Alexander Hellene

Happiness in Magazines

By Alexander Hellene

The third in what will be an informal series of posts touching on life in the pre-Internet age.

I miss the camaraderie, the sense of community, the feeling that you were one of a few members in a secret club that was delivered to your mailbox once a month. Getting that glossy periodical, cracking it open to see what message the editor had for you and the others in the club, reading the articles, checking out the letters page . . .

Oh, the letters. Very often when I’d get a new issue of a magazine or a comic book, the letters page was the first thing I’d turn to. You’d get a glimpse of what other people like you were thinking and feeling and going through. Challenges, triumphs, interesting bits of information and deep lore that only people in the club would understand. It was like an Internet message board (remember those?) before there were Internet message boards, a place for other readers, sometimes anonymous and sometimes not, to share what was on their minds with others who would get it. Who would get you.

It was glorious, and of the things I am nostalgic for, magazines are one of the few things I truly miss.

Let us get into the Old Guy Time Machine for a moment and return to the era where a company like, say, Marvel Comics had subscription services where you could order directly from them, for something like twelve bucks a month you’d get every issue if Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four delivered right to your home. Or one of my personal favorites, Bass Player magazine. And these magazines didn’t skimp: full-color and jam-packed with enough content to easily last you a month or more.

These magazines were fantastic. I’d find myself returning to old issues, always gaining some new tidbit of information from some sidebar column I might not have given enough attention to at first read. There was always a period where I’d blow through a magazine like a desert pilgrim coming across an oasis, dunking my head in and drinking deeply. Growing up in a very rural part of central New Hampshire, such magazines were my gateway into a wider world to places like New York City or San Francisco or London, England, places where stuff happened . . . and it was being shared with me, a kid from the middle of nowhere, USA.

Bass Player was awesome. It had lessons, exercises, full song transcriptions with deep-dives into why the basslines worked in the overall scheme of a song. And it wasn’t a “rock” magazine, though there were plenty of rock players. It was all about the bass, baby. I learned about jazz legends like Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, Motown giants like James Jamerson, absolute titans of the instrument like Jaco Pastorious, and yes, there was plenty about my rock n’ roll heroes like Geddy Lee, Jack Bruce, Sting, Paul McCartney, and John Entwistle. It would highlight new players too in fun and exciting bands. And even pieces about players I didn’t know or bands I didn’t listen to often contained something useful to be gleaned and incorporated into my playing.

And of course, there was the gear.

Music shops weren’t numerous in my area. There was a really cool small music shop one town over where I got my first two basses from, but otherwise we had to travel to Concord or Manchester or Dover or—get this—Boston, to really get what my friends and I needed for our nascent bands. There were companies like Musician’s Friend, which is still around, but there was nothing like getting your hands on some cool instruments or effects pedals we read about in magazines like Bass Player or Guitar World and trying them out first.

Bass Player wasn’t the only magazine I had a long-time subscription to. As a proud comic book geek and aspiring artist, I also loved Wizard and Hero Illustrated. The latter was a bit more serious, the former more irreverent, but they had comic previews, reviews, interviews with artists and writers and publishers and editors, and even art lessons from certified comics pros. Many came polybagged with exclusive trading cards or small comics called ashcans that you couldn’t get anywhere else.

Being into video games, especially Sierra adventure titles like King’s Quest and Quest for Glory, Sierra’s InterACTION magazine was another favorite. As was the first magazine my parents got me a subscription to when I was eight or so, the gold standard of video game mags, the one and only Nintendo Power.

Now that was a magazine that gave you serious bang for your buck.

With Nintendo Power, it wasn’t just the fact that you got walkthroughs of games and secret codes and tips. It was how it was all presented. The magazine felt like it was made by people who honestly loved their audience, which let’s face it, was mostly little kids. You didn’t just get a rundown of Super Mario Bros. 2 or Ninja Gaiden or Super C. You got detailed maps, awesome artwork by people like Katsuya Terada, most known for his work on the Zelda franchise, and fun write-ups that made the games come alive.

The covers were so good too. I loved the issue that featured StarTropics, as well as the Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest cover that was deemed too gory for the children of America because if featured an actor dressed up as an armored Simon Belmont holding Dracula’s severed head.

