Confessions of a Magazine Pervert

Shimokitazawa is a tight grid of mostly pedestrian streets on Tokyo's western fringe, permanently thronged with high school students in uniform, actors on their way to rehearsal, musicians carrying guitar cases, and otaku—those obsessive, perverse collectors at once so marginal and so central to Japan's image. Otaku are loners, but their interests bind them into anomalous, autistic tribes and bring them en masse to sacred locations. Here in Shimokita there's plenty to attract them.

Magazines galore at Dorama. (photo: superlocal)

Or should I say, “to attract us?” Because, just a few doors down from the model train store filled with plump, sweaty-fingered schoolboys, you'll find me—I confess—in Dorama, a cramped, fluorescent-lit culture store crammed from floor to ceiling with old magazines.

I finger them like rare treasures, flipping through their yellowing pages and placing them back on the shelf in chronological order. So, that's what 1987 felt like! I'd forgotten, as old layers of socialization have been overwritten with newer, fresher ones. Now it's the “stale” old stuff that's fresh to me, because freshness requires unfamiliarity. And I've forgotten more of this stuff than I ever knew!

Here's 1967—a vintage year for Space Age fashion photography, featuring ribbed tights, vinyl bubble dresses and Pierre Cardin's patented synthetic material, Cardine! And 1992—not as I knew it in London, but as it broke over Tokyo! It's all here in Popeye magazine. And Relax—it ran its final issue last September, didn't it? Yet here's the whole set, like a gaggle of friendly ghosts. Here, I can retrace the development of photographer Takashi Homma's color palette, from chilly, blue-tinted cityscapes to warmer tones from the time when his daughter was born.

If you don't have a branch of Dorama near you, don't despair. You can still be a magazine pervert, thanks to a hyperactive coffee-table publishing industry just as obsessive about collecting old magazines as I am.

In the last three months alone we've seen a plethora of these books get published. There's a survey of the European underground press in the '60s and '70s, 200 Trips for the Counterculture: Graphics and Stories from the Underground Press Syndicate, from the redoubtable Jean-François Bizot, who gave the world Nova and Actuel magazines; and Hot Love: Swiss Punk and Wave from 1976-80, Lurker Grand's loving commemoration of the Swiss New Wave zine scene. Rizzoli offers us David Renard's The Last Magazine: Magazines in Transition, while Black Dog presents Neville Brody and Steve Taylor collating 100 Years of Magazine Covers. Finally, there's Die Gestalten's We Love Magazines and PIE Books' The Secret Sense of Japanese Magazine Design, my own personal favorite, even though I don't read Japanese.

The seductive covers of several recent, international magazine-centric anthologies.

Sniff these books and you'll get a big whiff of expensive new printer's ink rather than the vinegary sea-smell of vintage paper. But in other respects they're as good as a trip to Dorama, or better. After all, when you're browsing an old copy of the International Times in a secondhand store you don't have founder Barry Miles standing there beside you giving you the back story to its pages.

But books like these aren't just cultural history conveniently repotted. They perform a sort of paradoxical magic. Considered ephemeral at the time of their production, magazine layouts are pressed like dried leaves between these pages, speaking to us with a specificity, an informality, that brings the past—or another culture—alive like nothing else. The ephemeral turns out to be the most interesting thing to make permanent.

Something else happens—for me, at least—when I look at old magazines. And this is where I want to use resonant words like ostranenie and verfremdungseffekt, terms for fruitful alienation or dramatic distancing coined by the Russian formalists and Bertolt Brecht, respectively. The consumer society depicted in the pages of old magazines—advertising and editorial both, although the advertising perhaps somewhat more so—has lost its power to seduce, bully or dominate. The products presented look quaint, the future promised farcically fallacious. Everything has been valuably alienated—contextualized, sure, but also de- and re-contextualized.

Interior pages from The Secret Sense... (PIE Books).

It's not just that I'm no longer able to suspend disbelief about the stuff I see in old magazines; I know that this alienation effect will still apply, lingeringly, when I return to the artifacts of my own time, my own culture. They'll have been relativized. I'll see them as the frail disjecta of a fleeting era, preserved (perhaps) as something quaint in a future just as fascinated by cultural comparisons—and estrangements—as I am.

But while this might alienate me from my own culture, it can also endear it to me. Alienation, after all, shares something with glamour: they both use distance to produce an effect of exoticism. Instead of a commercial bully bellowing in my ear, what British art critic Peter Fuller called “the mega-visual tradition” becomes, with a magical sprinkling of estrangement, something of a siren song, suddenly rooted, quirky and highly mortal.

So here's i-D Magazine's Japanese edition, exuberantly designed by Tycoon Graphics (to whom British publisher Terry Jones gave carte blanche to make the Japanese i-D as different as they liked). It ran for just 16 issues between 1991 and 1993. A commercial failure, maybe, but as valuable as a deep slice of Arctic ice core for scientists researching the geothermals of cultural flux.

OK, just call us “magazine perverts.”