Monday, January 12, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Lost Magic - Why I Stopped Reading Wizard Magazine

The following document was presumed lost due to a freak accident involving a robotic okapi and a small green dish towel named “Trevor”. Well, no.. actually it involved a writer who sent his work in early due to his going on vacation for a week and a forgetful editor who somehow managed to lose the article during one of his frequent drinking and whoring binges, but the bit about the okapi sounds much better.

(Note From Ben Morse: I don’t drink! And those were groupies, not whores! I don’t have to pay for women on my binges… unlike SOME members of this staff I could name!)

We now present, in its’ entirety, the presumed lost (for one week) classical work of “Starman” Matt Morrison.... LOST MAGIC; a brief rant on Wizard Magazine and the place of the critic.

Several years ago, after having been in the comics-reading game for a while, I made the decision to stop reading Wizard Magazine. Wizard, if you somehow don’t know, is perhaps the most well-known print magazine devoted towards comic book news, reviews and pricing. This decision was made after considering a number of factors.

1. The News

Electronic media has a huge advantage over print media in today’s fast-paced world. Yahoo News can slap up a story about the capture of Saddam Hussein within minutes, whereas the newspapers had to wait until the next morning to publish the story. Time Magazine would have to wait a whole week to cover the story as the magazine was released on Mondays and their latest issue had already gone to print on the Sunday morning of Hussein’s capture.

Wizard suffers from the same problem. On the whole, you can get the same news from Comic Book Resources, Newsarama and yes… even 411 Comics before the next issue of Wizard comes out. Of course Wizard does get a lot of exclusive news simply because a lot of creators prefer to talk to Wizard over the rest of the news outlets. This is, however, another part of the problems I had with the magazine.

2. Brown-Nosing-A-Plenty

Read Wizard for an extended period, say four months or so, and you’ll notice that the same names pop up over and over in stories and news quotes. Around the time I stopped reading it, you could open up any issue and be guaranteed three things… an exclusive preview of whatever Alex Ross was working on, a “greatest BLANK of all time” list made up mostly of people who had just gotten into the business within the last ten years and an article detailing whatever fancy thing Todd McFarlane was spending his millions on THIS month.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Alex Ross’s work, think there are a lot of talented people who are just getting into the business and… well, okay I DON’T care to know about what movie is being funded and/or which sports collectibles have just been bought by Mr. McFarlane. The fact is that Wizard is far too celebrity obsessed and focused on too few “celebrities”. And most of these articles are written in a fanboyish “I’m so cool to be talking to this person” style that is grating in the extreme.

3. Standing Up For The Little Guy

On the same token, Wizard has very little use for the little guys in comics. There was very little coverage of the smaller, independent press books when I read it and aside from “Strangers in Paradise”, I can’t think of a single book ever discussed in the book that wasn’t a typical big-name superhero title. Not that I have ANY problem with superheroes (and I think my last year’s worth of writing will show that), but there are a lot of writers and artists out there who don’t get much attention and could sorely use the press a lot more than a discussion over why all writers from the United Kingdom either really need a haircut or shave their heads.

4. Out With The Old…

Wizard also seems to have a problem with noting events before the start of the “Dark Age” of comics (circa 1985) and any mention of classic comic characters and stories from before that era is likely to be insulting. “Oh, look at how corny the old comics were”, ala The Mort of the Month feature or the altered-word balloon covers that decorate the pricing guide section of the magazine.

And for all the articles and interviews detailing the latest up-and-comers, how much space is devoted to some of the founding fathers of the genre? When was the last time you saw a profile of Lee Falk or Martin Nodell? Heck, when have they ever written anything about Stan Lee other than mentioning he was doing a cameo in the next Marvel Movie? Surely “The Man” is just as worthy of some press as which superheroine has the most revealing thong?

5. Just Not Funny

I never found the “funny” bits of Wizard funny. I mean, laugh-out-loud, ha-ha funny? I assume that someone does find it funny and judging by your average issue of Wizard, it is probably the same people who find Zoo-Radio DJ’s funny. Most of Wizard’s humor has the same sophomoric frat-boy quality, with bits such as transcriptions of crank calls to people with the same name as a comic book character or a famous writer. Maybe I’m just an old fart at 25, but crank calls stop being funny for me (and most of the population) past the age of 12… and I don’t see much humor in calling up some guy named Clark Kent and saying you know his secret identity.

6. Quantity Over Quality

Wizard was founded in 1991, in part, as a speculator’s pricing guide. Wizard still heavily promotes the idea of comics as an investment. I’m sure I don’t have to reiterate to all of you how this kind of attitude resulted in a devastating crash which almost killed the industry, where quality was tossed aside in the name of creating more collectible issues with chromium covers, #1 “first” issues and artists ruled the roost with the story taking a back seat to huge splash pages.

When I left Wizard-reading behind me, they had just begun promoting the latest in collector’s toys: The Comics Guaranty Company issue. CGC is a company that professional grades comics, seals them up in a hard shell, and then either charges you an obscene amount of money for the service of telling you how much your comic is now worth or sells off the latest “hot” comics for an obscene amount of money through the Wizard website.

