For an industry obsessed with history, we haven’t done a very good job of documenting the history of the rise and fall of Wizard Magazine.
I’m re-reading sections of Sean Howe’s fascinating history book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story and I’m impressed with his detailed history of Marvel Comics. I’m told by industry insiders that Howe did a pretty good job collecting facts and opinions, and for a historical record, the book is fairly credible.
There was a big, obvious reason to tell the story of Marvel Comics. We are, as an industry of fans, fascinated with the history of the comics, the characters, and the creators. Over the years, we’ve seen some excellent books that document the early days of important characters from Marvel and DC, including the intriguing history of key creators. There are some inspiring and depressing stories and anecdotes that swirl around this ever-changing art form.
These stories are usually about the mainstream characters and creators, but Wizard was something different. For the most part, Wizard played a unique role in the middle, neither creating characters nor publishing the stories. Then again, Wizard was not a mere passive, journalistic observer.
Wizard Magazine is a story of disruption. It’s the story of how luck, talent, and timing aligned to change comic books.
Pre and Post Wizard
As a journalist and fan, I remember the industry pre-Wizard, which looked, felt, smelled, and tasted…different. From the movies to the media to the mega-conventions, things were already changing when Wizard arrived. That’s not to say that Wizard was the exclusive agent of change, but it was certainly a potent catalyst that stirred things up. A lot.
Prior to Wizard, there were comic book conventions, but they weren’t the organized glam affairs we enjoy and/or tolerate today. Often these were seedy, but friendly, events that were often held at some Ramada Inn close to a highway off ramp. Collectors, readers, and dealers would converge for regional sales and geekery events. Sure, there were large national events like San Diego Comicon, but it was still in a relative infancy compared to today. It was not yet the Hollywood-fueled mass media juggernaut it is now, and part of that is related to the unexpected and unprecedented rise of Wizard Magazine.
As a reader, Wizard appeared to be a cool club for young, goofy, outcasts who just happened to be united by superheroes. It appeared that Gareb Shamus was perhaps the funniest, smartest, luckiest fanboy to ever walk into a comic shop. In some ways, maybe he was.
Howe’s history of Marvel Comics addressed what appeared to be true and what is historically accurate. Like the Marvel story, there’s more to the Wizard story than most people realize. The rise and fall of Wizard is a story worth researching and reporting for similar historical reasons.
I certainly don’t know the whole story. I wrote freelance for Wizard, I worked there, and then freelanced again after I left. I remain friends with many people who worked at Wizard, so I know bits and pieces of the complete story. There are many reasons to document the untold story of Wizard, including the fact that we have already seen two significant personalities pass away last year.
What makes this interesting is that Wizard’s impact was not limited to the monthly magazines, the conventions, or even the online sites. Wizard exploded and the blast radius shook every corner of the comic book industry. Wizard was a major disruption for an industry that probably didn’t want to be disrupted…but perhaps needed it.
Was Wizard a chronicler of events or did Wizard precipitate change? Would publishers like Image and Valiant and Chaos have exploded if Wizard wasn’t there? How much did Wizard contribute to the meteoric rise of certain creators? How much did Wizard contribute to the speculator boom and bust? Let’s discuss it.
Many of you have good feelings about Wizard. Fond, nostalgic memories that came every month polybagged with trading cards and offers for #1/2 issues. Those memories are based on the output of a few immensely talented individuals and a rotating staff of equally talented writers and designers.
But Wizard had an ongoing love/hate relationship with many different creators and publishers. Any industry-changing disruption will be met by those who don’t want things to change.
The truth is, not everything that changed was good. Wizard is often blamed for fueling the speculator boom that damn near killed the goose, the golden egg, and all the sparkly hatchlings. Wizard was blamed for building up a cult of personality around certain marginal creators.