It was awesome.

Much like with Bass Player, Nintendo Power gave me a glimpse of games I wouldn’t play until decades later because not all games were produced and distributed in large enough quantities to reach my area of the Granite State, and Amazon wasn’t a thing. I’ll never forget the feature about Ultima: Quest of the Avatar. Nintendo Power made that game seem so cool, I must’ve read that feature a hundred times, my imagination spurred on by how awesome that game must be. When I finally played it in 2010 or so on an emulator, it almost lived up to my lofty expectations.

The 7th Saga, another that Nintendo Power made seem so cool . . . not so much.

And sometimes, as a part of your subscription, you got entire strategy guides. Four, to be exact: Super Mario Bros. 3, Ninja Gaiden II, Final Fantasy, and one about four-player games. And these were no mere advertising promotions, oh no: they were lavishly illustrated and well-designed guides that almost read like comic books. The Ninja Gaiden II guide actually had a comic adaptation of the game’s story in it, combining the two things adolescent me loved so much: video games and comics. Some later issues of the magazine actually had serial comics: one about Super Mario World by artist Kentaro Takekuma and writer Charlie Nozawa that I later found for my son a few years back, and one about The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Such wholesome entertainment every month.

I wish I kept these magazines. All of them. Stupidly, when I moved out and went to live on my own, I didn’t keep them. I don’t remember if they were trashed or given away, but like a lot of the old video game stuff and comic books I sold or gave away, they’re gone. I’d love to have shown them to my kids, and also kept to relive the memories on my own. I’m more careful to keep stuff now, and warn my son to do the same.

You can grow up without discarding every last bit of your childhood.

These magazines helped create a healthy scene that transcended geography. It was an analog form of communication that required great skill and attention-to-detail on the part of the publishers, and this care was not lost on us subscribers. The writers and editors were true enthusiasts who truly enjoyed writing about their chosen hobby and sharing their knowledge and wisdom with others who were into the same thing, and that came through in every printed word.

Maybe it was a function of the high barrier to entry that impelled the creators of these magazines to ensure that each issue was a special thing to be kept and enjoyed way past its original publication date. Evey edition was a timeless artifact that crystallized a moment in time—no constant updates here—yet was also a link in a greater chain of continuity that long-time readers could appreciate. You’d see how a hobby would grow, how members of a scene interacted and grew and built upon the past, creating a shared canon, if you will, of people who were in it for the love of it, not for money or for clout.

Magazines were a cheap way to stay connected to the world. Photographs and art, thoughtful articles and interviews, industry happenings and sneak peeks, contests and deals, and more than that, interaction.

It felt just as real as the Internet does to many.

I’m sure the media landscape was starting to fragment back then in the mid-80s and into the 90s. Indeed, by the twenty-first century, many magazines were shells of their former glory, getting shorter and more expensive before ultimately moving to online-only publications.

Pay for a digital magazine subscription? Hard pass! Bass Player actually lasted as a printed magazine until August of this year, but I remembered having issues getting my issues delivered to Boston when I moved there and just said “The heck with it” and didn’t renew. And so my subscribership ended. My loss.

Wizard made it to 2011. Nintendo Power lasted until 2012. Many are still around—you can see them on the racks at supermarkets and pharmacies. The fact that a lot of these legacy magazines are still around makes me happy. I see them at the doctor’s office or the barber’s, but a lot of them truly seem to be all ads making each issue look far thicker than it actually is.

But perhaps the publishers of Wizard and Nintendo Power were merely reading the tea leaves. Maybe paper had gotten too expensive. Maybe a critical mass of subscribers had indicated that they preferred the Internet because it was the wave of the future. Maybe the audience just wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the Internet made physical magazines superfluous. Maybe the only people who still buy physical magazine subscriptions are those born in the pre-Internet days like me and those older. Research does show that Zoomers may be the ones to pull the plug on print magazines altogether. But there is no need to direct anger at this generation. After all, the same thing happened when tapes replaced vinyl, and then CDs replaced tapes, and then mp3s replaced CDs. And vinyl is now the only form of physical music media seeing an increase in sales . . .

