Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Famous Monsters #251: Get Thee A Designer, Please

An ambitious launch (or relaunch) of a genre magazine is always welcome, as far as I'm concerned. And with IDW's relaunch of Famous Monsters of Filmland – which created the market niche that would later be populated with Cinefantastique, SFX, Starlog, and more – we get ... I'm not quite certain what.

It's ambitious, all right. At 128 pages (plus covers), it's a heavy magazine. As we used to say in the technology magazine business, it feels substantial when you plop it down on your desk. Printed on heavy paper, with a heavy cover, you can plop this down on your desk, or use it to clobber zombies over the head. Either way, it's impressive.

Famous Monsters of Filmland's 251st issue is also ambitious in its pricing. The cover price is $12.95. Not only that, there are four variant covers; do they really think someone's going to pay $26 or $39 or even $52 for multiple copies of this?

Now, I'm actually a proponent of magazines charging higher cover prices, if it frees them from a corrosive addiction to advertising-fed revenues. The key is providing enough quality content in the magazine to make it worthwhile. That shouldn't be difficult; people gladly pay $9 or $10 to see a two-hour movie; they'll pay twice that to buy it on blu-ray. But a really good magazine can provide many hours of enjoyment, and they can be priced that way.

But the writing has to be good, intriguing, and original. Plus, the design should be pleasing, including the use of excellent illustrations and photos.

I don't mind the $12.95 cover price of this magazine; as a quarterly publication, it's not going to drain anyone's wallets very quickly (well, unless they're drunk and they're buying all four variant covers, which they'll be able to sell on eBay for $5.00 each). My problem with Famous Monsters #251 is that it's just not intriguing. Too much space is given over to self-infatuation; I mean, 26 pages of people remembering Forrest J. Ackerman? Look, this has nothing to do with respect for the man. I've heard lots about him, I've read interviews with him, and I've read articles by him. He was a towering figure in genre publishing, and he sounds, truly, like a prince of a man. But to devote one-fifth of a magazine to memorials for him is a waste. Give us instead six pages or, if you must, 10; but Forry's memorial is the magazine itself, which inspired generations of young genre film fans (some of whom went on to become genre professionals).

The rest of the magazine is very uneven. It's always a great idea to interview Ray Bradbury, and the inclusion of a new short story by him is a nice touch. But throw in a few current-movie previews, profiles, and what must be the weirdest photo/ad layout in human history, and you get a magazine that doesn't have a definition, even as quirky.

And that's all before we get to the design. There's nobody in the staffbox listed as designer or art director, so I feel a bit better about criticizing this. But the page layouts are simply ghastly. The text is all in paragraphs separated by a blank line, with no indentations at the beginnings of the paragraphs. Yes, like this and every other blog. We do it on blogs because we are forced to by the HTML gods, who abuse us so. But magazines should not look like amateur web productions. And – remember the $12.95 price tag – we're paying for a deluxe product here, and we're not getting it. Add to all of this the heavy-handed use of dark patterned backgrounds on many of the pages, and you get articles that are not easy to read, not pleasant to look at, and don't look like they were assembled with care and skill.

I wish I could write nicer things about this product, but let's stick with my comments about high prices. Paying $12.95 means I also expect it to deliver. If it were a $3.50 or $4.95 magazine with 88 pages, and only one article in the magazine was worthwhile, I wouldn't feel disappointed. That's what keeps GQ and Esquire publishing, after all. And granted, I was never an FM reader (as readers of this blog know, I was always more of a Starlog and Fangoria reader), but that doesn't mean I'm not open-minded about the publication. But it's got to meet me halfway.

I'll still look forward to how this magazine evolves. First issues are often over-produced or beset with problems as the machinery gets up and running. And there's certainly room for competition in the genre magazine marketplace. But for now, this is a vanity magazine that needs to sharpen its act.
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