Aside from the potential abuse and possible conflict of interest in a magazine that reports the value of comics having an interest in a company that grades hot comics and assesses their value, the CGC comics seem to be a mug’s game. The CGC value, we are warned, only applies so long as the comic remains sealed up. God forbid you should want to read the book. And am I the only one who thinks that buying a comic that you can’t open and examine is a bit like buying a used car without getting a test drive?

Now, I realize that my saying all this makes me sound like some kind of pointy-headed, clove-cigarette smoking elitist who reads nothing but obscure, black-and-white titles with print runs in the lower hundreds in the top of his ivory tower and would sooner lose his autographed picture of Warren Ellis than read a book with Michael Turner artwork. This could not be further from the truth – I don’t smoke.

Indeed, it was Michael Turner’s artwork, or rather the subject of it, that made me pick up the most recent Wizard Magazine. What can I say? The promise of a preview of the real, proper and Kryptonian Supergirl returning in some form was enough of an incentive to overcome my dislike. Besides, I told myself… it may have gotten better in the last few years.

To some degree, things have gotten better… and yet are more the same than ever. For one thing, the news is still weeks old to me… but I realize that the magazine is invaluable to those who are not as broadly-read as me or indeed, do not have Internet access at all. Still, Wizard has begun to make up for this lack of currency by including full previews of comics unavailable anywhere else instead of just sketches of upcoming issues. I got to read the first few pages of the comic that will mark the first appearance of the new Supergirl as well as the entirety of the upcoming Fantastic Four Marvel Knights title. (And there’s a whole other column in that, which I will write later.)

The content was much the same as before. There was lots of news on upcoming comic book movies with a few interviews. Whole columns I remember from the past, such as the Casting Call and Mort of the Month were gone, though there was a sidebar casting a potential Superman movie. The lame humor, sadly, was still there, with a Top Ten list of Christian Bale’s preparations to play Batman. And the major feature article about what was planned for several comics over the next year was a bit biased towards the “hot titles”, with a big list of major titles and then an “Also in 2004” section for “less hot” titles.

Now, call me out if I’m wrong about this, but isn’t the goings-on of critically acclaimed titles like Gotham Central or The Goon or long-running titles like Iron Man or Hellblazer slightly less worthy of the “Also Ran” list than new and as of yet unproven titles like “Common Grounds” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”? And before anyone gets all upset, remember the praise I had for Common Grounds in my Wanted #1 review. I’m looking forward to it and “KKBB”, but I think the separation should have been made along the lines of what is proven to last and what is new; not what is popular and not.

And the celebrity system is still in full swing. Of the Top 10 most highly anticipated events of 2004, a 5th of them involved Mark Millar; The Second Volume of Ultimates (#9) and a new Spider-Man book penned by Millar (#6). The return of two long-inactive artists who did a lot of work for Top Cow made up another 5th of the list. (Michael Turner Returns #4 and Marc Silvestri on New X-Men #5), and even these listings are suspect. Silverstri’s first issue on the book will just barely qualify as a 2004 publication and Michael Turner already “returned” earlier this year with the publication of three issues of Aspen Comics. I find it suspect that all this attention is being given to a “hot” writer and two artists renowned for their connection to the multiple-cover gimmicks that so heavily fuel the speculator trade that Wizard has a vested interest in keeping active.

Still, there were signs of progress with brief sections dedicated to manga and anime… as well as the two page “Secret Stash” column about “small press” titles. While this is a far cry from the space that these features receive from other magazines, it is still a vast improvement over how it was when I last read it. This, in fact describes the whole product; a vast improvement over how I found it.

Finally, I would like to discuss a letter in Wizard that proved almost prophetic. The letter was from a fan who said that he missed the old days of Wizard when they would “crap all over books they didn’t like”. The editor responded that Wizard had “grown into something more than a fanzine” and that “wasting valuable page space to trash bad books doesn’t make sense” when your main goal is “to tell people what they should be reading”.

I must respectfully disagree with this viewpoint as worded. Granted, there is something to be said from getting away from the school of criticism where insults are hurled like dung from a monkey’s hand but criticism is much more than just “telling people what they should be reading.” There is a responsibility to cover the good and the bad.

I could quite happily spend the rest of my career writing about everything written by Geoff Johns, Gail Simone or the classic works of Roger Stern and Roy Thomas… but that would make for some dull reading (or in my case dull writing) after a while. And what if all critics did that? What if they only reviewed the books they wanted to read? Even with the vast diversity of the market today, only a minor percentage of these titles would be reviewed. And how many people would be willing to take a chance on a new title that they had heard nothing about? What if there is a new title… a good title… that gets ignored by the critics?

This is all a bit hypothetical, I admit, but I give this example only to emphasize my point that a true critic wears two hats. In the first guise, the critic is a king who dispenses rewards and praise to those who earn their respect. In the second guise, the critic is the jester who speaks the harsh truths that nobody will hear with a wink and a knowing smile. As pleasant as it is to be the king, you must occasionally play the fool. Because there are times when the emperor has no clothes, and rather than ignore the naked man, somebody has to say “Hey! That guy is naked!” And I promise that as long as I am writing here, I shall always strive to point out the nudity to you all. Figuratively speaking, that is.

Tune In Next Week! Same Matt Time! Same Matt Web Site!

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