April 1, 2006
Spy Magazine – 1986
Years after its demise the legendary magazine continues to exert a cultural influence.
&CoSpy magazine’s legacy is strangely pervasive and difficult to pin down. It maintains near mythical status among designers and editors—even those too young to remember it. Yet back issues of the magazine look, well, dated, their dense partitioned layouts festooned in dingbats, italics, drop caps, wiggly lines, and a very 1980s color palette. As Stephen Doyle, who designed the first issues of the magazine in 1986, puts it, “The cultural memory of it is bigger than the artifact. It was a scrappy, cheaply put-together magazine on the fly that had big ideas, and I think it’s remembered for its ideas.”
Spy’s ideas are indeed everywhere. Its icons of cutout heads and choice phrases to assist in skewering celebrities (Donald Trump was presciently the “short-fingered vulgarian”) have been aped in everything from news magazines to late-night talk shows. Its practice of dredging up revealing documents to incriminate or embarrass public figures (including a nude shot of Arnold Schwarzenegger and an image of his father’s Nazi party membership card) has found a powerful successor in the investigative Web site The Smoking Gun. Blogs like Gawker and Wonkette also do Spy-like satire with more bile and less impact, as Slate columnist Jack Shafer noted in 2004: “We needn’t pine for Spy, but that shouldn’t prevent us from noticing how much the currency it minted has been debased.”
The magazine’s tight integration of design and editorial—rare in today’s world of instant publishing—seems redolent of a less fractured, slower-paced era. A 1989 undercover Spy investigation of two nutritionists famed for treating celebrities, for example, used the simple device of a central column of illustrated footnotes in red type; like a pillar full of termites, the red column undermined every claim and comment from the doctors’ offices with dry dismissals by third-party medical experts. In another issue, a profile of Ivana Trump by writer Jonathan Van Meter sustained a magnificently gushing tone throughout while surreptitiously and systematically removing the thin veneer of glamour; art director B. W. Honeycutt’s design framed the prose with a gentle derision using Barbie dolls dressed as Ivana, while the cover had a painfully close close-up of the face and terrifying makeup of the self-proclaimed former top Canadian model and Olympic skier.
Through sheer luck—or “providence,” as cofounder Kurt Andersen sees it—Spy magazine arrived and departed during a blip in the information age after communications media had begun proliferating and accelerating, and before the Internet changed everything. Back in the early 1980s two Time magazine writers, Andersen and E. Graydon Carter, began discussing over lunches the idea of a satirical magazine based on a lot of things Time was not —“Smart. Fun. Funny. Fearless,” as Spy’s manifesto-cum-sales blurb characterized its content in 1986. After finding a business partner in Thomas L. Phillips Jr., Andersen and Carter’s “larky” idea became a proposition, start-up funding was raised ($1.5 million), and issue number one—designed at Drenttel Doyle Partners and featuring a shot of Chris Elliott and the cover line “Jerks: The Ten Most Embarrassing New Yorkers”—was launched in October 1986.
From the outset Andersen and Carter imagined their magazine would look a little old-fashioned and visually reserved to provide a foil for the scabrous content. The analogy was a comedian telling a joke in a tuxedo or a suit rather than a clown outfit; fittingly the title came in part from the society gossip magazine for which Jimmy Stewart’s character works in the suave 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story. With relatively little budget for design, however, Spy’s editors saw their best route forward in giving ambitious designers a free creative license. Doyle, who had recently quit M to form his new partnership, found his own inspiration for the prototype in the typographic density and variety of sixteenth-century Polyglot bibles and 1920s type-specimen books. He recalls a reverence in design circles at the time for art directors like Fabien Baron, who in the late 1980s gave Italian Vogue a spare elegance reminiscent of Alexey Brodovitch’s midcentury designs. “In the 1980s there was this annoying supposition that Baron had invented white space,” Doyle says. “This was our reaction against clean minimalism.”
