In 1995 I moved to New York City with little money and zero plans because that's what you do when you're 23 and feel like you’ve hit the creative ceiling after 2 years as a t-shirt designer in rust belt Pennsylvania. My career goal was to be a full-time freelance illustrator and I always treated graphic design as a day job/gateway gig - and I figured there would be a lot more of those in New York than anywhere else, so when three of my college pals were looking for a 4th roommate to split the cost of a house rental in Brooklyn, I jumped - leaving my steady but dead-end gig in the dust.
Jobs were plentiful at the time, but not much better than my old one and I quickly realized that no one was going to just hand me a ticket to professional artist success and I'd have to pay some dues at entry-level work for at least a few more years. By January 1996 I was on my third unspectacular graphic design temp gig and on the lookout for the next one when I answered a classified ad for "designer with desktop publishing experience, comic book knowledge a plus”. The address was in Congers, New York - a 35 mile drive from my apartment in Brooklyn. I faxed them my resume, they called me for an interview and after a one-week trial period I landed a part-time staff position doing graphic design at Wizard Entertainment.
I’ve always loved comic books but had never been a Wizard reader - it’s debut in 1991 had coincided with my declining interest in super hero comics, which was 90% of what they covered. But I’m also someone who read the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe cover-to-cover so I had great affection for the older cape comics and characters of the 1980's, the people were nice and funny and friendly and the job was fun and relatively low-stress.
My daily duties involved helping process the many pieces of printed material Wizard cranked out: scanning and editing images with photoshop, layout and typesetting of the regular magazine columns, designing premiums, special issues, subscription cards, etc - all on a Mac using desktop publishing software like Adobe Photoshop and the then-industry standard Quark XPress. Most of the time I was grinding on all regular columns for Wizard like "Top 10 artists" and whatnot - plus the columns for InQuest, a magazine that focused on the Magic: The Gathering card game, (which I never learned how to play and to this day still don’t understand at all). Lead designer Arlene So and creative director Steve Blackwell spearheaded all visuals on Wizard and InQuest's myriad of publications - they art directed the covers, hired freelance artists, designed the feature articles, set up photo shoots and did a million other things that made those magazines work pulling long hours every single day, and I hired primarily just to lighten their day-to-day workload. I was at Wizard when they conceived and launched ToyFare and wrote my fair share of goofy word balloons that we would use as picture captions throughout the magazines. I got the inside scoop on super hero comics news stories like Heroes Reborn, Electric Superman and Amalgam Comics before they broke to the public at large. The high-levels of comic book geekery from my co-workers could sometimes be annoying but it was never boring or pedantic - the environment was fast and loose and everyone was encouraged to be as funny as possible at all times.
I wish I could say I made great friends and great contacts at Wizard but I didn't. I liked everyone I worked with but I’m guarded by nature and have always struggled with forming friendships and my insistence on staying in Brooklyn and the long commute that resulted made after work bonding pretty much impossible. That insane commute was the only real negative of the job for me - the pay, the people and the friendly, relaxed atmosphere were huge plusses. In those pre-podcast days I also managed to listen to a LOT of WFMU on those long drives and became an avid fan of Seven Second Delay, which aired Wednesdays right when I was coming home after “crunch day” - when we would finalize everything for production.
I remember one morning during an ice storm I arrived at work an hour late only to find a nearly empty building, and all morning long the managing editor was calling up staff saying "Ryan managed to drive here all the way from Brooklyn so you have no excuse not to be here." (I learned to drive in Erie, Pennsylvania so I’m very practiced on safely navigating vehicles through snow and ice). Management repeatedly invited me to come on full-time but I stubbornly remained part-time and firmly planted in NYC. My direct supervisor, Steve Blackwell had every right to fire me and replace me with someone more loyal, but he supported my decision and kept me on staff, even after adding on 2 more full-time designers, which in retrospect was a remarkable thing for him to do and something I will be forever grateful for.