With the hindsight of twenty-plus years, we take Internet periodicals for granted and accept them as the new status quo. That’s fine. Everything changes, and change is inevitable. Even though magazines still exist, and that I could subscribe to a bunch right now, the feeling of being in a special club isn’t there for me. The reason, of course, is the Internet, where anything and everything you could imagine is available in just a few keystrokes. This democratization of information and lowering of the barriers to entry has created a lot of new and wonderful avenues for information and ideas to spread, but it lacks that certain air magazine used to provide, an air of exclusivity, no poseurs allowed.

I am heartened to see the return of specialty magazines pop up, whether they be short stories or political and cultural essays. There’s a thirst among people who remember the pre-Internet days and those born in the digital world for something tangible to hold, to read, and to put on their shelves to return to later without the need to fire up a computer or a smartphone and just sit down and absorb. The secret clubs are being reopened, the velvet rope being stretched, the barriers to entry being raised. To survive, a magazine needs to offer that which the Internet cannot. I don’t care how nice your website looks, it is not the same as a well-designed, lovingly crafted print publication.

Physical media is where it’s at, chaps. Physical media is the wave of the future. Physical media is the new samizdat. No one will be able to remotely delete a magazine sitting on your shelf, right?


– Alexander

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4 thoughts on “Happiness in Magazines”

  1. I actually miss my local magazine shop in the slowly dying mall. Walking in there felt like walking into a hub of portals to other worlds. Everything on every rack led to a different place, and it always felt rather overwhelming, even when I knew what I was there for.

    The Nintendo Power comics I remember quite thoroughly. It wasn’t until I was older and more familiar with the form that I learned the excellent Legend of Zelda comic was actually by Shotaro Ishinomori, creator of Kamen Rider and Cyborg 009, as well as many of the most important anime and manga from back in the early days. Even back then, magazines helped me foster of love of storytelling.

    Magazines were fun because they felt like a secret window into another world, one you could only look into and be apart of for that moment, then apply it to your own life and have others wonder where you came up with the idea. They were very social, too, because you could pass them around and share things with your friends and family. With the endless online space of everything being a click away it’s not quite the same.

    That said, I don’t actually think they will go the way of newspapers. Probably not anytime soon, but I do see them at some point making a revival simply due to the slow return of physical media on the fringes slowly popping back up again. They might take a different tact, but the form is too good and convenient to be lost forever. Much like the pocket paperback, I see them finding new ways to make it work.

    1. I hope magazines don’t go the way of the dinosaur, aka newspapers. There’s something about magazines, if done well, that feel far more timeless than your run-of-the-mill periodical. And yeah, magazine stores were overwhelming, but in a fun way. Magazines back in the day felt like that cool older brother or cousin who was showing you his collection of records or obscure comics or whatever and letting you into that world. Magical stuff.

      Yes, the internet gives you more, more, more, and faster, but the slower consumption of magazines was a part of the point. You wouldn’t be able to squeeze every drop of value from one issue before the next came.

  2. Alexander,

    I’m conflicted about physical media. On the one hand, I still want it produced as another option for customers. For example, Osprey (the major English language military history) publisher offers a 25% discount if buy both the physical and digital editions. On the other hand, nor everyone outside of North America has the bountiful space to store physical media. I speak from experience, and I prefer digital for books. The really important books, for sure a printed edition.

    Like JD, I do miss the sheer variety, casually browsing different magazine and occasionally buy an issue. I switched to a digital edition of a magazine I’ve been subscribing to for decades. I even have the DVD of back issues.

    So my perspective, for whatever it’s worth is to offer a wide mariety of media to customers: print, digital, audio; print on demand. Some genres like heavily illustrated books and young kids (0-6 years) need to be physical. The rest can be in multiple formats.

    As for magazines, I presume there’l be an option for print of demand. If you’re a subscriber or if not but willing to pay a little more, the reader can opt to have an issue or several printed and formatted professionally sent to your address.

    In any case, I’m strongly in favour of offering a wide variety of media for cultural content (and I include games here too)


    1. DVDs of back issues is a cool idea. At least the DVD is a THING that can’t be retroactively altered or deleted.

      I get the space issue too. That’s a thing even in North America, and it’s always a judgment call. But magazines seems a better use of space than, say, Funko Pop dolls.

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