Macau.

There was much confusion in the comic book online press over what Ayre Force was trying to accomplish Given the many elements blended together it's not surprising.

Is it a straight up adventure? Ayre Force doesn’t take advantage of its characters, plot nor even the art in my books. But reviewers like LOTRKing say it still passes muster as an action yarn.

Is it an ego trip for Ayre?

Of course it is! Come on… if I had a ton of money and my name lent itself to a cool title I’d totally set myself up as a super-commando with rock stars on my team! Why not? Most creators secretly imagine themselves as their protagonists anyway. At least Ayre Force is up-front about it. Although, technically, Calvin isn’t the creator here I suppose. He’s just the guy who cuts the checks.

Is it a charity fundraiser?

If it is, it’s likely a very ineffective one. Sales of Ayre Force were unlikely to be huge enough to match Calvin’s’ own personal contributions to the fight against bear bile farming. Heck, Alvin, Justin and Pete at suggest you’re better contributing the cost of the book directly to the charity rather than buying it.

Is it a Bodog branding exercise?

Abso-friggin-lootly! There is plenty of overlap between comic book fans and Bodog’s base of poker, music and ultimate fighting fans. Some reviewers found this aspect repulsive, as if comics had never been used to promote a real-life person p before. But it’s not as simple as that. This is not a one-time thing. Bodog had been building its brand around Calvin Ayre for years before Ayre Force hit the stands and quite frankly, it was business as usual.

For a little perspective, remember that Bodog's gonzo marketing counterprogrammed The Lingerie Bowl against the Superbowl half-time t great effect. The event featured teams of Victorias leaving their secrets on the sidelines as they lined for a football game clad in the frilliest of undergarment uniforms.

Are these players huddling to plan a play or for warmth?

Not surprisingly, the idea proved so popular that it has grown from a Superbowl tradition to a full-fledged Lingerie Football League kicking off in five US cities this September. Teams include the Seattle Mist, the Dallas Desire and the New York Euphoria (a name which 50% of LFL fans probably couldn’t spell without assistance).

The action's heating up at's Lingerie Bowl.

As last March's thoroughly researched Globe and Mail article on Calvin Ayre notes, the thing that set Bodog Entertainment apart from its online gambling competitors was the branding. Bodog presented its customers with a chance to embrace a lifestyle... a lavish, adventurous lifestyle that was always on the cusp of big money.

In the article, reporter Timothy Taylor begins by asking Ayre to describe what he saw in one of Bodog’s extreme fighters, Ayre was careful to bring it all back to the brand.
"I like him because he's a brand ambassador for us," Ayre says, squinting up through cracking TV makeup. "He's everything Bodog stands for as a brand. Living life to the fullest. Me against him, right? The primeval challenge. Those are our brand values."
But the truth of Bodog branding is Ayres himself. He is the brand. Ayre as ladies man. Ayre as adventurer. Ayre as the embodiment of the "work hard, play harder" ethos. And most importantly, Ayre as filthy, filthy, disgustingly rich.

That’s what people are playing for. Money, and lots of it.

Calvin Ayre living the dream.

All the things Bodog supported were designed to bring people to the online casinos. Bodog Fight’s television shows, Bodog Music’s Battle of the Bands series hosted by Johnny Rotten, even the Bodog protein powder and energy drink were there to spread the gospel to wannabe fighters and help poker players stay alert for longer periods of time as they played Bodog's online games.

We still have Calvin Ayre’s planned two-volume biography. Part one takes us up to his Forbes cover in 2007 while part two carries on with everything since. My bet is a volume two is unlikely even if volume one does hit the stands.

Everything Bodog and Ayre did was designed to raise the brand profile and guide potential customers back to the Bodog online gambling fold. So from Bodog's perspective, the comic is right in line with the company's branding strategy. In this Wizard Magazine preview interview about Ayre Force, writer Adam Slutsky admits as much.
WIZARD: When did the idea to start the comics division come about?

