NCtrend: Taking a shot at fame

 In 2014-12
by Alex Granados

On a slow night in 2011, Neil Hinson and Paul Friedrich nursed drinks at The Raleigh Times bar. Hinson, an adman, blurted, “I’m bored, which makes my liver shudder.” Something about the phrase struck Friedrich, a comics artist. He sketched a man uttering the inanity on a napkin. A waitress asked if she could have it. Sure, Hinson replied, in exchange for a round of drinks. She showed the cartoon to fellow employees, who asked for their own. Hinson and Friedrich realized they were on to something.

Their Man v. Liver concept has evolved into a multiplatform brand licensed for about 10 products, including a book, T-shirts, coasters and bar towels. They also hope for Hollywood fame, having written two episodes for a potential television show with Cherry/Wind Productions, owned by Marc Cherry, creator of Desperate Housewives, and Sabrina Wind, who was the series’ executive producer.

One reason for Man v. Liver’s success is that it apparently appeals to millennials, the 95 million Americans born between 1981 and 2000. According to a Goldman Sachs & Co. report earlier this year, they will replace Generation X as the largest bloc of consumer spenders over the next five years. Each one-panel strip has the drawing of a man with a block head, a rectangular body and wearing a suit — and he’s always holding a drink. The caption varies, such as “Quiet Please. Hangover in Progress” or “When it Rains, Pour.” Christine Hassler, a Los Angeles-based consultant to companies that want to reach this age group, says, “Millennials are raised on reality TV, so their expectations of life is often skewed. And a lot of reality TV life is one big party, and everybody is having fun.”

The two men, who won’t provide specifics on Man v. Liver’s finances, are keeping their day jobs for now. Hinson, 45, is founder of Odd­Fellows Marketing & Design in Raleigh, a boutique agency with about 20 clients, including Moline, Ill.-based Deere and Co. and the city of Raleigh. Friedrich, 47, writes and illustrates such works as Hubie the Dead Cow and HellCar Comics. His graphic novel Onion Head Monster Attacks was nominated for the comic industry’s prestigious Eisner Awards in 2007. His freelance work includes animation for the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team used on the Jumbotron at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

Man v. Liver was validated the summer after it was conceived when Friedrich took copies of a collection of self-published cartoons sporting Hinson’s philosophical sayings to San Diego Comic-Con International, the premier industry event that draws more than 100,000 fans to the California city each year. The 25 copies he had quickly sold out at $10 each, so Friedrich told Hinson to bring 80 more. They increased the price to $25, and buyers didn’t flinch. “The comment we were getting a lot was, ‘This is the story of my life.’” Friedrich says. “They were putting it in their bag and then asking how much it cost.”

The concept intrigued Comic-Con regular Jennifer Sullivan, president of memBrain LLC, a Los Angeles-based licensing company whose clients include Pawtucket, R.I.-based Hasbro Inc. and Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald’s Corp. “I struck up a conversation with [Friedrich] because it was so fun,” she says. “It was just a cool-looking book. There is just something very relatable about the character. It’s kind of got sardonic humor, and I didn’t know that there was really anything like it out there. You know, a little controversial, a little bit provocative.”

Her staff met with potential partners to see if they “got” Man v. Liver, she says. The work resulted in a Man v. Liver book, published in September by Kansas City-based Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC, along with napkins made by Asheville-based High Cotton Inc. and T-shirts by T-Line Design Inc. in Canby, Ore. Andrews McMeel, which publishes books for comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, proved a good fit, and the book has sold more than 10,000 copies. “It’s not a fad brand. It’s very classic,” Sullivan says. “The life cycle of a brand like this is much longer.” As long as millennials visit bars — and the Goldman Sachs’ report notes their frequency of drinking far outpaces other generations — she may be right. “It seems to me like mixology and the cocktail culture has risen as a leisure class,” Hinson says. “I feel like we just gave that group a voice and a character.”

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