This week in The PopCulteer, we mark the ends of three eras. Passage is a part of life, and a trio of notable, or notorious, cultural touchstones have come to an end.
So join us as we bid farewell to “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” “Wizard” Magazine and The Comics Code Authority.
Countdown Blasts Off
Last Friday, with no advance notice, Keith Olbermann, MSNBC’s highest-rated anchor, shocked audiences with a tease going into commercial ten minutes before the end of his program: “When we come back, I’ll explain why this is the last edition of Countdown.”
Olbermann abruptly left MSNBC. His final segment (seen below) didn’t really explain anything. Olbermann graciously said farewell to his audience, but didn’t offer any reasons why he was leaving.
This week Wizard Magazine tried to cover up the fact that their publishing arm has gone out of business by announcing that they’re going to re-launch as a “digital platform.” Gareb Shamus, the man behind Wizard, is supposed to be the head of a new publicly-traded entity, Wizard World, that will run the Wizard comic book conventions, and run a website called “Wizard World,” which reportedly will run stories by unpaid staffers. Wizard Magazine and ToyFare, along with all over Wizard print publications, are no longer going to be published.
Let’s be clear, in its nearly twenty-year history, Wizard Magazine had a huge influence on the comic book hobby.
Wizard nearly ruined it.
With its focus on speculation and “hot” artists, Wizard pretty much destroyed the taste of an entire generation of hobbyists. They elevated mediocre artists like Rob Liefield to superstar status by endlessly pimping his horrible artwork. They fed the demand for despicable crazes like multiple covers, poly-bagged comics and “rare” variants. Shamus also brought a new standard of low personal ethics to the hobby that had already been burned in the 1980s by opportunists who rode the speculator craze to a huge bust back in the Reagan years.
Wizard’s sexist pandering and constant feeding of the worst, greedy, elements of the hobby set the art form of comics back decades. They made the hobby safe for dumb jocks who outgrew their baseball cards. They also caused thousands of poor suckers to “invest” in “hot” comics that soon became worthless when the supply far outstripped the demand.
Featured articles and cover spots could be “bought” in what was a thinly-veiled payola scheme. Publishers would pay to print special “# 1/2 issue” editions of comics which could only be obtained through Wizard. If you gave them an “exclusive” then your company got featured in the magazine.
Shamus even extended this practice to ToyFare Magazine (also axed this week) and to Toy Wishes Magazine, the latter of which garnered mainstream press and an NBC television special for pushing a bogus “top ten toys” list which consisted entirely of toys provided by companies who paid to be included in the list.
You may notice that I’m not exactly heartbroken over the loss of Wizard Magazine and ToyFare.
When Wizard gave their employees the day off, a week ago today, it was odd. Then they called all of them, save for a few editors who will work on the website, and told them not to come in. They were laid off. Don’t bother coming to the office to pick up your stuff, it’s already been moved to an undisclosed location. It’s still not clear if they’ll get their final paychecks.
This was not really a shock for a company that had been in disarray for a long time. Years ago, after Wizard published a compilation trade paperback of stories owned by Marvel Comics without their permission or knowledge, they responded to threats of a lawsuit by barely mentioning Marvel again in their pages. This is the largest comic-book publisher in the country, and Wizard basically pretended that they didn’t exist. By that point Wizard had long ago lost their influence in the hobby, and Marvel didn’t bother to pursue the matter because they knew Wizard wouldn’t have enough money to pay any settlement the courts might award to Marvel.
Wizard had ceased to matter as a force within the industry. Once king-makers, they had now become an irrelevant waste of time.
Wizard Magazine’s sales had been in the toilet,too. During their heyday of the early 1990s, they often outsold almost every comic book on the market, regularly topping 100,000 copies sold. Lately, sales had reportedly dropped to less than a fifth of that.
There were some good things that came out of Wizard. “Twisted MEGO Theater” evolved into “Robot Chicken.” Some good comics, like “Astro City,” were exposed to mainstream America. A lot of kids were introduced to the hobby, even if it was through really crappy comics with bad writing and horrible art. But on the whole, Wizard was a pretty sleazy operation that did more harm than good.
It will not be missed. At least not by me.
Speaking of parts of the comic book hobby that will not be missed, The Comics Code Authority is no more. Once the “seal of approval” which applied arbitrary standards of decency to comic books in the aftermath of The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency hearings in 1954,over the years the seal had become less and less relevant.
It got to the point that, when DC Comics announced that they were pulling out of the code two weeks ago, and Archie Comics followed suit a week later, there was no one left to turn out the lights.
The only shocking thing about the Code becoming defunct was the fact that it was even still around. God knows they hadn’t actively censored anything in decades.
It wasn’t always like that. The Comics Code was created to make sure that nobody published comic books with “inappropriate” sex or gore in them, where little kids would be unduly influenced to become layabouts and ne’er-do-wells.
Yeah, it was BS and censorship, but this was the 1950s, when hypocritical perversions of the first amendment were accepted in society. The Comics Code Authority ruled mainstream comics with an iron fist.
If a comic book didn’t have the Comics Code Authority seal of approval, theoretically it wouldn’t be sold on newsstands (this was long before we had comic book stores).
It wasn’t universal. Dell Publishing, home of Disney comics as well as a ton of Western titles, never joined, and didn’t see any adverse affect on sales. If a publisher was daring enough to want to circumvent the code, they could either go magazine-sized, like Creepy, Eerie and Weird Worlds, or go “underground” like the hippie cartoonists did in the late 1960s.
But the code did keep it’s boot-heel on the throat of most mainstream comic book publishers like DC and Marvel.
Until the code was revised in the early 1970s there could be no Vampires, Zombies, drug use, per-marital sex, post-marital sex, violent death or dismemberment, or any other really fun stuff.
In the early 70s, Marvel defied the Code and published an anti-drug issue of Spider-man without the seal of approval. There were no repurcussions. DC and Marvel then pushed for changes that ushered in a new era of “relevant” story-telling.
One thing was clear. The less power the Comics Code asserted, the better the comics got. In the 1980s, the Code Authority tried to regain their power, but quickly found themselves thwarted as DC and Marvel moved to the direct-sales market, which bypassed newsstands in favor of comic book shops, and the Code essentially became meaningless.
The last moronic act of censorship that the Comics Code Authority undertook was rejecting a Green Lantern Corps story drawn by Kevin O’Neill (Nemesis, Marshall Law, League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen) on the basis that his style of art was patently offensive and could traumatize youngg children.
DC went ahead and published the story without the seal, and not only suffered no backlash, but the story itself has become the stuff of legend, with the hugely-successful “Blackest Night” crossover event springing from events depicted in this tale.
After that, nobody bothered to look for the Comics Code seal anyway. Marvel stopped printing it on their direct sales books long before they bailed out of the CCA -completely in 2001.
Nobody really cared about the Code since the 1980s. It’s not like kids even read comic books anymore anyway.
And so we bid farewell to the long-unnecessary CCA stamp of approval. Now that the average age of the loyal comic book reader is over 35, perhaps the next logical step is a seal of approval from AARP.