In late 1997 I landed a big freelance gig illustrating licensed books for Warner Bros that was going to take a large time commitment and that was that - I departed Wizard to spend the next year drawing multiple books featuring Looney Tunes characters. A month after I quit Wizard I sold my broken down, uninsured, unregistered automobile to a shady garage in Hell's Kitchen after removing the plates - I still live in New York and haven’t owned another car since. Around Thanksgiving I sold off the hundreds of Wizard premium issues I had designed on eBay (which was a pretty new thing in those days, and I had been an early adopter of it), which covered my rent and food while I waited for my first checks from Warner Bros to arrive.
My first freelance career didn’t last long (which is a whole other story) and I returned to full-time graphic design work 18 months later at Time Out New York, which was only a 20 minute subway ride from my house. I was there for 2 1/2 years designing ads, doing some light IT work and teaching myself how to build websites. That was followed by 2 1/2 more years as a staff animator at a dot com startup. In those 5 years I barely drew any comics or illustration, but I made decent money, had health benefits, played WAY too much Playstation, and best of all, met a new best friend and married her. Then in late 2002 just as the dream of launching an illustration/comics career was starting to fade, three things would almost simultaneously interrupt my vocational inertia.
First, I re-connected with a former co-worker at Time Out, Josh Bernstein, who was launching a music, trash culture & humor magazine called Royal Flush and extended an open invitation to make comics for it. Second, my friend Fred Van Lente and I made a stupid little comic about Friedrich Nietzsche. Thirdly and most importantly in January 2003 I was laid off from my animation job. It was the first time I’d ever been fired (I was always the one to quit) and having just been married a few short months earlier it hit me harder than I thought in would.
My wife, who's always been the smart one in our partnership, recommended I call everyone I had worked with in the past to see if they had any freelance work, just something to get me by until I could land another full-time job. To my surprise Wizard responded immediately with an offer of freelance work - but not for the graphic design work I expected - they wanted me to draw an illustration for them. I did it immediately and as soon as I turned it in they offered me another.
They were publishing 3 monthly magazines by then and they needed a lot of original content. The jobs starting coming faster and faster - almost every week I was drawing either a big feature piece or multiple spot illustrations. Between the Wizard, ToyFare and InQuest art gigs, my budding non-fiction comics authorship and a lot of freelance html coding work I stopped looking for a full-time gig altogether after about a year. Wizard's steady stream of illustration assignments ended up being the cornerstone that kept me afloat for the next several years and pretty much single-handedly transformed my illustration work from occasional side hustle into a full-blown career.
The Wizard people I worked closest with: Steve and Arlene, research director Dan Reilly, production manager Doug Goldstein, copy editor Marc Wilkofsky (RIP), Co-EICs Pat McCallum and Brian Cunningham and every one else on staff gave their all every single day. I owe them all a lot, more than I gave them, more than I ever deserved, and a lot more than I'll ever be able to pay back.
Around 2007 or so the higher ups at Wizard shifted their business focus more on the booming comics convention scene and less on publishing and my freelance gigs started to dry up - InQuest was cancelled (a few years before the tabletop gaming renaissance would hit), followed by ToyFare shortly after.
The original magazine, Wizard, held on for a while longer - the last thing I ever drew for them was a feature illustration for the news story of Disney buying Marvel comics in summer 2009. Every month a staff member would move on or get laid off or saw the page count of the magazine shrink.
Finally in 2011 Wizard Entertainment shut its doors on the publication division. By then I was pretty much only making comic books full-time, so it wasn't a financial loss to me but it was certainly a personal one. Not one person that worked there deserved to be laid off and that’s why Wizard is gone now. Not because “print is dead” or some other nonsense - it failed simply because of the mis-management of the owners and their disrespect to the creative staff that made the magazine so popular and their business so strong in the first place. A sadly common story.
Sure, the magazine industry is in the toilet but the comics culture is more exciting, more diverse and more in the public eye than it EVER has been. Wizard should have been able to ride the wave and make it work. I was never a real fan of the magazine, but I was a HUGE fan of the editorial team behind it.
Rest in peace Wizard Magazine. You paid my bills for many years, but more importantly, you were good people.