Editor’s note: Apparently we didn’t scare Marc Bernardin off, as he returns for a second day of guest blogging … and this time even brings a friend.
by Marc Bernardin
I’d love to be able to say that I conducted this interview with the editor-in-chief of Comic Foundry—the magazine that straddles the twin extremes of high-lit and low-brow-pop like a four-color colossus—in a dark corner of a wood-paneled steakhouse, drinking our lunches like magazine-men of old. But, alas, this isn’t 1963, and we’re both too damned busy for that (he’s got a day-job as the Deputy Art Director of Complex magazine, along with the heady responsibilities of CF; I’ve got my new book, Genius, coming out tomorrow). Instead, I reached out over the inter-tubes to pose seven questions to Tim Leong, about success, Wizard, and Jack Kirby: Cover Boy.
When you started formulating what would become Comic Foundry, where did you set the success bar? Had you decided upon a predetermined indicator that would tell you “Hey, we’re doing okay….”
Not really. I wanted to make sure we were able to turn a profit—or at least break even—which we’ve been able to do each issue. So, success! I’m not really a business guy so the financial success is really second tier to me when compared to the success of our editorial content. And editorial success is somewhat hard to quantify. We’re not quite there yet. We’re fixing things each issue and making upgrades, but it’s going to be a bit before I’m really happy. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the product or that the mag is bad—I [just] want it to be as amazing as possible.
Given that the soft advertising environment has made running a magazine a dicey endeavor—and many big media companies are now funneling untold fortunes into online initiatives while offering buyouts to the “paper” staffs—why go the opposite way and turn your blog into a flesh-and-ink magazine?
Like I said, I’ve never been a big business guy, so profit margins and spreadsheets have never really been my thing. See, Comic Foundry was originally a community and educational site for aspiring comic artists and writers. You could upload portfolios, get feedback, visit the job board—that was the meat of the site. As an appetizer, we did articles and interviews to draw people in. That is the stuff that really took off for us, not the community aspect, so after a while we ditched that format and reconfigured it to be a monthly online magazine, which ran for about a year. And through each format, I always had big ideas for stories and designs, but I could never execute them the way I really wanted. See, I’m a print guy—I used to do newspapers and I have a career in magazines. So when I couldn’t produce what I saw in my head it drove me crazy and I knew to really give it our full, we had to go for print. That, and the market was just begging for it. The whole comics magazine market was out of whack and incredibly polarizing. There was Wizard, which was superhero-driven and there was The Comic Journal, which was super-indie. There was nothing in between. Making that realization, as well as figuring how CF could work with that, really sealed the deal for me. Plus, for some reason, print adds a certain legitimacy to the content. Could we be just as successful online? Probably. Would we be more profitable? Probably. Do I care? Nope.
Do you think comics of the ’60s, ’70s, or even ’80s would’ve survived, let alone thrived, if they were subjected to the whirling torrents of online fandom, to the blogosphere?
I think so. The naysayers, the spoiler-hounds—I feel like those people are such a small minority of the overall number of people who read comics. They’re in no way representative of the whole, they’re just the most vocal. But I’d imagine the intense reactions from the blogosphere would definitely have an effect back then. Most notably because it was still so early in [the run of] so many amazing stories. If writers were berated on a daily basis back then, who knows where thing would be now. But also, if they had the bad side of intense online fandom, they’d have the good parts too. They’d have that many fanatics as well, supporting them at every step—and misstep. And either way, whether if they had the positive or negative effects of fandom, that intensity brings people together. Just like the blogosphere is a community, there would have been a bigger community back then as well, which I can only imagine would’ve helped support sales.
What’s been the most surprising part of starting up Comic Foundry?
As masturbatory as it might sound, I would say the response we’ve gotten. Everything from when we got rejected from Previews to meeting readers at conventions. When we started the mag, I just wanted to create something I knew I would enjoy and that I thought was cool. But when we have tables at conventions, we get people that come by to thank us for making the magazine, that it’s something they’ve been waiting years for. I’m not a super-emotional dude, but that gets to you. It gives you something to work for. Knowing that there are people out there depending on you for to produce the content—that helps put things in perspective. I think because we have a nice professional shine to the magazine, some people think we’ve got a cool office with neat stationary. No. We produce this out of our tiny apartments in New York outside of our day jobs. So when you work in a bubble like that, it’s always surprising to hear people really respond like that.
While there are a few good, solid, legitimate comic-book critics in the field today, there are a lot more who give criticism a bad name. The signal-to-noise ratio ain’t too great. How important is criticism to you, as both a reader and as an editor/publisher?
As a reader, I’ve never been too big on reviews. I don’t read too many of them—it’s across the board—movies, plays. I usually like to make my own conclusions and go into a book fresh. Sometimes I’ll go back after I’ve read something to see what other people thought, but generally I don’t read too many. But I think I’m in the minority on that one. I do think they’re important to have in the magazine, though. It’s good service to the reader but also helps set a tone for the magazine. As the editor in chief, I try to keep an arm’s distance from the review content and defer to senior editor Laura Hudson, who I trust implicitly. We didn’t put reviews in the first issue because we were going to be on stands for so long—but it was a healthy debate Laura and I had. My question at the time was that since reviews are something you can immediately get anywhere online—why would we have reviews in a magazine that’s going to be on stands for three months? We reached the conclusion that, as you said, reviews are everywhere online but they’re not necessarily of the highest quality. So it’s important for us to try and deliver reviews with substance while keeping to our tone and attitude. It’s that quality standard that separates the mag from a random blog and helps justify an existence in print.
What lessons have you learned from Wizard? It’s awfully easy to bash them, but what, in your opinion, do they do right?
I’m definitely guilty of Wizard-bashing, but for as much as they get wrong, they get a fair amount right. Wizard has an amazing connection with their readers. They’ve been around for 20 years and have been able to establish a great relationship with them that is reflective through what the stories are about and how they’re written. The whole incident with having their tagline saying, “Men’s Pop culture Magazine”—I’m sure that didn’t bother 99.9 percent of their audience. They know what their readers want (or at least think they know) and play to it. That’s a huge strength. Now, that’s not to say that I agree with any of their approaches or condone all their practices, but I definitely envy that interaction they have with their readers. We’ll get there too, but that kind of thing takes time.
If you could have anyone or anything on the cover, what would it be?
This one is impossible, but how cool would it have been to shoot Jack Kirby in a fighting pose, and then have him draw in all his cool characters battling it out with him? I’d love to hire Platon to shoot Stan Lee. And honestly, I’d love to shoot Jim Lee. All the Lees we can handle. I have a cool concept for Jim if we shot him that I don’t want to spoil, but as a guy who grew up with comics in the ’80s/’90s, he’d be pretty great.