Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain… 2

If I get anything wrong here, feel free to correct my lousy memory or bad hearsay:

Daniel Millwee recently recently asked over at Whitechapel, “What’s up with Wizard?” and while he was referring to this and the discussion includes this, it’s a good question to ask in a larger sense. My take:

In short: they failed to establish a web presence, trapped themselves in print, fired everyone who could have helped them through it and failed to maintain their primacy among contacts in comics and other media.

As for the house style, it is what it’s always been. Believe me, everybody at Wizard reads great comics, but you’re not promoting the new cool find, you’re promoting what Marvel or DC wants to push. Wolverine, and T&A are what boost their sales, though they’re the same things that make it difficult to establish a long-term readership.

But without a website.
As an underage, goth, Wolverine clone working as a prostitute and assassin, X-23 represents the sum total of Wizard’s poisoned bread and butter.

At length: I believe their original site got hacked or somehow kidnapped by the host and they never rebuilt it. By the time I got there, the understanding was “Okay, Newsarama and CBR will get to the daily news before us, but we’ll have the exclusive features and previews due to our longstanding relationships.” Those relationships were preserved in part by the conventions, which did very well for all parties concerned (except WW Boston), though not all retailers. But this is the publisher that informed stores they’d be receiving unordered copies of Wizard specials (based on sales of a different issue they had ordered) with shipping charged to those retailers’ Diamond shipping accounts, even after explicit refusals to accept them. That was finally stonewalled in the end, IIRC. Pissing off your customers, who in turn are the ones who have to sell THEIR customers on your product, that’s never a great idea. It’s not like you’re selling cabbage to Soviet-era merchants. People aren’t going to necessarily need your product, especially when they can get it instantaneously for free online.

So: no web presence until very late in the game, when they invested heavily in building a web site with some great talent. Then, abruptly and inexplicably, failed to really launch or run the thing, firing Rick Marshall and leaving the work up to interns.

Wizard has ever been keen on farming intern labor. Often, they’d hire you for the spring semester of your senior year, promise you a job, and then ride out the summer as a prolonged internship before giving you the paid position in the fall. One of my good friends was a design intern there nearly three years and they still wanted to run him through an “evaluation period” despite the fact that they’d published some successful books he’d pretty much put together all by himself.

But design always gets screwed. In by 8, out by 6, their team steadily winnowed down. And don’t forget, it’s salaried, not overtime, so when they’re asked to stay late and finish a project all the time, they’re giving away free man-hours. They even had their little concession stand shut down because it was apparently taking money away from the vending machines.

Once you get hired, you’re making low-to-mid-20s in one of the nation’s few suburban counties where rent is as expensive as it is in NYC itself. That’s why practically nobody who worked at Wizard in its Rockland days lived anywhere near the place.

This worked for awhile because there was a lot of turnover at Wizard. Just about everyone there went on to work at Marvel or DC or some production studio based on the contacts they’d established. So then a new intern gets hired, or a probational research assistant at entry pay, while a few core figures who have been there forever continue doing the content production.

I should mention here that I was happy at Wizard. I liked everyone there, I was encouraged to read free comics, I worked with some really cool people on some really interesting projects. I mean, part of my job description was “E-mail Grant Morrison for a fun anecdote.” Not bad work for a comicphile. I’m just telling it as I recall it, because that’s the setup I want you to understand before what happens next in Wizard’s slouching fortunes. And I should mention they had a great 401(k), I just couldn’t contribute to it because I was only making $300 a week after taxes, which just about covered insuring, driving and repairing my car. The low salary put me in debt for the first time in my life, and I think I’m a pretty spartan guy. But it really was a great plan. They didn’t screw anybody on that. I don’t know if the health insurance was good. I never needed it.

See? Nobody gives a crap about Spider-Woman except Brian Bendis.
You see what we’re working with here. Also: are we supposed to be attracted to this butterface?

So yes, after coming very, very late to the table with a website, they then got rid of the fellow who would run it, and I believe they put it in the interns’ hands. I was gone before all these firings started, left to take a job that had nothing to do with comics. And the interns could generate good content in the house style. We all could. They house style is “Information. Glib commentary. More information. Salacious remark.” I did it for a good long while in sidebars and Toyfare pieces. I don’t have a problem with it, because it’s Wizard. You know what you’re getting.

