Thursday, April 8, 2021

Heroes for the '90s! #15: July 1992

Conjuring a Phenomenon

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the comics industry as we know it only exists because of the intense passion of its fans. Every medium needs fans, obviously, but there are few others for which the fans have played such an outsized part in how it operates.
The origin of superhero comics is closely intertwined with the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s; Amazing Stories, Detective Story Magazine, Doc Savage Magazine, and the like. The origin of superhero comics fandom is also tied up in those pulps. The pulps had letter pages, and fans writing into the magazine soon began writing to one another, and this led naturally into the creation of fan-produced news bulletins sharing reviews, recommendations, news, and classifies. These became known as fanzines, and in those way pre-Internet days, it was one of the only ways for fans to connect with one another. Not surprisingly, the first fanzine was centered on sci-fi. 

And superhero comics as we know it grew from there. In 1933 two young men from Cleveland - Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster - introduced nascent version of Superman in their own fanzine, Science Fiction.
And once Superman inspired a superhero boom, comic book fanzines followed closely after. The first known of these was David Kyle’s The Fantasy World, which began in 1936. For decades following, comic book fanzines were a vital part of driving fandom forward, but they were strictly regional affairs.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that a fanzine got national distribution. Jerry Bails’s The Comic Reader became the official publication of the Association of Comic Book Fans and Collectors in 1961. It started out as a mimeographed booklet with fan art on the cover, by the early 1970s had enough clout to be professionally printed and get Jack Kirby to contribute cover art. 

Comic Buyer’s Guide came along in 1971, but it was mostly ads surrounding with a handful of news and editorial columns. Other fanzines followed, but the biggest development was the 1977 debut of The Comics Journal, which aimed to be more journalistic and serious-minded, covering underground and independent comics, and sharply criticizing mainstream superhero fare from Marvel and DC (taking up “a niche that nobody wants” publisher Gary Groth once quipped). The emergence of TCJ (as it came to be known) highlighted an identity crisis for any fanzine that wished to be taken seriously: Can you be a fan and a journalist at the same time?
This was further blurred by the fact that many who worked on fanzines had aspirations to become comic book professionals themselves. The Comic Reader alone was once home to Paul Levitz (who at various times worked as writer, editor, and president at DC), Paul Kupperberg (also an editor at DC), Tony Isablla (creator of Black Lightning), and Don Rosa (best known for his work with Uncle Scrooge).

The early 1980s saw a slew of slick new magazines that aimed to walk that thin line, fueled partially by the success of the 1978 Superman film and the rise of the direct market. In 1981, Fantagraphics, who also published TCJ, introduced Amazing Heroes as a direct competitor to The Comic Reader. The same year New Media Productions came out with Comics Feature. In 1982 the publishers of Starlog and Fangoria debuted Comics Scene, which would only last a year, but then get a revival in 1987. While clearly holding affection for their subject matter, these publications at least had the veneer of traditional journalism.
But it wasn’t an easy road. The Comic Reader ceased publishing in 1984. Comics Feature made it to 1987 before folding up. Comics Scene’s focus was mostly on the TV and film side of comic books. Soon, Amazing Heroes was the only game in town, and this was the vacuum into which Wizard stepped.
Wizard was initially conceived by Gareb Shamus as a newsletter for his parents’ comic shop, The Wizard of Cards and Comics, in southeast New York state. Working with Pat McCollum, he turned that newsletter into a monthly magazine that debuted in September 1991. It was an instant success, helped largely by an original cover Spider-Man cover by Todd McFarlane (as well as an interview with the man himself).
From the get-go Wizard had a younger “hipper” take on comics than had ever been tried before. And hearkening back to the earliest fanzines, it didn’t even try to appear journalistic. The magazine didn't aim to just comment on comics culture, but to become an integral part of it. And in that it succeed wildly. It didn’t just end up reflecting superhero comics of the 1990s, it helped define them.