SLUTSKY: This is pretty wild. A good friend of mine by the name of Jamie Gold won the World Series of Poker Main Event back in 2006. At the time it was the biggest first prize of any sporting event in the world. Jamie beat out a field of 8,772 people and won $12 million. Jamie just happened to be represented by Bodog at the time. They put him into the World Series of Poker. They had a joint deal in terms of PR and marketing and that type of thing. So when he won and I was covering the event also for a magazine called Bluff, I started talking to Jamie about Bodog. I'd heard of them, and they were in my periphery, but I didn't know everything they were in, and I was looking at this huge multimedia conglomerate and thinking "My God, there has to be a way to incorporate everything and get it out there and do something fun."

I certainly am very new to the graphic novel and comic book world, but I had become a big fan recently, obviously because of things like 300 and Sin City and all the ones that were making the big Hollywood rounds. So I thought, "Wow, this would be a great medium to bring a fictional world and the factual world and sort of meld them together" with Calvin’s charities in there once I found out a little more about those things…”

Slutsky has established his own brand as a writer for hip men’s magazines like Maxim, Bluff and Fight! Magazine. The bio that accompanied the release of Ayre Force breathlessly lists some of his topics; “Bluewater hunting in shark-infested waters, off-road racing across the Baja Peninsula, working the pit at the 24 Hours of LeMans and much more.” A freelance article writer is constantly pitching ideas to fit a niche and Slutsky saw an opportunity (and money) in Bodog. He was also savvy enough to use that money to attract top comic book talent: writer and former Batman editor Joseph Phillip Illidge and illustrator Shawn Martinbrough, business partners in Verge Entertainment.

Slutsky is now back to build on his comic book cred with a new pirate series from Zenoscope, No Quarter. And in a display of typical Slutsky synergy, he’s teamed with artist Mark Sparacio (Captain Action and Civil War Heroes For Hire) and co-writer and Renaissance man Pat Croce, “world renowned motivational speaker, best-selling author, (and) pirate history expert” to do it! in addition to the press releases list of credits Croce is also a former sports physical therapist for the NHL's Philidelphia Flyers, co-owner and president of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and owner of the Pirate Soul Museum in Key West, Florida.

But enough of the bit players. For all the “authentic” elements between the covers of Ayre Force, it’s the real story behind Calvin Ayre and Bodog Entertainment that provides the true life thrills. Before peek behind the curtain, an exploration of Bodog’s incredible rise is in order.

This Mark Leong photograph of Ayre in Macau before his
accompanies the Fast Company article.

According to Bodog’s biography of Calvin Ayre (Biography of a Billionaire) he was born on May 25, 1961 in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. That, and the fact that he started the company that would become Bodog with $10 000 in 1994 we can pretty much confirm. The Fast Company article relates how Ayre’s awful track record of internet start-up attempts turned around.
“…he read a story about a bookie named Ronald Sacco (aka the Cigar). The Cigar had done an end run around the law by setting up shop in the Dominican Republic, where he was taking bets by phone. The story served as Ayre's epiphany, as it did for many in the industry after the Cigar bragged of his lush life on 60 Minutes (an excess of candor that would later lead to his arrest). Ayre recognized that the nascent offshore betting scene was gravitating to the Web, and he saw an opportunity. He invested $10,000 to buy an existing software platform, then moved to Costa Rica in 1995 and began supplying software solutions to bookmakers before realizing he could make more money taking bets himself.”
Ayre seems to have drawn inspiration from a variety of noted criminals in his rise to prominence (as you’ll see in part 3), so the fact that Sacco provided the inspiration for him to find a semi-legitimate to make money taking bets is no real surprise. But Ayre’s real strength has always been his people skills and ability to wrap himself in an impressive, personal story.

