Thursday, October 22, 2009

For the Love of Comics #3: The Great Magazines

Comics Buyer's Guide
Words: Christopher Irving

It was 1989 when I first stumbled across a copy of Comics Buyer’s Guide
on the wire rack in a used bookstore in my Virginia hometown. CBG was a literal weekly newspaper for comics then, featuring everything from breaking news, to columns by industry insiders, to previews of upcoming comics. To a 12 year-old boy, it was heaven smudgingly printed on cheap paper.

CBG was a saving grace to me: nowhere else could I connect with anyone in comics (I did, after all, grow up in FARMville, a small town then devoid of comic shops) but, more importantly, it allowed me to be an “insider” to my other middle-school pals. CBG would come in every Thursday and, after dinner, the phone would be dragged into my bedroom, the door shut, and my pal Marshall’s number dialed up to divulge the secrets and predictions of the comics world.

Back then, with dead Robins and impending Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movies, it was a helluva time to be a fan. Comics, picked up only at newsstand racks dispersed throughout town (a weekly habit of my father and I was to go “on the hunt” on new comics day) were still a secretive world to my adolescent brain. Marshall and I knew we were going to be comic book artists one day (he, the next Todd McFarlane, while I would happily inherit either George Perez or John Byrne’s mantle), and CBG made it easier to dream about making it a reality.

Comics SceneComics Scene was the other magazine, which Marshall was often more likely to pick up: a pricier color magazine, it focused on movies as well, with a section in the back detailing the developmental stages and delays of the superhero movies (most of which, like schlockhouse Cannon’s low budget Spider-Man flick, luckily never saw the light of day).

Not long after, two glossy color magazines joined Comics Scene, one of which would topple it from its lofty position: Wizard and Hero Illustrated. Wizard was the hip mag (that, presumably, all the cool kids read), while Hero was a little lower on the production totem pole, yet a bit more grown-up, revealed by the absence of Wizard's dick and fart jokes. We read them, voraciously, marveling at the poly-bagged goodies like trading cards and ashcan mini comics previews (Hero is the reason I picked Madman up: seeing Mike Allred’s snappy art with his wife Laura’s View Master candy coloring made me first up and pursue the smaller press book). While we volunteered the popcorn and soda stand at the local community theater, we stuck our noses in sketchbooks and Wizards and Hero Illustrateds to rip off the latest Spawn or Byrne West Coast Avengers while the show went on in the theater behind us.

November, 1997, and I’m working as Entertainment editor of The Commonwealth Times, the student newspaper of Virginia Commonwealth University, plugging comic book reviews into the paper to the protests of the rest of the staff. The most widespread, mainstream notice comics had gotten at that point was in the release of two comic book based movies: Batman and Robin and Spawn, which also happen to also be two of the worst (if not the worst) adaptations ever. Marvel Comics is about to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Comic book shops are closing the nation over, due to the industry-wide crash from the weight of the chrome-covered polybagged speculator’s market.

It is a dark time for comics.

Out of nowhere, after my review of Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, I get an email from a VCU staffer who’s been friends with Waid since his days as a student at VCU. Would I like to interview him? She offers.

My interview with the affable Waid made it into the pages of the CT, and also onto the webpage of a local comic shop, Richmond Comix. The Internet was the burgeoning new venue for comics news, with news sites and message boards popping up all over the place.

The magazine format was still going, in spite of the industry’s turmoil: Wizard was still at the head of the pack, with CBG living on in a tabloid-format (eschewing the fold-out newspaper of days gone), Gary Groth’s The Comics Journal still delivered the sophisticated stuff, Comic Book Marketplace appealed (in slick color, nonetheless) to the hardcore Golden and Silver Age fans, and newbie publisher John Morrow came on the scene with fan magazine The Jack Kirby Collector. His TwoMorrows Publishing soon mushroomed into the biggest publisher of fan magazines, adding the classic fan magazine Alter Ego (piloted by legendary comics editor and writer Roy Thomas) and journalism tome Comic Book Artist to its black and white ranks.

