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Behind The Curtain with Bill Rosemann
Brian Cunningham: Off To See The Wizard

They mock boozing and barfing. They're superhero junkies. They hatched the "The Ex-Lax Brownie Affair." Sneer at the low-brow antics of the Wizard staff all you want, but the workers behind the monthly glossy magazine do one thing very well: they deliver exactly what their readers want.

From just another entry in the crowded comic book media scene to the #1 read industry publication with massive mainstream distribution, Wizard not only spotlights the industry's established monster hits (like Batman and Ultimate Spider-Man), but also tips readers off to smaller titles that deserve to be in the spotlight (like Y: The Last Man and 30 Days of Night). Their coverage alone does not create a blockbuster... but it sure doesn't hurt. And in an effort to bring attention to not only current trends, but also what has gone before, Wizard has also begun a series of articles on "hall of fame" creators such as Steve Ditko and Bill Finger.

Yes, they're not a scholarly periodical that analyzes the use of feminist symbolism in the graphic storytelling medium... but they sure know how to get people psyched about comic books.

So who steers the magazine that's sold everywhere from the smallest comics shop to the largest Barnes & Noble? Who decides which characters get on the cover... and which titles make it on the "Picks" list? Let's find out as we go Behind The Curtain and talk to Wizard Editor Brian Cunningham!

Behind The Curtain: As the editor of a magazine that covers comic books (and graphic novels & movies & everything else related), I'd imagine you have to possess knowledge both of publishing and the comics industry. So what prepared you for this job and brought you to Wizard?

Brian Cunningham: Blame Ghost Rider. That's the guy that--after a Little League game back in 1982--compelled me to buy my own comic book. What's not to like about a cool, flaming skull guy on a fiery Harley?

I mean, I watched the "Batman" TV show religiously as a kid--he was definitely my favorite--and my first comic ever was Marvel Tales #60 (Spidey vs. Prowler!), which my grandmother graciously spent a quarter on in 1975. So when I was 11, that issue of Ghost Rider turned me onto Amazing Spider-Man--which became my new favorite. Which then turned me onto Avengers and X-Men (and haven't missed an issue of each since). And, god, even Defenders--I wanted to like that book so bad, but couldn't stick with it. I read mostly Marvel until Crisis on Infinite Earths in the mid-'80s, when DC gradually took on about 50% of my monthly reading.

So, my, uh, "education" came from reading a lot of comics. Guys around here call me "The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes" 'cuz I just remember lots of absurd, stupid comic trivia, like who lettered a particular issue. Ridiculous stuff like that.

Then I graduated college with a Graphic Communications degree. I've always wanted to draw comics, really. I used to work for a construction company before this as a "lab technician"--which is really just a glorified name for "janitor." I'd doodle during downtime. I did this all during high school and most of college, drawing my own comics at night--on 11" x 17" bristol board and everything--learning as I went. I often wonder if I could have been a decent penciler sometime if Wizard didn't consume a lot of my time early on.

BTC: So how--and when--did you go from janitor to Wizard staffer?

Brian: I interned at Wizard from January to May 1993 (I was already a freelance writer for the magazine since issue #2). I was supposed to be a designer at Wizard. However, my college was small and had exactly one Macintosh... and I never learned how to use it while in school. The guys here had enough on their plate than to teach me Mac design, so I turned to another strength--writing and editing. And I just transformed into a jack of all trades: writer, editor, researcher, spot illustrator... I did anything and everything. There were Wizard issues where 75% was written by me--much of it in the eleventh hour! It was a whirlwind of a time. There were a lot of nights we'd call it a day at 2 a.m.

Then, the week of my graduation I was hired full-time as News Editor (which was silly since I was already working 50 hours a week as an intern!). Within two years, the company expanded and I was promoted to Editor sometime between 1994 and '95, and they haven't kicked my ass out yet.

BTC: So, the company itself... where is the office, how many people work there, and how would you describe its atmosphere?

Brian: Our office is about a half-hour north of Manhattan in rural Congers, NY.

I'd say there's gotta be something like 75 people working for us now, between all the various magazines and departments. You only get a sense for how many people we have at our holiday party, when everyone shows up for the free grub.

The office atmosphere is pretty casual, except during deadline days when it gets very stressful. Otherwise, the Wizard office is a pretty cool fanboy haven. I have about a dozen pieces of original art hanging in our Bullpen, which is surrounded by every single Marvel statue and mini-bust from Bowen Designs and Dynamic Forces. We also hang up framed comic movie posters, lithos and wall murals all over the office... whatever looks cool. In fact, we just received a Hellboy movie poster signed by Mike Mignola and director Guillermo del Toro, which we're prepping to get framed.

