Pressing Issues: Wizard Press and the Trapeze of ‘90s Fan Culture

[24 August 2010]

By Andy Smith

Daze Of Miracle And Wonder

The incident is well-known among professionals, industry insiders and forum-driven fanboys. At the 2001 Harvey Awards, keynote speaker Frank Miller held up a copy of a magazine called Wizard and proclaimed the publication a “bible written by Satan.” The impassioned speech discussed the dangers of Hollywood, the industry slump and what this “tree killer” magazine represented.

“Even though this monthly vulgarity reinforces all the prejudice people hold about comics, they cry to all the world that we’re as cheap and stupid and trashy as they think we are, we sponsor this assault,” Miller said, ripping the issue apart. “We pay for the [expletive] privilege.”

Miller continued on, throwing the issue in a nearby trash can and providing a sense of optimism for spectators.

“And be certain of this, our field will pull out of this slump and won’t be Hollywood that’ll rescue us,” Miller said. “And it ain’t gonna be the Internet either: it’ll be the books. It’ll be the comic books.”

Applause.

Four years later, Miller was the Guest of Honor at Wizard World Chicago, one of several conventions put on by Wizard Entertainment. The year was successful for Miller, who had just co-directed a film adaptation of his acclaimed comic series Sin City with Robert Rodriguez. The irony may indicate that the feud ended in 2005.

Outsiders to the comic world may wonder the reasons behind Miller’s defiant stance against a magazine during an awards ceremony at the Pittsburgh Comicon. It may spark curiosity of how a special interest publication highlighting the comicbook culture can inspire bitterness, frustration and even rage. To understand the history of this seemingly controversial periodical, it may require going back to the inception of Wizard Press—the company that would eventually become the industry powerhouse Wizard Entertainment. It began with a risk—one taken by a young college graduate named Gareb Shamus.

Before the Wizard World Comic Con Tour, the now-deceased publishing imprint Black Bull Comics, Anime Insider, Inquest Gamer and ToyFare: The Toy Magazine—before Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment and Pop Culture and Wizard: The Comics Magazine—there was just Wizard: The Guide to Comics.

Shamus, having recently graduated Magna Cum Laude from State University at Albany, tackled the publishing trade with the first issue of Wizard: The Guide Comics in 1991. The issue featured a cover crafted by a young, pre-entrepreneur Todd McFarlane—commissioned as birthday gift for Shamus’ father a couple years before the release of Wizard: The Guide to Comics #1. The purple and starry cloak adorning the iconic Wall Crawler was actually referencing the comicbook shop owned by Gareb’s parents: Wizard World. The shop would not only inspire the name of the maiden publication but later the massively successful convention series now fulfilling 14 events as of 2010.

The early 1990s saw more than just the rise of Wizard. After making waves in mainstream books, seven high-profile, yet youthful artists started an upstart imprint called Image Comics. Superman was killed at the hands of the unstoppable Doomsday. Successful cross-media efforts like “X-Men: The Animated Series” brought storylines from current continuity to television screens. Comic books were making the news. The medium was not only changing, it was taking risks.

The same can be said for Wizard: The Guide to Comics. The magazine’s seventh issue saw colored pages enhanced with a sleek, glossy texture. Shamus’ relationship with McFarlane proved invaluable as the latter’s placement among the seven Image founders and creator behind the successful Spawn title. The ‘90s could have been seen as fruitful for the publication, as its price guide remained relevant, its humorous, speech balloon-filled pages and wish lists were hailed as entertaining and wide support was given.

The bookends of today and those early days of Wizard are filled with a variety of plot twists. The years saw slumps, folds and even bankruptcy for one of the medium’s biggest competitors. As with many publishing woes, much blame for the causes of current frustration with the magazine itself have been pegged to the Internet and its general affect on print and the hysteria that ensues. A glance at message boards today will find scathing phrases towards the publication that liken more to Miller’s 2001 rant than any those of pleased customers.

“Worthless rag.”

“Giant advertisement.”

“Flimsy garbage.”

The changes in the magazine are unmistakable. Within the past two decades, the magazine has switched titles from Wizard: The Guide to Comics to Wizard: The Comics Magazine and finally Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment and Pop Culture. Covers for the monthly changed from custom artist renditions to occasional promotional shots for comicbook film and television adaptations. Beloved columns were cut, as were staff positions as the effects of the Web reached far out into the published word. Wizard eventually reverted to a traditional magazine format: stapled, loose and a fraction of its former length. Breaking news and a price guide were challenged due to fluctuating trends and the immediacy of the browser. The magazine did gain one notable attribute: a dollar more on its price tag.

With a cultural shift that embraced the inner geek, possibly rooted in the Internet Age or the currents in popular culture, the magazine moved with the populous. The publication’s fueling for the fire in comic-inspired television and film and the onslaught of said media can be reduced to a chicken-or-the-egg argument. Regardless, the decisions and risks taken by Wizard Entertainment reach further than the magazine itself. In its history, the company took on more magazines, ambitious conventions and an online presence of its own. It even attempted comic publishing—a notably-failed effort. As it now continues to ride contemporary trends, many are just asking for the old Wizard to come back.

And then there was Wizard: The Magazine of Comics, Entertainment and Pop Culture #228.

The magazine employed Scottish scribe Mark Millar as a “Special Guest Editor” to helm the August issue. It was dubbed a relaunch, with a rumored attempt to go back to roots of the magazine: comicbooks. Millar is known as one of comics’ greatest PR virtuosos, and potentially casting him to be the ambassador to comic purity may seem interesting considering his recent moves between mediums. Though the effort for the relaunch may have inspired hope, some have noted no change in disappointment.

As the future is uncertain, the historical risks of Wizard Entertainment solidify a lack of predictability for the success of its endeavors. The comicbook, as a medium, has changed in its presentation and productivity due to new technology. Magazines have received similar alterations, either fizzling, joining the ranks of online emphasis or hanging on for dear life. Therefore, Wizard will continue to change for better or worse in the eyes of fans.

For the jaded and bemoaning of comic enthusiasts and former readers of Wizard, one can recognize what it may take to pick up September’s issue: a risk.

Andy Smith is probably the eighth Andy Smith you've met this week, though he likes to think of himself as possibly the most buoyant. He received a B.S. in Journalism from West Virginia University and has been a freelance writer since. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) / @andysmith_lol / The Andy Smith Dot Com


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/129883-pressing-issues-wizard-press-and-the-trapeze-of-90s-fan-culture/