People who criticize Wizard’s journalistic integrity don’t understand that it’s not journalism; it’s a catalog. A lot of magazines are. I think the most morally conflicted I ever became as a writer was having to make trading cards for the Catwoman movie sound good. Everyone knew how horrible that film would be the second we got shots of Halle Berry in her gimp gear. But of course, we had to sell it to the fanboys, because WB knew the cat was a dog, too. They needed our platform to bring that crashing plane in as gently as possible, whereas they wouldn’t need us for Batman Begins. So if we wanted any exclusive, advance Batman material, we had to accept exclusive, advance Catwoman material.

This might sound horrible, but hey, it’s Wizard when it was functioning. Backs were scratched. I understand some things are subjective; I don’t follow Star Trek, but my job is to write it up as interesting to people who do. However, anyone who likes Catwoman, be it the cool, noir version, or the Jim Balent sex kitten, they’re going to be put off by this no matter which direction they approach from. I think I sloughed my integral fears by phrasing it as “If these cards are half as cool as they say they are, we’re in luck.” Anansi would be proud.

You wouldn't think Halle Berry in a leather bra could go wrong, but there it is.
Try selling this as awesome.

But having abandoned their second go at the web, or at least failing to make it their flagship, they were left with print and conventions. Print is dying to a good degree (it won’t die any more than radio or movies did under TV, but unlike those media, it can’t get more outrageous than the one that’s replacing it; anything goes on the web). We’ll get to conventions in a second.

So they fired everyone who knew what they were doing. They even fired people who didn’t know what they were doing and heretofore couldn’t be fired. Because both those groups were the people who’d been around awhile, and had accrued raises. They fired everyone who didn’t leave for a job elsewhere. They even fired Mel Caylo, who was a big film/TV liaison for them, even though their entire point was that they had what the websites didn’t in the form of close big media relationships.

Also, at some point, Gareb went off and bought himself a fighting league. Now one fighting league is Coke, two is Pepsi, and three is RC Cola. There’s no room for a third fighting league in the way that, say, there is for a fast food franchise, a TV studio…things that can differentiate themselves from each other. The taste might be different, but you’re still drinking cola. So that lasted a couple years. I have no idea if he was using personal wealth or cash that had been invested in Wizard, either way, it’s his money and he’s free to do what he wants with it. And it’s not like it distracted his attention from Wizard, since my understanding was he didn’t usually write his monthly publisher’s column. But sometimes I think it might have generated the feeling in comics that Wizard was on the outs when its public face wasn’t even interested in it anymore, despite the fact that it didn’t affect the actual production.

Support nifty creators.

Speaking of which, go buy this

When I was doing an Evan Dorkin checklist early in my time as price guide assistant, I contacted the creator to see if I’d missed anything that he knew of. He answered, “Wow, I didn’t even know Wizard still knew who I was.” When I replied that we really liked his stuff, myself especially, and how much it cheered me to have Milk & Cheese on the door to research, he made a really apt comparison, which I’m paraphrasing as, “Well, Wizard’s probably a lot like MTV. All the VJs listen to interesting indie stuff, then have to go shill garbage.”

Spot-on, I’d say. We’d try to wedge stuff we loved, really cool titles being well-written and drawn, into the sidebars, but the fact is, you’re still going to have to do a checklist of relevant titles to whatever horrible non-event Marvel or DC wanted to push that week. What can be done? We may want to push something awesome, but the fact is variant covers still sell. Wolverine still sells. Breasts still sell. They just happen to alienate a long-term audience that wants actual comic coverage of more substance. All you’re doing is bringing in the single-synapse Comic Book Guys for the mental equivalent of a Pixie Stick. Not a lot of flavor, whole lot of burning sugar rush.

Me, I don’t have a huge problem with it. You don’t read Entertainment Weekly for its depth either.

I couldn't find an EW cover that didn't mention comics
At least I hope you don’t.