After setting up the complicated off-shore system that allowed Bodog to technically run out of countries where gambling was not illegal, Bodog grew by offering attractive odds, fast payment processing and a high level of customer service. Ayre also set out to make Bodog stand out form the crowd by building the company brand, tying it to his own, increasingly spectacular lifestyle. As Josh Dean writes:
“But what Ayre did best was marketing. Instead of lying low and counting his dollars quietly, he plastered his face all over Bodog's Web sites and tied the brand to his own lifestyle. Collaborating with his friend Christopher Costigan of, a popular industry news site, he created a public alter ego, Cole Turner the CEO, and faked elaborate adventures that Bodog users could follow online. There was a 2003 party excursion to Cambodia pitched to the Web audience as an expedition gone awry, involving hookers, terrorists, opium smugglers, and, ultimately, Turner's kidnapping. Ayre dressed hotel employees as gun-toting rebels and posted the photos. At least one concerned customer phoned to plead for the release of Bodog's beloved faux CEO.

"I said, 'Man, it's kind of embarrassing, but I'll do it,' " Costigan recalls. "I remember people asking if it's really happening. I'm like, 'Are you kidding me? You actually believe this stuff?'

But Ayre soon got tired of faking the life of an alter ego and retired Cole Turner in favour of plastering his real name and face all over the website; always with gorgeous women, hot cars and celebrities by his side.
"[My customers] don't dream of being boring -- that's not who they want to be," Ayre explained. "I think of it like James Bond. You're soaking up a little of it. You're a voyeur. There's a bunch of people who know they'll never be me -- but that doesn't mean they don't dream about it."

Business boomed. Bodog showed 100% growth its first two years. By 2005, according to Ayre, the company was processing more than $7 billion a year in wagers, pulling revenue in excess of $200 million.
With that much money to spread around, Ayre diversified the Bodog brand into the entertainment and sports industries. Their first TV series, Calvin Ayre Wild Card Poker involved a mix of pro poker players; B and C list celebrities and a “wild card” player in every match. Bodog Fight, Ayre’s mixed-martial-arts series, despite some complaints of low production values (like the posters here at, who spent little time lamenting he demise of the organization), was broadcast across North America, Russia and sold on DVD.

Ayre’s in-your-face personality and ability to garner heated reactions also served his purposes. When Ayre’s Vince McMahon-style bragging over Bodog Fight and dissing of the competition reached a fever pitch, Ultimate Fighting Championship president responded by calling Ayre (not entirely inaccurately) a criminal. Ayre garnered much press with his response. He offered to send his s private jet, loaded with lovely ladies, to pick up his competitor, fly him to the Bodog Championships and treat to him to a stay in a five-star hotel. As notes, “When you’re #1 you never mention #2!”

Ayre continued to build the Bodog brand. Bodog Music signed a stable of mostly mid-level acts led by Bif Naked, rapper DMX Neurosonic and the Wu Tang-Clan. And sponsored the million dollar Battle of the Bands competition that “drew over 7,000 bands its first season. Few of these properties even turned a profit, but they built the brand and led people right back to the gaming sites. For her part, Bif Naked felt well-served by her relationship with Bodog: accompanying Calvin to Russia to view the fruits of his foundations charitable work and remarking on their support during her well-publicized battle with breast cancer.

A booth of cards and Bodog babes in full Tomb Raideresque
Ayre Force gear make a splash at New York Comicon 2008.

In typical Bodog style, Ayre saw an opportunity to reach comic fans when Slutsky presented him with the idea for Ayre Force. After presenting himself as Bodog’s James Bond-style world adventurer, a comic book mercenary was not big leap. As the announcement at said:
Bodog Entertainment Founder Calvin Ayre notes, "When Adam first presented the idea we were excited by its uniqueness and fit with the Bodog brand. As we developed the concept with him, it's taken on its own life and will be a fantastic addition to the Bodog Entertainment family, both as a graphic novel and in other formats to come. Plus, I've always wanted to be a comic book hero. Who hasn't?"
As usual, Ayres didn’t scrimp. He hired a pro artist/writer/colouring team and got mostly excellent artwork and packaging. They also went all out on promotion with the help of promoter Greg Godden.

