The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Newsarama or others associated with the site.The reaction online to the recent cancelation of Wizard magazine (and its companion ToyFare) can be summed up as “mildly surprised.” [Read the reactions of comic professionals from across the industry here] Few hadn’t seen it coming; many had expected it to happen sooner. Some have mourned one of the last influential print publications about comics; others have muttered “good riddance.”
It’s hard for me to be objective about the death of Wizard, as a journalistical person and as a straight-up fanboy. Wizard started around the time I got into superhero comics, and founder Gareb Shamus’ combination of articles, hype and the odd fumetti comic was an essential part of my middle and high school years. Put simply: I might not be writing for Newsarama right now if it hadn’t been for Wizard. [Newsarama Note: Thanks, Wizard!]I saw them around when they were first advertised, that Todd MacFarlane cover of Spider-Man in the wizard hat and cloak. I didn’t pick up an issue until #7, because the Flash was on the cover and I’d been watching the TV series. It was at Kerr Drug at Ridgewood Shopping Center, which became an Eckerd, and later a Rite Aid.
That was their first variant cover; the other cover for issue #7 was X-O Manowar for Valiant, one of the companies they championed at that time. Inside, they had their picks for the month, one of which was a new book called Youngblood. It didn’t come out on time, but when it did, kids who never set foot inside a comic shop knew they had to have it. Wizard told them it was going to be huge.
Wizard brought the comic book marketplace a magazine that felt like a magazine, not an insider-y newspaper for comic fans in the know. At my young age, The Comics Journal felt impenetrable, and my local shop didn’t get Comic Buyer’s Guide.
Wizard was full-color, with a square-bound spine those early years, and graphics on most every page (the first issue I’d picked up, it turns out, was also the first to offer this format). The prose was accessible and unobtrusive, and everything suggested that it knew where to find all the wonderful stories hiding in the crowded comic-shop shelves.
It offered all sorts of odd secrets – did you know there was a 300-issue comic about an aardvark named Cerebus? That the Flash in the comics wasn’t the same as the one on TV, and that Barry Allen had been dead for years? Did you realize that by repainting action figures, you could turn them into other characters? And hey, the first appearance of Cable was actually tied to an issue of X-Factor! That’s a hell of a thing, why not grab that?
It was the last factor that led to the undoing of both Wizard and many of the companies it championed. But there was a certain communal novelty to ripping open the polybag each month to collect the assorted chromium trading cards inside and fold out the latest cover (my adolescence was so square that this was the closest I came to a centerfold).
Things were different in those heady days of the 1990s. If some back issue contained a particular plot point or crucial story, odds were it wasn’t reprinted in a trade paperback. You had to hunt it down, while simultaneously guessing at what new issues might prove important in the immediate future. And of course, that meant shelling out the bucks.
Wizard was, in its time, a tastemaker. I first saw Joe Quesada’s work because they were raving about The Ray and then Batman: Sword of Azrael. Later, Stephen Platt became red-hot because his work on Moon Knight made their top 10. Valiant went from being that company reviving old-school concepts like Magnus Robot Fighter to a top-selling creative force with every new title blessed with a chromium cover, shiny and new, often by the aforementioned Quesada.
There was inanity. A lot of inanity, now that I think of it. Recall “Hunk and Babe of the Month?” Endless cheesecake covers? And the frat-boy humor, which amused me at first (for some reason, I still quote “Spawn bad! Donut good!” and “Give me power to fly, the strength to beat, holy sweet bacon, this ring ams neat!” and may have been the only person amused by short-lived mascot Keep-Squeezin’-Them-Monkeys Lad), but became tiresome as I moved into and through high school.And the focus on cool new things seemed to give way to what comic companies wanted them to think was cool. The first few years of Wizard covers were nifty designs that would sometimes spotlight obscurities such as the aforementioned X-O Manowar, or #28’s well-designed look at the all-new Bongo Comics. Good lord, out of all the companies in the 1990s, Bongo lasted. Even they had foil and glow-in-the-dark covers when they started.
Oh, and remember the ½ issues? Every month, there’d always be some new mail-away issue for the then upscale price of $3. Somehow, I’d always wind up getting free copies of the ones I didn’t want off the subscription my grandma got me for Christmas, and always missing ones like Astro City ½ because my mom threw out the coupon by mistake. Had to track that one down at a con, but it was worth it.
But though Wizard oft-ignored the great Chuck D.’s maxim of “Don’t believe the hype,” it still felt like a friend. The silly jokes and causal tone made it feel like you were sharing comics with a friend, and if you were a 13-year-old with social anxiety, the magazine became not only a companion but a shared gateway drug that would get your classmates into comics as well.