It's funny, the office has such a rep for being laid back, every time my sister calls me, she's like, "What, am I taking you away from ping-pong?"

I wish.

BTC: And what's the weirdest thing that ever happened in the office?

Brian: Oh god. We're constantly playing practical jokes on each other I don't know where to start. I play some kind of role in many of them--I either con someone to take the fall for my joke, or I'll just help someone else with theirs. About two months ago, I called up one of our editors and pretended to be an AOL Time-Warner lawyer--with a very arrogant, nasally voice--looking to sue Wizard's ass for a blunder he made in one of the magazines.

Our Editor-in-Chief Pat McCallum and Editorial Director Matt Senreich are amazing at this stuff. I've never met any more devious in practical jokes than they. Once, while a big company meeting was going on, they threw a human dummy off the roof, past the meeting's window. Someone was in mid sentence: "And the third quarter profits are-- OHMYGOD, SOMEONEJUMPEDOFFTHEROOF!!!"

Probably the single cruelest joke played in the history of Wizard was what's now known as "The Ex-Lax Brownie Affair," which I regret to say that I was an accomplice to. Two men's rooms + 40 men = well, you can figure out the rest. One guy could barely stumble to the bathroom 'cuz he had a fractured pelvis. It was horrible.

BTC: Yet horribly funny. Okay, apart from devious baking and dummy tossing, can you give us a rundown of your "typical" day at the office?

Brian: Every day is different. Sometimes it's pure editing. Other times, it's more administrative, preparation or meetings. Most days are a combination of everything.

The best days are the creative ones. The most recent gratifying experience was a handful of us sitting down to create "Ultimate" versions of DC characters. That was a blast--from conception to design to art approval... the collaboration made me feel very much alive!

BTC: And what are some of the usual staff meetings held in making an issue of Wizard?

Brian: We have a weekly staff meeting, just to keep communication at an optimum level, and to solve problem areas early rather than later. We plan out issue content at least twice before starting it. We plan at least 3-4 months ahead of when fans read it, which is a challenge, but it's what we have to do.

Most of the fun meetings are "best of" stuff.

BTC: So how do you determine the rankings in those controversial articles?

Brian: It's a painstaking process with several meetings between several staffers of varying expertise. I can't stress enough how much the creation of everything in every issue is very much a team effort. The toughest part of the job with the "best of" features is just making sure it all comes together! The rest is the fun part. That's when a bunch of us will sit around in a room with a dry-erase board and just debate like crazy. Then we'll come back and revisit what we've done so far, just to make sure there's no glaring omissions or something that doesn't belong.

BTC: What are some of the necessary traits an editor should possess?

Brian: Here's what I'd stress:

1) Know your audience. Give them what they want, though maybe not in the way they expect.
2) Know the mission statement of every facet of the magazine, and do not stray from that (unless absolutely necessary). All your content editing will play off of that, and make it a lot easier.
3) Communication. To both your audience and staff. If you know a feature/dept./column's mission statement, it makes it easier to communicate it to your audience in an easily digestible format. It's also important to communicate to your staff what the mission statement is, so they can fulfill their task efficiently. The staff also needs to know what they're doing well, and what needs improvement. And sometimes you have to be the bad guy for the latter--but it's my responsibility to not let down the rest of the team who work hard.
4) Play to the strengths of your staff. Some guys are stronger editors than writers, while some may be better administrators or can work very fast.
5) Organization. You'll have a lot of tasks to juggle.
6) Have a basic design sense. You will look at designed pages, and you need to know what works and what doesn't. I work with a lot of rookie designers who are learning the ropes on the fly--and I work with our Art Director Steve Blackwell to make the designs stronger.
7) Know your priorities with every story. Readers will skim and key on specific things before committing to reading your body copy. They will browse at the visuals, the title, sub headline, captions and sidebars before ever reading anything else. Make these strong and only then will they commit to reading.
8) Prepare to schmooze. You will meet with reps from other companies and you need to conduct yourself professionally since you represent your entire company and its needs.
9) Take accountability. If you screw up, you screw up. Everyone does, so take your spanking. That will earn more respect than finger pointing.
10) Know when to stop belaboring a point. Like now. I should just move on to the next question...

BTC: Which is, what are some of the top tasks an editor should tackle?

Brian: My priority is Wizard magazine--making sure it looks and reads the way it needs to in order to sell. I take responsibility for every word and visual in the magazine, overseeing a team of nine guys, some veteran editors and some rookies.