The blitz include interviews and previews at comic and poker sites around the net, the animated prequels I mentioned and a huge, splashy booth at the New York Comicon, designed to literally look like house of cards and the ever-present Bodog Babes. discussed Ayre Force’s premiere in this 2008 podcast.

Ayre has also used his money to fund numerous, small charity initiatives around the world through the Calvin Ayre Foundation. These include adopting the Rafael Ángel Calderón Schooland the Segura Chaverri family in Grecia, Costa Rica, donating a full kitchen, meal preparation equipment and an eating area to the T N Kirnon School in Antigua, rebuilding the foundation of the Lomonosovsky Dom Rebenka, a Specialty Care Orphanage in Lomonosov, Russia. The foundation also declares that it has “sponsored underprivileged young adults, offering them the opportunity to attend world-class universities in countries such as Canada and the Philippines.”

Bodog client and friend Bif Naked (Beth Torbert) accompanies
Ayre on a tour of the Lomonosovsky Dom Rebenka, a recipient
of Calvin's philanthropy.

To its credit, the foundation seems to focus on small, area-specific projects that have an immediate impact rather than focusing on larger blanket solutions that have little trickle down effect. A cynic could suggest that the foundation is doing very little overall to change things in the world but there is something to be said for stepping in and sponsoring the small, desperately needed initiatives that so often get overlooked.

Being the public face of Bodog served Ayre well for years, culminating in 2006 where he found himself a Forbes cover boy and one of People Magazine’s “Hottest Bachelors” (Friday, June 16, 2006 issue) in the same year.

Calvin is a man of many faces: dear friend, arrogant billionaire, philanthropist, defiant lawbreaker, and slick pitchman. But being the very public face of Bodog served Ayre well for years but when Bodog’s fortunes took a nosedive, he became the poster boy for an industry on the run. Bodog’s implosion can be traced to a number of factors relating directly to what we'll politely call Calvin Ayre's "style" of doing business.

You don’t make billions of dollars in a business designed to make the majority of its customers into losers without developing enemies along the way. And Ayre’s trail of ruined lives goes back to long before Bodog ever saw the light of day.

Next: Our final installment explores the shady underbelly of Ayre’s high flying, billionaire playboy image. Big hint... he doesn't fight crime in Gothan at night.

Beavers Up!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ayre Forced: Canadian crime story behind Ayre Force more compelling than the book!

Before you read any further there are a few things I want to make clear.
1) I love bears.

Absolutely the cutest bear picture
I could find.

Bears and I have spent years respecting each others' personal boundaries and I plan to continue that non-contact, long distance, furry relationship. I wouldn’t hurt them for the world.

2) I’m against bear bile farming. Totally.

Absolutely the least alarming bear bile farm
picture I could find.

I did a little reading up on it too. There is a dilmma here; bear bile has been proven to be a miracle ingredient in a number of medicines and products. Despite assertions to the contrary, man-made alternatives have not proven effective this far.

Still, you’re unlikely to be surprised how difficult it is to find a website that shows the harvesting of bear bile from imprisoned bruins in a positive light. The only one I found was this guy, who insists that new surgical techniques allowing him to insert a second, artificial gall bladder into the bear's stomach to collect and extract their bile keep bears from being slaughtered. Better to torture for years than be done with it so quickly, right?

So yeah, Bear Bile Farming...definitely not for that.

3) I’m a fan of Bif Naked.

Come on. You know who I’m talking about.

That’s the one. Indian/American/Canadian funny girl always ready to goof around. Voracious reader, potty-mouthed, kick-ass rock chick, animal and fishie lover, and tattooed lady, seeker of spiritual enlightenment and beauty, kicker of cancer ass, heavy-duty gym rat, and apparently, a cartoonist to boot!

So please remember. I’m all for bears and Bif but not for bile.