Other magazines imitated Wizard’s model, and arguably did it better. Hero Illustrated had, in its first year, minicomics of Bone and Madman inside its polybags, and later brilliant interviews by people like Hart Fisher and Greg Hyland. Overstreet’s FAN had short fiction by Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller editorials, plus in-depth features on such unrealized stories as Alan Moore’s Twilight of the Superheroes.But Wizard had gotten there first, and by the time the market started to recover from the implosion of the late 1990s, the competition was gone.
The quality, unfortunately, was also gone. In its first three or four years, interviews or short pieces in Wizard got me into creators ranging from Matt Wagner to Garth Ennis to Daniel Clowes. But while there were still quality writers, such as Mike Cotton and Kiel Phegley, their work often seemed like a needle in a haystack.
Wizard now seemed like a magazine primarily marketed to, well, those who’d grown up reading Wizard. They had the ear of high-profile creators such as Alex Ross, Kevin Smith and Joss Whedon, but there was rarely that sense of discovery in a given issue so much as Marvel/DC/occasionally Dark Horse and Image hype and a couple bits of preview art.
And yeah, the Internet played a role. Once sites like…well, this one came online, comic news was distributed rapidly and immediately. It wasn’t a matter of only finding out what was going on in the industry at the drugstore magazine rack or comic shop shelf once a month, it was something you learned every day. Or several times a day, at that.Creators complained (or trumpeted) mightily about the seemingly arbitrary “Top 10” lists of writers and artists, but I mostly ignored them. There was still a sense, though, that the tail was wagging the dog a bit. Was Creator X on the Top 10 because fans and peers said so, or because Wizard said so? And somehow, the price guide remained, even as the back issue market remained stagnant. It was still worth reading, for the little jokes and comic recaps throughout.
The weird thing was that in helping to promote a more mainstream coverage of comic books, Wizard created its own worst enemy. Magazines such as Entertainment Weekly and numerous major newspapers acquired writers who grew up reading the magazine, and translated their fandom into accessible pieces on comic creators and characters for those “mainstream” publications. Wizard suddenly lacked what had made it a hit – novelty.
The magazine had been around long enough to become a brand, and that translated into the WizardWorld comic book conventions – streamlined shows with terribly sad autograph areas boasting such “talent” as disgraced governor Rod Blagojevich.In 2004, I went to a WizardWorld show in Chicago, where I had the opportunity to chat with Gareb Shamus for an interview that was never published. It was, bar none, the worst job I’ve ever done interviewing somebody, with Shamus providing canned lines justifying why they relegated indy books to a couple pages in the back or an occasional one-shot, or why they weren’t doing more coverage of webcomics or manga.
It was weird. Wizard had grown up with me, but it seemed to have left a generation of new readers behind.
Meanwhile, the magazine attempted to adapt to the magazines that had imitated it; rare was the cover without some comic-based-film as the headlining photo. Once in a while, an article would come to my attention that was very well-done, including profiles of such creators as Steve Gerber, Steve Ditko and Dave Cockrum. There’d be the odd “commentary track” for some recent “event” miniseries that offered a few bits of insight. But that material felt like diamonds in the rough, and wasn’t enough to get me interested again.
I didn’t pick up an issue of Wizard for years, save an occasional flip if a loose copy was out at Barnes and Noble. The last one I saw was the Mark Millar guest-edited issue a few months back, and there was barely any editorial content in the magazine. It was more of what I’d seen over the last few years, a few writers, artists and Hollywood-based fans riffing on one another, with little insight left.And then it was gone.
Perhaps I’ve seemed harsh in my recollections, though it’s still less harsh than some critics (such as Frank Miller, who famously tore an issue in half at the 2001 Harvey Awards). And much of it was deserved.
Wizard was at many times a self-congratulatory hype machine that played to the worst instincts of comic book fans, encouraging destructive speculation that almost wiped out the industry and a cliquish attitude toward “hot” creators that it would sometimes seem to shun the moment they began to criticize the magazine’s content.
But for many young fans – like me – Wizard performed a valuable service at times, providing a colorful and accessible introduction to the world of comics for many people who, like me, found it a bit overwhelming.
It introduced me to great books, and taught me to see the creators behind those books as people, instead of faceless contributors to some massive superhero universe. And yes, it encouraged me to pick up everything from A Distant Soil to Strangers in Paradise to Bone.
Eventually, it fell victim to its own hype. And while it might see new life online and in the WizardWorld conventions, I’ll miss the magazine I found on the shelf at Kerr Drug, that introduced me to Image and Valiant and the true story of the Flash. But perhaps Wizard’s time, like those memories, is in the past.
Shame if there’s no more Twisted Toyfare Theatre, though. That $#!^ was hilarious.