Two years later, I stepped from the web to print with pieces in The Jack Kirby Collector, Comic Book Marketplace, Comic Book Artist, and Comics Buyers’ Guide. By the time I met CBA’s Jon B. Cooke at the 2000 San Diego Con, I’d also landed a piece in Alter Ego and one in Comics Scene (who had experienced a very short-lived revival). For a while, I was averaging two cover stories a month for CBG, giving Cooke a plethora of big research essays for CBA, and teaching high school English. My dance card was full, as it were, and there were plenty of other dance partners to go with if I wanted to, but I eventually wrapped up my tenure at CBG to focus primarily on my work for Cooke’s burgeoning mag.

CBG wasn’t what it used to be at that point: how could a newspaper for comics report the news in a timely fashion when there was the Internet to compete with? CBG still featured a handful of columns, like Mark Evanier’s P.O.V. and Peter David’s last page But I Digress…(giving the writer the final word on a regular basis), but the news angle became less and less plausible. Before much longer, CBG went from a tabloid weekly to a full-size monthly. It just wasn’t the same.
Comic Book Artist, on the other hand, was quickly evolving into the most densely packed thematic comics magazine; Cooke is, in this writer’s opinion, one of the savviest comics journalists I’ve ever had the chance to work under. He follows that great editorial tenet, the one the great Archie Goodwin was apparently very guilty of: he’d let you do your thing, and would rein you in only if needed. CBA won several consecutive Eisner Awards for Best Comics Related Periodical, delivering issue after issue of comics history and journalism, shining a light onto the dustier corners of comics history.

Atlas Comics? Charlton Comics? No matter how obscure, we were there at a time that nobody else was, talking to those involved with even the most trivial points of comics history. My work at CBA found me talking to the son of Dell Publishing’s George Delacorte (go to the Alice in Wonderland fountain in Central Park, and George is the basis for the Mad Hatter), becoming friends with Charlton’s head writer (Joe Gill, who is worth a column or book of his own), and attending the “Scottish Wake” of a comics great.

Things are different now. The Internet has taken over as the primary source of news, as well it should for its ability to instantaneous cover breaking items. Several magazines are dropping like flies, hanging onto a ledge by their fingernails, or adapting to fit the current market.
Comics Buyers’ Guide still comes out monthly. Wizard has gone from being a sophomoric magazine with dick and fart jokes to something more akin to Entertainment Weekly for comics. The Comics Journal has changed their frequency of publication, upgrading their format in exchange. The TwoMorrows lineup changes, having recently dropped two magazines shortly after adding a full color non-comics one, mostly catering to an established fanbase of readers, but lesser for the loss of Comic Book Artist some years ago.

Only a few new kids have emerged: Back Issue came in as CBA’s replacement at TwoMorrows, with editor Michael Eury consistently delivering a solid read from issue to issue, while Brit mag Tripwire trips out every year or so. Upstart pub Comics Foundry by Tim Leong came and went before it really had enough of a chance to find its footing as a mag about the "geek" lifestyle.

And what about CBA? After migrating over to indy sweethearts Top Shelf, Cooke’s mag came out inconsistently for a brief time, only to disappear again.

Speaking personally, I yearn for the CBA’s return. One thing I miss is that sense of knowing a secret no one else has had the thoughtfulness to ask, with every piece I worked on, or the insider’s view from reading Cooke’s interviews. I cut my teeth on CBA and learned more about comics journalism under his watch than any other editors (and I’ve had some great editors).
What you read here on Graphic NYC wouldn’t have come about if not for Jon’s constant encouragement, prodding, and direction on CBA those years ago. It all formed my sentiments as a journalist and writer, pushing me from being a reporter to wanting to be something so much more.

And you can bet I’ll be there when and if CBA does come back, full of even more piss and vinegar than I was in 2000.