You may begin reading.
Back when I started Comicanuck I posted about artist Shawn Martinbrough’s book “How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling”. I was impressed with Shawn’s homemade trailer for his book and the overall savvy and slickness he brought to his marketing. I still think creators could learn from Shawn about maximizing their potential audience reach with a little creativity.

The website for Shawn’s multi-disciplinary company, Verge Entertainment, led me to Ayre Force, a trade paperback Shawn illustrated for Bodog Entertainment. Bodog and Ayre Force have a Canadian connection in former owner (and Forbes cover boy), Calvin Ayre.

Ayre Force is a good example of a comic that is attempting to sell something through the comic rather than selling just the comic itself. We’ve seen comics used to hock products, raise awareness on issues (like 1983’s The New Teen Titans #1: Drug Awareness Giveaway, featuring Robin analogue the Protector) and build brand awareness (the most recent being Virgin Comics' splashy, abandoned attempt to enter the market with big name writers).

There’s a lot we can learn from Ayre Force. The book is an excellent example of good and bad ways to approach these sorts of books. As well, the story of Bodog entertainments less than savory owner is a compelling story of Canadian crime and ego run amok.

Ayre Force features the introductory adventures of a crack team of eco-counter terrorists who fight a covert war against those who would perpetrate environmental destruction of the mad scientist sort upon our unsuspecting mother Earth.

The team is led by badass, ex-military man, Calvin Ayre (based on the real Calvin Ayre, the man cutting the cheques on this project), and his right hand woman, Fawn Labrie (formerly Fawn Seeton), real-life Event Producer for Bodog through Riptown Media. (From throwing some of Bodog’s most lavish parties to overthrowing evil empires. It’s a natural progression!)

Ayre’s team is composed of real Bodog clients who use their celebrity identities as famous musicians, ultimate fighters and poker players to provide foolproof cover. That’s right, poker players. Hide in plain sight, right?

The Ayre Force team (Named after its leader and publisher… And why avoid such a great play on Calvin Ayre's name when it’s there for the taking?) is engaged in an ongoing covert war with pharmaceutical magnate Janus Winter’s evil Wintercorp to stop institutionalized animal cruelty, child abuse and abuse of the environment. And they’ll use every single, B-Level star under the Bodog umbrella to do it, if that’s what it takes.

Even Bif Naked.


...this Bif Naked.

And so the comic presents a mix of poker pros like Evelyn Ng and Josh Arieh, Bodogfight mixed martial artists Tara LaRosa and Jorge Masdival and musicians Jason Darr, Nazanin and Bif Naked (did I mention I'm a fan?)going up against Winter and his genetically-engineered, children who use various grafts and enhancements to duplicate the deadliest of animal traits.

The facility the team breaks into is a house of horrors; filled to the brim with caged bears who’ve had operation to insert various tubes directly into their stomachs to constantly collect their bile for it’s restorative properties. It sounds like a plausible, sufficiently vile, made-up piece of villainy but it’s very real and proceeds from the comic apparently go to stop this dire occurrence.

As high-concept it’s not bad idea. The name Ayre Force is solid and having various levels of celebrities as undercover agents is a workable concept. Rock Stars from Kiss to Bodog clinet Wu Tang Clan havealready licensed their images to comic books with some success. Pro fighters often veer into action films so comic books are also a good fit. And since Poker Players are on the rise as public stars, why not?

But Ayre Force had difficulty balancing it's many purposes and comic based reviews at the time were decidedly mixed. And thanks to a huge publicity blitz, most notably at the New York Comicon, the book garnered a lot of attention.

The bodacious Bodog Girls
at the New York Comicon.

