Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Tribute To Ten Magazines That Shaped My Youth

A fond look back at the periodicals of yore that inspired my love of writing and continue to influence me (sometimes subconsciously) to this very day.

By: Jimbo X

Growing up in a single mother family in a single-wide trailer, money was never something we had a lot of in my upbringing. I had to wear shitty shoes and hand-me-down clothing and while all the kids at school got to play with those newfangled Jurassic Park toys, I had to make do with whatever bullshit my mom could afford at the flea market (which almost entirely consisted of old He-Man action figures with various appendages missing.) So yeah, I never really got to do a whole lot of the regular stuff kids in the 1990s got to do, like visit Chuck E. Cheese's or go to Disney World or get a dentist appointment (seriously, I didn't get my first check-up until I was in my fucking early 20s.) 

For me, the written word was both an escape from the pains of an impoverished childhood and an economical way to stay abreast of the modern world. Back then, you could score yourself a 400-page magazine for about $3.99, and that shit would keep you occupied for at least a week. Before long, those monthly dispatches from the publishing world became my raison d'etre, that thing I looked forward to each and every morning. School may suck and we might be eating off-brand pork and beans for dinner again, but holy shit, the new Game Players issue is on sale at K-Mart, and that almost makes up for everything else. 

And because the publications were relatively cheap, I could engorge myself on a whole host of magazines covering all kinds of divergent elements of pop culture and modernity. Really, it was at this point in my life that I realized I enjoyed reading and writing about things more than actually experiencing them, and had it not been for the immense impact of the periodicals listed below, I probably never would've become a writer and gone on to do something stupid with my life, like become an investment banker or somebody who does I.R.S. compliance sheets for low-to-mid-range accounting agencies. More so than any other pop cultural construct, I'd say the monthly and semi-monthly publications listed below did more to frame my writing style - and really, my personality - than anything else in my youth. Wondering where my weltanschauung came from, admirers and haters alike? Ponder no more - for better or worse, the following publications are most responsible for forming me into the individual I am today...

Electronic Gaming Monthly

Well, this one shouldn't be surprising at all, considering my nomme de plume is an homage to the publication's most mysterious staff writer. More than anything, EGM - as well as its short-lived and much, much harder to find spinoff EGM 2 - is what got me into video game culture ... yes, even more than the games themselves, to a certain extent. Looking back on it, the writing does leave a lot to be desired (surely, after skimming a few back issues, I'd say that rival mag GamePlayers had far better content), but the way EGM was presented was just outstanding. Yes, it was a very, very aesthetically-driven magazine, but the way those flashy images, gaudy layouts and idiosyncratically curt columns were welded together just created a total sensory print experience that - to this day - I don't think has ever been rivaled. There wasn't a single element of the magazine that I didn't enjoy, from the reader mail section (who can forget the "Psycho Letter of the Month" feature?) to QMann's stream of consciousness gossip section to the 30 pages dedicated to Japanese-only Super Famicom games that people in the U.S. would never, ever get their hands on to the much imitated but never duplicated "Review Crew," whose infrequently syntactically-correct blurbs extolled the pros and cons of late-ass NES and Game Gear releases with a commixture of already passe Bart Simpson lingo and only barely gussied up marketing speak? I read the mag religiously up until the PS1/N64 era, where I lost interest in video gaming for a couple of years, but I resumed regular EGM consumption in high school (right smackdab in the Dan Hsu PS2/XB/GC era.) Since then, I've spent many a squandered weekend trying to fill the gap, which means I've got a good five years of Sega Saturn, Dreamcast and Game Boy Color coverage to joyously pilfer through when I can't sleep. But still, whenever I think EGM, I think of that wondrous 1991-1995 run through the Genesis and SNES years, and all those fabulous issues dedicated to Mortal Kombat II and Beavis & Butt-Head and Rocko's Modern Life. Shit, even combing through the old advertisements (which always comprised 60 to 70 percent of the bulk product) is an absolute delight, and every bit as enjoyable as the "genuine" editorial content. You university kids today have your online "safe spaces," and I've got my PDF copies of Electronic Gaming Monthly - and I'll gladly take my paper sanctuary of yore over your sanctimonious sociocultural sanctums any damn day of the week.  

