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.
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.
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?
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.
|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.
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.”).
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.
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.