From a feminist, fangirl point of view, the comic scored surprisingly well. Karen Healey of Girls Read Comics (And They’re Pissed) found the book surprisingly inoffensive; half the characters are women but there are no overtly bodacious babes or gratuitous ass and crotch shots and an attempt to be fairly representative of multiple races. As Healey sums up:

“Ayre Force is good, stupid fun and its stance on gender and race inclusion is a lot better than most things that fall into that category. It’s nowhere close to groundbreaking, but you could do much, much worse.”
Geek Girls Rule agreed with Healey about the books general inoffensiveness, if not the quality. After seeing man rags like Maxim and Stuff on the bio of co-creator Adam Slutsky, GGR had very low expectations and found...
The resulting comic is notable only for it’s lack of marked sexism and its decent art. Considering it appears to be mostly a wish-fulfillment platform for a rich guy and his friends/employees, not a bad accomplishment. Seriously, I expected it to stink on ice, and it didn’t.
Other fan reviews were more forgiving. The folks at Continuity Error felt the story was “incredibly engaging” and a “surprisingly original read” despite being put off by the book’s inherent Bodog branding. LOTRKing rated this “great read with tons of action” 4 out of 5 stars but also noted several confusing aspects to the book like unclear shifts in narrators, minimal characterization but mainly recommended readers buy it to support the fight against animal cruelty.

Meanwhile, James Schee at Reading Along was alarmed by the simplistic view of complicated issues. “The book just doesn't seem to really think its ramifications all the way out, preferring to see things as only black and white."

Matthew Brady at Warren-Peace shared some of my own concerns; mainly a paper thin plot with little characterization and art that, though moody and beautiful, doesn’t follow the action clearly nor give any of the characters enough distinction to tell them apart at times.

And Newsarama’s Chris Mautner loathed the whole thing.
“Ayre Force is one of the silliest and most blatant examples of “comics as ego-boosting pr tool” I’ve ever seen. It’s an absolutely horrible, incomprehensible book, awash in tiresome clichés and abysmal dialogue, but at the same time I found myself admiring its chutzpah. That’s all I admired, but at least it’s something.”
As you can see, many reviewers and readers were confused about or put off by what Ayre Force’s aims were. Was a promo tool for Calvin Ayre or Bodog? Was it designed to promote Bodog personalities, or raise awareness and cash to fight bear bile farming? Or did Bodog plan to branch into comic books with a kick-ass action book?

This points up a common problem with books with a mission. They are either too “on message” and preachy to be entertaining, too focused on their product or they try to do too many things and fail at all of them.

And that’s exactly what we're seeing here.

If Ayre and associates wanted to promote its brand, at best this is a tertiary introduction to their wares.

If Bodog wanted to promote their artists and competitors for their music label, poker tour and fight league, they failed to capitalize on the personalities nor show them doing what they do best.

Are you trying to tell me Bodog's artists Wu Tang Clan, DMX and Bif Naked...

... This Bif Naked...

...don’t have personalities that can be used to create interesting characters? Yet in the book, the artists are pretty much interchangeable despite hastily scrawled, one-sentence back-stories.

If the purpose was to raise awareness and money to fight bear bile farming, why isn’t that plastered prominently on the front and back covers? You pretty much have to buy the book and read it to find out where your dollars are going. So it fails on that front as well.

Perhaps Ayre Force is just a straight, high-concept action comic. Despite being under written, the book does create some excitement and provide several action sequences. It’s the equivalent of Arnold Schwarzennegger’s 1985 action movie, Commando: nowhere near his best work but a fun, entertaining time waster to watch on TV when there’s nothing else on.

So, a little focus at the outset would have made this book’s aims much clearer to the buying public. That’s the challenge with any comic book. Focus.

So the question is… Why Ayre Force at all?

Whenever people hate a comic, the first question is always, “Why?” My first response was "Why not?" But as I did some digging to discover the “why” of Ayre Force, the story grew more complex and interesting than I expected.

It’s a compelling tale of corporate largesse, big money crime and a Canadian billionaire with a powerful ego, intense charm and a willingness to do anything to get ahead.

In short, it’s exactly the kind of tale Ayre Force should have been.

More next time.

Beavers Up!