I pick and choose features that I wish to be directly involved in (my reasons vary from a subject matter I enjoy, assisting a rookie editor through a challenging story or a potentially controversial/opinionated feature that Wizard puts its stamp on). I personally assign covers to artists, after meeting with several department heads to determine cover content.

I'm heavily involved in cover/feature art direction--I give first and final approval on every design proof in the magazine. It would be counterproductive of me to read all first draft copy--I leave that to the individual editors; but if I see something wonky on a designed proof, I will ask the editor to change it or do it myself (whichever's most efficient).

I'm also involved with the production of our reprint ACE Editions and pitch in on Special Projects as content editor for a feature or two (my time, by this point, is limited--but these are fun jobs and I hate to turn them down). I'm involved with hiring and firing, act as arbiter for staff disputes, and give performance reviews. I'm probably forgetting some other tasks, but you get the gist.

BTC: In a recent interview, an industry exec said that each of his company's imprints needs to have its own unique identity. What would you say the Wizard brand stands for? From the different magazines to the conventions, when fans spot that logo, what kind of entertainment experience should they expect?

Brian: It represents quality. For the magazines and conventions, we all work our asses off to make them the strongest in the field. I hope the success with our track record speaks for itself.

BTC: I've heard people say that the tone of Wizard drives away female and adult readers and instead panders to male teens who like fart jokes. Do you think that's an accurate or unfair assessment?

Brian: I feel that's an overly simplified way to put it, and not entirely fair. Yes, our core audience reflects that of the comic field's core audience: primarily male, high school and college age, and the sense of humor reflects that. But I wonder if the people saying this stuff actually read the magazine. I've heard many critics judge Wizard based on what they read in the magazine five years ago. Wizard is constantly evolving to keep up with the comics field, to inform and entertain. You may not always agree with the thoughts and opinions expressed, and that's your prerogative.

And that "nothing but fart jokes" opinion makes it sound like we just crank out each issue, when I can tell you the guys here work their butts off. I'd argue that Wizard has the strongest feature writing in the comics industry, bar none (and, at times, in the entire entertainment mag biz). We have four annual Folio Editorial Excellence Awards in the Entertainment category--beating out all of the top U.S. entertainment magazines being published--to support that. We've recently run excellent profiles of comic legends Joe Kubert and Bill Finger, which our readership really responded positively to. Not a fart joke in sight. Which is not to say we never do fart jokes--but if you don't like them, then maybe Wizard isn't the magazine for you.

BTC: Hey, fart = funny in my book. So what's your favorite section or feature of the magazine?

Brian: I tend to favor the personality profiles, the more historical stuff--I'm a huge history buff--and the "best of" lists that inspire debate.

BTC: And what's your least favorite... and what would you change about it?

Brian: I don't play as many video games as the rest of the staff, so I guess it's that section by default. Unfortunately, I just don't have the time I used to where I can get to the end of a "Resident Evil" or win the Stanley Cup in EA's NHL games. Every blue moon, I squeeze in a game of "Halo", but I'm pretty terrible against the every-day players.

And if there's anything I really don't like about any section, I'd simply change it. Right then and there.

BTC: Wizard #137 outlined the biggest projects of 2003. What comics are you personally looking forward to? And is there anything that is flying below the radar that you think will surprise people?

Brian: Two words: JLA/Avengers. I've seen pages, and they're unbelievable. George Pérez continues to astound me--he's the only comic artist I can think of in the biz for 30 years who hasn't slacked off. I mean, his art just gets stronger and stronger. And I've heard some stuff about what Kurt Busiek has planned--and he clearly has a love of both teams, with some very funny encounters.

I think people will also be surprised by The Flash, which is a book I can't believe isn't selling better. Particularly after the upcoming issue #200. Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins have been rocking that book for over a year, and has everything you want in a superhero comic.

Oh, and I can promise that Wizard will have a very big 2003. Fans can expect a huge summer event with... well, I guess that would be telling. (Sorry couldn't resist the plug!)

BTC: You tease. Okay, finally, an inquiring mind has to know: whose office does the giant, pink bunny hang out in?

Brian: Not mine. I kicked his lepus ass out a loooong time ago. In fact, I think our warehouse manager--a giant, Hulk-like hunter dude--killed him, skinned him and ate him.

Yow! As Elmer Fudd said, "Kill the rabbit! Kill the rabbit!"

Okay, friends, see ya next week when we once again go Behind The Curtain!

==========================================================

During a 10 year run as "Your Man @ Marvel," Bill Rosemann met many of the industry's most talented and cool personalities... including several that have fallen for ye olde Ex-Lax Brownie sting. Now living in Miami -- and keeping his eyes peeled for falling dummies, Bill can be reached at: WilliamRosemann@aol.com.

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