When Alexander Isley—another M&Co alumnus—took over as Spy’s art director after its fourth issue, the magazine hit its stride. Isley, who shared with Andersen and Carter a love of Mad magazine, worked irreverent visual shorthand into the controlled chaos: photographic dingbats (a stack of dollar bills signified greed, celebrities became tinted cutout heads in Isley infographics), background textures, and fearlessly cropped stock photos. “We were embracing crappy imagery and letting the writing be the star of the show,” Isley says. “A lot came from having very little budget. It amused me when the look was embraced by magazines that had a lot more.” The density of Spy was partly a result of Isley’s not wanting to cut back the writing—“It was an exercise in shoehorning material,” he says—and partly a product of a Mad magazine-inspired use of buried text: the best stuff was often in the tiniest type, in the marginalia or the captions. Deadpan delivery remains a key part of Isley’s design approach, despite the very American insistence that funnies be accentuated by the visual equivalent of a laugh track. “The key was not telegraphing the joke,” he says.
Spy’s downfall was not crushing litigation. Many of its targets threatened to sue, including Gore Vidal, in a Borgesian twist, after the magazine characterized him as obsessively litigious. Cliffs Notes took Doubleday—the publisher of the magazine’s Spy Notes book, a satirical guide to 1980s literature—to federal court for mimicking its style but lost the case, establishing a First Amendment precedent protecting satire. In 1990, however, just as the magazine had begun to break even, recession kicked in and Spy lost half of its advertisers within six months. Phillips, Andersen, and Carter sold the title to Charles Saatchi and Jean Pigozzi in February 1991, and Andersen stayed on as editor for another two years. Spy went on a four-month hiatus in 1994, returned later that year, and finally went out of business in 1998. In many ways its time had come; with the advent of the Web the very idea of the magazine as a singular voice of authority had begun to erode.
It has been argued that Spy had in fact anticipated the Web with its choppy layouts designed for short-attention-span readers, providing a swath of packed information with multiple points of access. “There was something Weblike about much of what we were trying to do without knowing what we were trying to do—the density of information, the footnotes, and all that hyperlinking kind of stuff,” Andersen says. “As we began to see the Internet we all thought, ‘Gosh, this is similar to what we were trying to do on paper.’”
Certainly recurrent sidebars like “Separated at Birth?” and “Logrolling in Our Time,” and “charticles”—flow charts, network diagrams, and tables that made fun of information graphics while providing often revealing information—helped change the look of the news magazine amid the Web’s arrival. Spy offered, as Ellen Lupton wrote in Mixing Messages, “a rich and witty editorial form widely imitated in other publications, from Entertainment Weekly to the New York Times.” For aficionados it becomes easy to attribute every design and editorial innovation to Spy. Its re-creation of celebrity news using action figures and dolls recalls the work of several contemporary artists. Its gatefolds and stunts with paper seem to presage Nest magazine.
Today the memory of Spy is not just kept alive but is actively procreating. A journalistic trope has emerged in newspapers in which reporters—notably Canadian ones—begin their articles by reminiscing about a much loved feature of Spy, from its “Separated at Birth?” column to its movie critic Eric Kaplan™ (whose hyperbolic sound bites are today supplied by any number of “real” movie critics). A Toronto writer named Joe Clark maintains a “Ten Years Ago in Spy” section on his Web site (named for the magazine’s column of the same name, which summoned up suspiciously prescient articles from back issues that turned out to predate the magazine).
Like that of Princess Diana, Spy’s death released an omnipotent ghost. One begins to suspect that its legend is wrapped up in a longing for the lost age of the savvy magazine, the title confident of its readership. “Spy caught a wave of baby boomers and allowed them to feel anti-establishment as grown-ups,” Andersen says. “We lucked into this moment when what we were endeavoring to do could still be successful. It’s very hard in the age of the Internet to create a print magazine that has much real impact. That isn’t to say you can’t create a successful magazine—In Style, Martha Stewart Living, and others—but I do think an era has ended. Cultural impact and influence is so distributed over so many channels; and no matter how great a magazine, it’s still only one channel. We were one of the last gasps of the century of magazines.”