Friday, May 18, 2012

Radical Comic Book Magazines: Hero Illustrated's 'Comic Book Who's Who' (1994)

[Yo, I really love magazines about comic books. Sadly, there aren't too many made anymore. But lucky for you, I have a ton of good ones in my basement. Here's one I found recently.]

Comic Book Who's Who
August, 1994
Published By: Warrior Publications/Hero Illustrated/Steve Harris
Editor: Mike Stokes
Assistant Editor: Joe Fielder
Contributing Editor: John Benton, Steve Spaulding, Fank Kurtz, Steve Darnall
$3.95 for 98 pages

I know one of the reasons (okay THE reason) that magazines are dying is that everything is easier and cheaper to find on the internet today. But I've always preferred magazines to spending all day on the web not because I'm some crusty old paper fetishist, but because frequently the money and monthly schedule behind a magazine's production affords for longer, more in depth writing. Hero Illustrated's Comic Book Who's Who contains no such writing. But still! The character dossier kinds of features that make up this volume are something I still think can be super fun in magazine form, particularly for younger readers. It's no wonder Disney magazines have started a new regular Marvel Super Heroes effort to present this kind of stuff to ten-year-olds in supermarkets across America. Yeah, those kids could find all the info on Wikipedia if they were so inclined, but a magazines like this can expose its readers to a ton of stuff they'd never go searching for. They're designy little gateway into comics radness. I know that's what this was for me.

I have very little memory of the monthly Hero Illustrated from when I was a young comic reader. Back then I thought of it as a less popular version of Wizard, and that's probably the best way to describe it today. I mean, I don't know what it's editorial voice was like, but how different could all the superhero-focused magazines that specialized in the "hotness" of the mid '90s comic market be?

Like Wizard, this collection places a premium on the kewl new characters and armored up reimaginings that were chromium-covering their way to speculator sales. If a hero had ever been a big seller, been killed and resurrected or launched with a #0 issue with a die-cut cover, they were featured here. And the basic format covered a lot of ground that was of interest to 13-year-old Kiel.

For example, I'd just started reading Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo's great Flash series before buying this mag (I actually picked up #92 at the grocery story). So for a chunk of time, these two pages became my bible for searching for the right back issues or just understanding the significance of parts of the character's history. The magazine definitely fed my habit on, so mission accomplished there, I guess.

But at the same time, this thing got pretty deep into the range of stuff published in the '90s and shined a spotlight on a lot of books that I'd heard of but was never able to buy in those days of month-old back issues priced at $20-plus. The Who's Who was the first place I saw the original comics of The Crow and The Mask, both of which seemed so much more illicit than their movie counterparts had (in particular, I spent weeks copying John Arcudi's blood soaked version of the Mask in preference to Jim Carey's sanitized cartoon character). It was the first place I heard about of lot of the weird off-color characters that have only ever been able to find a place in the world of comics (Megaton Man, Evil Ernie, Vampirella) and a slate of honestly cool comics that I wouldn't have picked up to flip through on my own (Madman, The Sandman, The Spirit!).

Even more importantly, the visual spotlight each feature put on the characters creators had me thinking in real direct terms about who it was that made these comics. Reading this magazine was the first time I really realized just how much Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had actually made as a team, the first time I saw photos of guys like Walt Simonson, Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman (in the leather jacket and sun glasses, natch) and the first time I'd ever really considered what kind of aesthetic difference there was in even genre comics that were creator-owned (outside the "seemed very much like Marvel and DC" Image books).

Best of all, some of the weird combination of creator, art and vague yet hyped up story points sent me out in search of the comics being summarized just to prove to myself that they existed somewhere else in the world. Case in point:

You guys have no idea how long I searched to get the Grendel comics these two pages described. The way even that tiny timeline on the side of the page is written makes it sound as though the story of Hunter Rose Vs. the Wolf Argent is a massive, sprawling killer crime epic and not a few random stories that Matt Wagner eventually condensed into one freaking volume. I bought Grendel comics for years after this magazine came out only to go back to the long boxes confused but wanting more. By the time I did get my hands on a copy of Grendel: Devil By The Deed over a decade later, I felt like I'd found the Ark of the Fucking Covenant.

When I stumbled upon this Who's Who a while ago, I was also struck by what a great little time capsule it was to the better parts of the '90s. I mean, everyone who's been following the business of comics for years knows about the worst associations made to the comics and practices of that decade. But as a kid who was reading then, there was this palpable excitement about reading and buying these stories. This magazine is so fucking pumped to tell you about Badrock, y'all!! And Firearm and Pitt and Breed and Black and White (that's who's on the cover)! People were ecstatic to be making and buying comics then, even if it was just for the quick money, and that sheer enthusiasm reads through.

And I just love the historical oddity of a Hellboy feature that was cut to one page because in 1994, Hellboy was a character who had starred in one mini series co-written by John Byrne:

But still, Mignola's single drawing of that character pulled me in. And come on, "Likes: John Steinbeck, Tom Waits...Dislikes: Cannibalism, Nazis." SOLD, BRO!

On the other hand, this mag features profiles that just scream the '90s in the most ridiculous way:

Who is DEATHGRIP?!?!? I'll tell you who he is. He's a character who only appeared three times to the best of my Googling knowledge: once in an anthology comic whose cover was a purple logo printed four times, once on a "Comic FutureStars" trading card and once in this magazine.

But ultimately, the real reason I think of this magazine fondly is because it served as a bridge for teenage me away from being a kid who thought of himself as a comic collector and into one who was just a comic reader. And that's came from features in Hero Illustrated's Comic Book Who's Who like this one:

I didn't know counterculture from cable TV back then, but even the plaid backdrop for these pages yelled out at me that whatever this comic was, it was something really different. It was a beyond the 50 neon bodybuilders that came before it. I remember reading the bios for Maggie and Hopey and thinking "Why are they labeled 'Heroes'? They look like real people." I wanted to know why two best friends were listed as living on opposite sides of the country from each other. I wanted to step into this world. This radical comic book magazine put me on a collision course with Jaime Hernandez, so I really can't bag on the '90s that much. Especially when it gave me stuff like this:


Fat Basterd Inc. said...

I thought I was the only person who still owned a copy of this!

KP said...

Oh yeah, man! If ever I find a copy of this bad boy, I buy it and then give it to some kid.

Parental Control Software said...

One of the things that I miss about having comics is looking at them. my collection back then was BIG.

sports live said...

nice written

BK Jenkins said...

Omigod, thank you for posting this! I had a copy in junior high and was thinking about it the other day. I wanted to find it again but I couldn't remember the name til I found your blog. You are awesome!