Wizard’s a catalog. Though it did make my section (price guide) a bit of a challenge. We didn’t exactly make up prices as everyone joked when they heard my job description, but my first month, I was asked to go through the database again and “put more color in” that could be undone next month by restoring the issue to its original value. So I’d bounce a book off one exceptionally high eBay sale or a retailer phone call, meaning yes, that title was evidently worth the highest possible value while a dozen other people were more interested in trading it for something lower. Then I’d restore it in the months to come. Dips in price worked the same way. Occasionally they stuck. So if you’re a retailer using the price guide as a reference: why? But also: I’m sorry. I tried to make it as realistic and representative as possible. We all did. We just had a mandate to show change whereas, come on, there’s not a lot of fluctuation month to month in Amazing Fantasy #15. We didn’t make anything up, and many were based on actual changes; Joe Kelly’s run of Deadpool, for example, really was on a meteoric rise, thanks to Marvel not collecting it in a trade. Plenty of first appearances or deaths changed in value. We couldn’t keep up with Dead @ 17‘s rise in value. But if Blue Beetle’s first appearance was marked “Hot” usually all that meant was he’d just been shot in the head in a crossover. Not a lot of research there, just presumption that someone would be interested in it somewhere.

I was lucky enough to be working under Ryan Penagos, Marvel’s Agent M, who knew what he was doing, kept on top of hot trends, made great relationships with retailers, and in general, gave the price guide its validity. Ditto Jon Gutierrez, who tracked toys with an incredible hawk’s eye. These guys gave their job a lot of serious effort, often more than some folks above them.

Lastly, and this, I think, is what took them off the map, Wizard never had any interest in a New York convention. “Why?” we asked, “Both companies publish here, half the creators live here, we’re just north. Nobody would have to travel or stay in hotels, and there are 8 million people waiting to get excited.” Truly, it had potential to be SDCC East. But we were told again and again that it was a logistical nightmare, there were union issues, and it wouldn’t be profitable enough to be a worthwhile venture.

I think they were looking at Big Apple Con, held a few times a year at Penn Plaza. But the layout there is terrible for comic conventions. The truth is, there’s no excuse not to bring your convention to nearby New York, comics mecca. Meanwhile, Wizard World is breaking attendance and ATM withdrawal records at convention centers all over the country, according to our weekly meetings with Stephen Shamus. Convention and mail-order exclusives sell like gangbusters. So what’s the disparity?

If I were any kind of a thinker, I would have started my own New York Comic-Con. Somebody else did, and attendance rocked the Javitts Center so hard its first year my weekend pass was denied due to overcrowding. Even the line for refunds was too long to get into.

So Wizard (again) comes late to the game by buying Big Apple Con. Because that worked so well with their fighting league. There’s a reason Christmas doesn’t come twice a year. And the momentum is already behind NYCC.

Funny enough, at this year’s New York Comic-Con, I ended up getting in a cab to the place with Big Apple founder Mike Carbonaro’s dad. Nice guy.

Now Wizard’s down to, what? 30 people? It’s probably missed its shot, though it still moves toy exclusives. I don’t know why they never linked themselves greater to Toy Wiz (the Shamus family store), established the comic shop as a larger Wizard retail chain, something like Forbidden Planet or Golden Apple. Perhaps they didn’t want to threaten other retailers the way their Black Bull press did.

Anyway. So that’s my advance obituary for Wizard magazine. I bear it no ill will. In fact, if I hadn’t been poor while I was there, I never would have learned how to cook. And I made some great friends. I just hope the next big thing balances Wizard‘s sensationalism (which was fun) with Comic Foundry‘s style. The former wanted to be Maxim, the latter wanted to be GQ. Mix it in with The Comics Journal‘s substance, and that’s a publication I’d love to read.

Hmmmm. Publishing idea.

2 thoughts on “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…

  • dasmb

    The problem with Wizard — which you underscore — is an acceptance of its own mediocrity, and a fear that fairness towards the medium would result in lost revenues.

    But let’s put the cards on the table. THE ADVERTISERS HAVE NOWHERE ELSE TO GO. Where the hell else are you going to advertise your Infinite Crisis of Civil Ulimatums BUT Wizard?

    Readers, on the other hand, have lots of other places to go, and you can only play the role of mouthpiece for so long before they just won’t buy in. Shit, I had friends who were good writers working for that magazine, and I still didn’t buy in. I felt bad about it, but I have no time to parse the the words of “experts” for what’s a real opinion and what’s a lie.

    You want to make money in advertised media? Be honest for your readers, and be gentle for your advertisers. That means skipping the popular internet inspired trend of being a total douche towards anything that’s of even questionable quality. But that needs to change anyway. It’s artless, and it gets writers fired when the parent company DOES start advertising.