The Weekly World News

There was an old Beavis & Butt-Head book in which the main characters said supernatural-tinged sensationalist nonsense like The Weekly World News was pretty much the reason they learned to read. For me, that actually was the catalyst for pursuing literacy. As a four-year-old, I desperately, direly wanted information, but it was a very particular kind of information. Since I wasn't even in kindergarten yet, the only two things that really mattered to me was what was on cable and whether or not monsters were going to get me, and with TV Guide fulfilling my fist hierarchical need, The Weekly World News did its part to complete the dyad of knowledge. All of those black and white newspapers at the cash register at the grocery store with aliens and Bigfoots and ghosts and shit on it certainly piqued my curiosity, so while everyone else was learning to read via Dr. Seuss, I was introduced to literacy via the apoplectic rants of Ed Anger, that one half-kayfabe wrestling article WWN used to publish up until the mid-1990s and, of course, following the saga of Batboy as if it were some kind of radio serial. People tend to forget, WWN actually did contain a pretty good chunk of actual news, mostly concerning particularly scintillating sex scandals and psycho murderers - which, naturally, captivated me even more than the clearly made-up bullshit about the Loch Ness Monster and George H.W. Bush getting a handjob from a Martian. Granted, a lot of the material was probably above my comprehension level - sure, any first grader can grasp the intricacies of Book of Revelation prophesies coming to life and made-up stories about women giving birth to half frog chimeras, but the less fabricated stuff about serial killers and husbands intentionally infecting their wives with AIDS? Yeah, that stuff may not have been designed with the Barney viewership set in mind, but by golly, it gave me a sociocultural leg-up on my grade school competition, for sure - indeed, I'm pretty sure I was the only kid in second grade that not only knew how to spell "lobotomy," but describe to you the most up-to-date technical description of the procedure. It was a mag worth reading up until 9/11, when the editors figured there was too much real-world spooky shit going on and they decided to make it way lighter and fluffier with a bunch of wishy-washy, more P.C.-friendly articles that felt more like PG-rated The Onion pieces than anything actually worth reading. Still, it ain't too hard to find old copies of the paper from its glory days circulating 'round the Internet - definitely check out the stuff from the late '80s and early 90s if you have a keen taste for the good sleaze

Wizard and ToyFare

Like everybody else in the early to mid 1990s, I bought a shit ton of comics because I was under the impression that my stockpile of Sludge and Major Bummer comics would someday be worth $300,000 and I could retire a millionaire before I was 20. The thing is, although I avidly purchased such funny books back in the day, I never really read them - even as a fourth grader, I knew the writing in X-Men and Spawn was subpar stuff, no matter how angular and pointy all the pictures looked. So outside of a couple of old Spider-Man reprints and stuff like Milk & Cheese, my treasure trove of comics mostly collected dust in bins in my closet, appreciating in value at about .0000000001 percent of a penny per year. Since I wanted to keep a close eye on the ebb and flow of the common market value of Young Heroes in Love No. 1, I was an avid reader of Wizard, whose price guide was considered the industrial gospel back in the day. The funny thing is, the price guide - the whole point of the magazine's existence - was probably my least favorite element of the publication. What really drove Wizard was this biting, self-reflexive humor that simultaneously celebrated and skewered nerd culture long before it was call to proclaim your geekdom publicly. Like EGM, the retroactive appeal of the magazine is mostly aesthetic, but it's hard to not reflect on their content-lite regular columns - like the Casting Call feature and a rundown of the ten most "popular" comic characters of the month, complete with a sardonic homage to a shitty forgotten character from yesteryear - and not smile. The articles ran the gamut from glorified P.R. (but you did usually get an exclusive "mini-comic" for free, though) to the fairly inspired (their top ten features were well worth reading) all the way up to legitimately great journalism, such as their piece on the arrest and conviction of indie artist Mike Diana for producing "obscenity" and their retrospective on the impact of Seduction of the Innocent. Oh, and their Halloween and April Fools editions were absolutely required reading, since they usually contained a fair amount of niche-interest snark and/or horror-tinged awesomeness. Wizard had several sister publications, but none were as memorable as their action figure-heavy magazine ToyFare, which in addition to featuring one of the best layouts of any nerd-interest magazine of the era, was also one of the funniest, thanks in no small part to the Mego Action Theater and price guide "one-panel" mini-comics. Shit - I have to find their special all-pro-wrestling-edition issue from circa 1998 now!