Was Wizard solely responsible for mediocre talent that barfed out crappy comics? Not exclusively, no, but the magazine certainly nurtured certain artists and writers, even if their artistic “talents” were largely questionable. It’s amazing what money can buy.
There were professionals like Frank Miller, who spoke out publicly against Wizard. Others simply saw Wizard as a necessary evil.
In the 1990s, lots of people made lots of money from comics. Publishers, creators, dealers, and speculators were making money, often based on the recommendations printed in Wizard magazine. The people not making big money were the hard-working writers, editors, and designers who actually made the publications.
Wizard’s impact runs far beyond the paper boundaries of the magazine and price guide. Wizard Entertainment was everywhere: comics, conventions, books, videos, anime, toys, collectible card games, television, animation, credit cards, a dot.com venture, even a military magazine.
It’s interesting and perhaps ironic to note that the only thing that remains of Wizard is the name “Wizard World.” But there was a dizzying time in Wizard’s history where a bunch of writers, editors, and designers hopped on a plane to Rosemont, IL to run a comic book convention that the company had purchased (or acquired or partnered with, I’m not sure).
Wizard also had an early, but significant impact in the digital space as well. I was there in the early days of the Internet as we launched an early version of Wizard World on America Online. Wizard World Online was a forward-thinking effort that was profitable for Wizard and significant for the industry. We helped many pros and publishers get started online, but later Wizard was accused of failing to make the transition to digital publishing.
Online, we experimented with user-generated content, chat rooms, multimedia, fan communities, and fan art. At a convention in Chicago, I met a married couple who met online in our chat rooms.
Ironically enough, almost all of that content from Wizard World Online is now gone. Nobody had the foresight to save the massive amounts of creative content that Rus Wooton and I published online. These days, everything that’s published online is documented and archived somewhere, but at that time, we didn’t save the daily content that we generated. News, features, interviews…all gone.
Truth, Lies, and Capes
Wizard’s impact was online, at comic book conventions, and even on the TV screen. This is a true-life drama drenched in money, ambition, betrayal, and creativity.
As a reader, I believed that Stan Lee wrote all the comics and that a staff of talented artists worked tirelessly together in the Marvel Bullpen. Howe’s book uncovered the truth and the fiction to the things that were happening at the time. The same should be done with Wizard.
To the casual reader (and to many working pros), the magazine was shaped every month by Gareb Shamus and that the office was non-stop hysterical hijinks and pranks. To be certain, Wizard was often quite fun and there were pranks, but there was plenty of serious work to be done.
The truth is that there were many, many talented people working on the magazine. You’d barely know it from the outside, but the true influencers were not the names that you’d recognize. The masthead in the magazine only told a fraction of the real story. Wizard wasn’t just disruptive to the business comics. It was a turbulent and disruptive force for many of the people who worked there as well.
In the end, it all fell apart with accusations and lawsuits.
What Happens Next
Culturally, we are interested in disruptive forces. We are fascinated with the stories of disruptive companies like Apple, Ford, Toyota, Facebook, Disney, Pixar, Google, Microsoft, Zappos, Amazon, Netflix, eBay, and others featured in business magazines every day. We want to learn more about disruptive leaders like Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and other dedicated visionaries.
You may wonder why I don’t grab the flag and start writing a book about the history of Wizard. It’s a fair question, but let’s face it, I’m not really a dispassionate observer. I’d never be considered objective. Plus, my view of Wizard was primarily from “upstairs” in the corporate zone, which was separated Church ‘n’ State from the “downstairs” editorial zone.
Wizard, like any temporary cultural phenomenon, is layered with truth, lies, and intrigue. There are heroes and villains, as well as plenty of victims. This is a rich, human story that would help to round out the breathless fanboy reporting that passes for journalism.
For now, the history of Wizard remains in the memories, hard drives, and filing cabinets of fans and pros. Somewhere there’s trove of fascinating information just waiting to be analyzed and discussed. Let’s hope it doesn’t take 40 years to tell the story.