Looking through Wizard #11, which had yet another Todd McFarlane cover, it’s amazing to see how quickly the magazine established its identity. Yes, it would become slicker as the 1990s wore on, but all of the tone and content the magazine would become known for was there from the start.
In the 1990s when reading comics wasn’t cool (I’d argue it still isn’t, but at least people understand it more than they used to), one of ways to explain it to incredulous friends and relatives was to say you were in it for the investments. I myself used this excuse on more than one occasion in attempt to fend off embarrassment, though the truth was I always collected them to read. There were others, however, for whom it wasn’t a front. They really did buy with the idea of reselling for a profit at some later date. Given the highly variable nature of comics values, this is somewhat akin to gambling.

Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. 1995.

Wizard consciously fed into that speculator mindset. Nearly half of the magazine was devoted to a price guide, and its features consistently returned to the idea of comics as collectibles. Features spotlighted the “hottest” books of the month, new number one issues due to be published, and a top ten list of comics whose values were on the rise. This can be pretty humorous with the gift of hindsight. For example in Wizard #11 “Wizard Comic Watch” guessed that Captain America Annual #5 would skyrocket in value because it featured the first appearance of Nomad. It’s currently a $5 comic at best (now if Jack Monroe appears in an MCU movie or TV show, all bets are off). Similarly, the three books that Greg Bals recommended in “Wizard’s Crystal Ball” as becoming hot commodities – Spirits of Vengeance #1 and #2 and Terror, Inc. #2 – are worth $2 each at most.
Similarly, Wizard was very concerned with popularity, or as they deemed it, “hotness.” And not only in comics, but artists (they’d add writers later) and characters. In Wizard #11 half of the hot artists on their Top 10 were the Image guys (McFarlane, Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, and Erik Larsen). The “Top 10 Hottest Heroes & Villains” were all Marvel characters, and almost all “edgy” (Wolverine, Punisher, Ghost Rider, Venom, Sabretooth, Archangel). There was also a cringeworthy feature celebrating sexual hotness, this month highlighting Captain America (“with blonde hair and blue eyes and buns that won’t quit”) and X-Force’s Boom-Boom (“hmm…wonder if the Danger Room has a ‘jump rope’ setting”), and featuring pictures of both in swimsuits. Swimsuit specials were a weird ‘90s trend that served as the comic book equivalent of MTV’s The Grind.

This, in combination with other aspects of how Wizard approached its operations had the effect of making it seem like a vehicle for fanboyish marketing. There’s even an article called “Lunch with Marvel Comics,” in which a Wizard writer sits down Marvels sales department to talk about upcoming titles (writer Fabian Nicieza, to his credit, tries to ruin the proceedings with smartass answers, including challenging Wizard to go one issue without using the word “hot.”).
A one-page article about Spawn by editor-in-chief Patrick McCallum (who would later go on to work in the upper echelons of DC editorial) is fluffy promotion. So is Gareb Shamus’s interview with McFarlane. One question is prefaced thusly: “You practically rewrote the rules of drawing comics and have since become one of the biggest names in the field.” A picture of a grinning Shamus with Liefeld and McFarlane is the cherry on top of the fawning pie.