Mad and Cracked

It was until recently that I realized just how pronounced an influence the Mad and Cracked runs of the 1990s had on my subconscious. The same way I find myself almost instinctively trudging up the George Carlin/Richard Pryor/Bill Hicks party line when people ask me about abortion, gun control and eating pussy, it has dawned on me that pretty much EVERY opening paragraph I've written from the year 1997 on has been directly tailored around the tried-and-true Mad and Cracked article intro. You've got the table-setting opening sentence, the follow-up sentence that puts a spotlight on the target of satirization and then, you've got the final sentence that jerks open the curtain for your parody. It's such a perfect template, and one I'd advise all aspiring English majors to adapt for their term papers. As far as the content of the magazines, I think that even now these publications don't get the credit they deserve as social criticism. Remember, this shit was before Reddit and Voat and YouTube, so these magazines were pretty much the only media outlet out there specializing in niche interest humor. I thought Cracked did a better job lampooning popular culture while Mad did a better job overall making fun of general U.S. society. But more than that, I think these satirical publications wound up doing  better job encapsulating the 1990s zeitgeist than even the "legitimate" journalistic publications of the era. If you want to see the decade hive mind in action, feel free to comb through any back issue of Entertainment Weekly or Newsweek. You want to experience what it was TRULY like to live - and laugh - through the Clinton era? Hunt you down some old copies of these two mags and get to guffawing in no time

Pro Wrestling Illustrated (and all of the other Bill Apter mags)

What made PWI and its myriad spinoffs like The Wrestler and Inside Wrestling awesome was that they were basically monthly multiverse crossover spectacles. If you read the proprietary WWF or WCW magazines, they all kept it "in-universe," so all they ever did was talk about their own promotions and wrestlers. But PWI, though? They covered ALL of the 'rasslin promotions out there, including those weird beard promotions in Mexico and Japan. PWI introduced me to ECW (mostly, through those super bloody 1-800-Run-4-ECW ads on the back page) and the entire cosmos of puroresu, including such illustrious names as Kenta Kobashi, Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaka motherfuckin' Kawada. If you want to see an "event" issue done right, look no further than the annual PWI 500 issue, which was pretty much required reading for any 'rasslin dork worth his weight in Hulk Hogan apparel. Sure, by the time the rankings got into the 200s you had no idea who any of the people they were talking about were and I'm pretty sure they just made up the wrestlers in the 400-500 rankings, but still, you just felt like you had so much industrial knowledge pumped into your noggin just by perusing its thin, black and white pages. Oh, and for all you Johnny-Come-Latelies, yes, the entire PWI publishing armada - to this very day - keeps their writing entirely in kayfabe. You know, not that I trusted their old articles from the 1990s about the N.W.O.'s top secret plans to recruit Bret Hart and Sabu to their ranks, or that one piece purportedly penned by Shawn Michaels about how he would beat The Giant to be 100 percent legitimate journalism to begin with...


I was pretty late hopping aboard the Fango bandwagon (I didn't start reading it religiously until around 1996, a good 10 years' past the publication's heyday in the mid-80s), but there was still plenty of good stuff going on with the magazine in the great post-Scream, pre-Blair Witch boom period. When it comes to kitschy ephemera, this was a veritable treasure trove, from the cover stories about Resident Evil commercials to the full color ads for straight-to-VHS turdfests like Crinoline Head. Of course, you also had regular columns touching upon the "best" in recent horror videos, books and even video games, even though what Fango deemed "horror-worthy" was oftentimes debatable (uh, guys, is the original Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation really a survival-horror opus?) And the features were usually pretty great, with the writers going into absurd detail about the technicalities of the gore effects in forgotten B-fodder like Aberration, The Ugly and yes, even that all-time celluloid classic, Revenge of Billy the Kid. Even though most of what they were covering was total crap, Fango managed to make that crap sound at least partially appealing; if you want to see journalistic turd polishing par excellence, check out any issue from 1997 or 1998.

Metal Edge

To be fair, I wasn't exactly a regular reader of Metal Edge - pretty much the only time I bought a copy was when they did their semi-regular "Top 100 fill-in-the-blank-specials" - but I knew enough to know they were way better than everything else on the magazine rack trying to cater to the metalhead demographic. Since this was the middle of the 1990s, the magazine was caught in this weird historical epoch in which a lot of bands that had lost a lot of relevancy at the end of the 1980s were still touring and putting out albums, so you'd just be flipping through stories about Anthrax and Slayer and then boom, you'd get hit with a spread about fucking Firehouse, Trixter and White Lion. Granted, it was a rather superficial publication - about half the content was just flashy poster dressings and catalog ads - but it did have some fairly decent material in it from time to time. My favorite? A recurring feature where the magazine dialed up random rock stars and asked them really stupid questions, like what was their favorite thing about Thanksgiving and what was the worst movie they had ever seen. I also recall a pretty entertaining column in which heavy metal staples "reviewed" videos receiving heavy rotation on MTV, but my memory is a bit hazy - it just as well could have been a feature in another heavy metal mag.

Black Belt

If nothing else, Black Belt deserves recognition for getting me into mixed martial arts. Dana White and pals may never admit it, but this kung-fu crazy publication did wonders for the UFC in the early vale tudo days, absolutely pimping the fuck out of their first couple of shows and dedicating huge chunks of their print space to event recaps. Of course, the primary intent of the magazine was to spread all sorts of nonsense about the practical applications of karate and Taekwondo and all those other totally useless disciplines that serve no purpose in legitimate combat, and the rag frequently dipped into "survivalist" fare (I remember one recurring column teaching you how to supposedly survive mass shootings and knife attacks, among other things) and some really, really questionable pieces about the "history" of ninjas and jujitsu. There was also a pretty healthy amount of page space dedicated to fisticuffs-heavy movies, so it had your pop cultural bases covered, too. Throw in the insanely detailed pictorial spreads on how to use nunchucks and a million billion ads promising to reveal you ancient Chinese techniques to get laid and deflect bullets with your pinkie and you have all the makings of one highly memorable - albeit highly suspect - martial arts magazine.

The Ring

I may have owned perhaps just three or four issues throughout the 1990s - and those were because they came on the heels of big fights and I thought they'd be worth major moolah someday - but The Ring nonetheless made a huge impression on me. I wasn't as gung-ho about boxing as a I was the fledgling sport of MMA and the long-established pseudo-sport of pro 'rasslin, but I definitely enjoyed the strangely acerbic tone of the planet's leading pugilism publication. Make no mistakes, The Ring was one cynical ass magazine, which went as far as to openly mock boxers in its pages as overrated and out of shape (keep in mind, this is the same magazine that refused to call Muhammad Ali "Muhammad Ali" until damn near the middle of the 1970s and also invented boxers to give their own championship belt greater cultural resonance.) This had to be the most blatantly confrontational sports periodical of the Clinton decade, and if absolutely nothing else? It showed an entire generation the proper way to write columns like a know-it-all asshole.

The Weekly Reader

And of course, it's impossible to talk about periodical print publications that immensely inspired me without bringing up the one that was state mandated. If you attended elementary school in the years between 1991 and 1997, surely you encountered this flimsy little reading material, which sought to turn really big, overarching sociopolitical issues - like unemployment and the War on Drugs - into semi-digestible, low-syllable count blurbs the Power Rangers set could kinda-sorta' comprehend (with plenty of teacher insight, naturally.) Sure, the content wasn't very good and the writing just barely skimmed the surface of highly controversial and deeply nuanced social issues - plus, the liberal bias was glaringly apparent, even to somebody who slept with Ren and Stimpy plushies - but I nonetheless looked forward to each and every issue. Even way back then, I grasped the real significance of the printed medium - their worth wasn't in being contemporary containers of up-to-date knowledge, but little slivers of history that combined the factual with the user-preferred version of what actually happened. Despite being painfully condensed and non-complex, I could take away some sliver of significance from each issue, even if the only thing that had any relative historical value were the ads (which, really, are just as important in encapsulating the times as the "proper" magazine copy - if not substantially more, in many instances.) Yes, even as a second grader I grasped the impending retro-value of the publication, and while all my classmates just discarded their copies at the end of class, I hoarded every issue given to me from the first grade to fifth grade graduation. I lost my treasure trove years and years ago, and while I can't for the life of me remember one single article from the publication (except for this one they ran that cut off in mid-sentence and a story about bullying that was a hoot to read because it had the word "butt" in it), the import of that cruddy little periodical on my life - and desire to write professionally - lingers on to this day.

So if any of you assholes take offense to anything I write, I say take it up with Scholastic ... after all, they are the ones that - advertently and inadvertently - got me into the publishing biz to begin with.


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