In those early days it all seemed just amateurish, but as Wizard grew in popularity it felt a more nefarious. The magazine had the power to make or break books and companies by its choices of what to cover. Image books probably didn’t need the free promotion they got from Wizard, but companies like Valiant got a huge boost from being declaring "hot" every single month.
But in other ways Wizard was a very typical publication at first. They had a news section (in this particular issue we learn that Youngblood #1 has sold out, that Eastman and Laird are reuniting on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and that a Star Wars game is coming for Super Nintendo – I had that game and it was super fun), a word search, an unscramble-the-word send-away contest, and a quiz (I got 24 out of 30 of this particular month’s questions).
One way the Wizard staff’s fandom shone through more positively – and called back to its fanzine roots – was in the inclusion of fan art. For its first year Wizard’s cover gimmick was to have artists put a wizard hat and robe on whatever superhero they were doing. Readers were encouraged to create their own Wizard covers in this manner, and the magazine printed a couple pages worth of them each month. Wizard #11 happens to feature a Fantastic Four themed entry from 18-year-old Jason Bone, who would go by “J. Bone” during a respectable professional career as an inker (largely over the pencils of the wonderful Darwyn Cooke) and artist. This issue also has a “My Kind of Hero” wherein readers submitted a Who’s Who type entry for their self-created characters (this feature did not last long).
Wizard also had some worthwhile innovations.
Recognizing how many of their readers were also aspiring artists, the magazine added a monthly how-to-draw feature, initially done by DC and Valiant artist Bart Sears but later taken on by a rotating cast that included Greg Capullo and Art Adams.
The magazine also acknowledged that comic fans naturally had an interest in films, trading cards, and toys featuring their beloved characters. So there was “Andy Mangels’ Hollywood Heroes!” (which this month speculated about details from the then-forthcoming Batman Returns), “Wizard of Cards,” and “Toying Around” (which this month featured an article on toys from The Empire Strikes Back). As an avid action figure collector, I particularly enjoyed the latter. I loved Brian Cunningham’s enthusiasm, and in those pre-Internet days it was the only place I was going to catch a glimpse of, say, a Mego Shazam figure. In the mid-'90s Wizard would spin off some of these features into their own separate magazines (Toyfare and Inquest Gamer).
The magazine could also surprise you. The “Palmer’s Picks” column gave a monthly spotlight to independent and non-superhero titles. “Brat Pack” was a transcript of an ongoing conversation with teen collectors that often served up the range of opinions you’d hear at any given comic shop in the country (in this particular issue during a conversation about gimmick covers/trading cards/etc. one of teens talks about comics as investing – see, I told you! – but another says prophetically, “The flashy stuff brings in the new people, but there is no substance to make them stick around.”). 

Similarly, an editorial by Patrick Daniel O’Neill bemoans DC’s decision to reboot the Impact line. He says it's short-sighted and that the line was an investment in bringing new young readers that needed more time to play itself out. He writes of DC, “If a subsidiary of the largest entertainment conglomerate in the world can’t make a commitment to lose money for a couple of years on a line of eight books – on the premise that the line will mean greater returns for the entire company down the line – then I can’t figure out who could afford it.”

Unfortunately as the years went on Wizard became even more about the popular aspects of comics and even less about their depth and range, helping to push the speculator bust that happened in late 1993. Wizard became so popular, it ended up outselling many of the comics it was covering. The magazine started out including posters and trading cards, but leveled up to sendaways for comics created exclusively for the magazine. In addition to the spin-off magazines, Gareb Shamus even expanded his empire by buying the Chicago Comicon in 1997 and renaming it Wizard World Chicago. Later there'd be Wizard World conventions in cities across the U.S.

Once you start getting Marvel and DC to produce comics for you and are hosting your own conventions you aren't reporting the story, you are the story. And for that Wizard got its fare share of deserved criticism. But it was a product of its time and a product of its milieu. In a way that few other mediums can, comic books completely blur the line between the producers and the sellers and the consumers and the marketers and the professionals and the fans and the commentators. Wizard didn't invent that, it only exploited it and took it to its logical lengths.
And with the gift of distance, Wizard is something to be extremely thankful for. Reading each issue is like taking a time machine directly back to that era. And though it will always be inextricably tied to the 1990s, Wizard was actually able to weather the darkest days of the comics industry, and would make it all the way to just short of its 20th birthday, ceasing publication after the January 2011 issue. It outlasted its predecessors (Amazing Heroes ended in 1992 - the same month Wizard #11 hit the stands; Comics Scene called it quits in 1996) and its imitators (Hero Illustrated, Comic Talk, etc.), and paved the way – for better and worse – for Internet comics fandom as we know it today.

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