Our Cover Is Blown

IT WILL SHOCK AND DISTURB YOU—OR MAYBE it won’t—to learn that there are no original ideas in the magazine business; there are only good, worthwhile, creative riffs on original ideas. All of us who assign stories know what we like, and our job is to figure out how to do it better, with a spin or a twist that’s particularly appropriate to our audience. I’m sure there are self-described geniuses out there right this minute insisting that this isn’t so, that every one of their ideas is blindingly original, but trust me, we’re all swimming in the same pool.

Exhibit A: The selling proposition of last month’s big service piece, “The 63 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die,” was inspired, if you can call it that, by a year-old National Magazine Award—nominated GQ gem called “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die.” I was hesitant to “borrow” GQ’s conceit for about eight seconds, until it occurred to me that they too had “borrowed” it; from the beginning of time, magazines have been doing such stories. We considered fiddling with the precise language—“The 63 Tacos You Meet in Heaven”?—but then thought, no, they had it just right. Or, a generation before them, someone else did. In any case, if the author of the GQ story, the venerable critic Alan Richman, feels aggrieved, I’ll buy him a taco.

Exhibit B: covers. Whether or not he’ll admit it, every magazine editor, and every art director, for that matter, comes into the job with the image of a classic cover in his mind and a desire to improve on it, rip it off, pay homage to it, or some combination of the above. The May 2005 issue of Vibe, the music magazine, was one of my favorite covers in recent years: It featured three slain hip-hop stars (Tupac, Biggie Smalls, and Jam Master Jay) standing among rows of gravestones. It was a loving nod to a cover produced 38 years earlier at Esquire by the Babe Ruth of magazine art directors, George Lois, featuring three slain political figures (JFK, RFK, and MLK) standing among a row of gravestones. The design director of Vibe back then, Florian Bachleda, talked openly of his admiration of Lois’s work. No one balked. Everyone cheered.

We’ve done our own George Lois tribute at Texas Monthly : Our July 2005 photo of Lance Armstrong under a LiveStrong bracelet halo was an equally loving nod to Lois’s famous February 1968 Esquire cover of the despicable lawyer Roy Cohn beneath a halo (Lance, don’t read anything into this). But my favorite (non-Lois) tribute of all, the one I’m most excited about, is the cover of the issue you’re holding in your hands. Thirty-four years ago, the humor magazine National Lampoon published a special issue on death, and on the cover was a sweet-looking pooch with the barrel of a gun pressed to its temple. “If you don’t buy this magazine,” the accompanying type read, “we’ll kill this dog.” As homages-to-be go, this one—brilliantly funny, gleefully in bad taste, undeniably memorable—is the holy grail for many editors, including me. It’s one of the most iconic covers of all time (in 2005 the American Society of Magazine Editors named it the seventh-greatest cover ever), which is why, for years, I’ve been looking for a way to doff our hats in its direction.

Funny? Bad taste? Memorable? The Bum Steer Awards present an opportunity each January to hit those marks. Sometimes it works (Kinky Friedman and Willie Nelson in American Gothic ); sometimes it doesn’t (Texas Republican leaders as the Three Stooges—the nyuk-nyuk-nyuk was on us). This time, however, I think, or hope, we’ve knocked it out of the park. Kudos to the bright bulbs behind National Lampoon. Kudos, especially, to Ronald G. Harris, the photographer who captured the dog on film all those years ago. And thanks, Mr. Vice President, for just being you.

Next Month

NASCAR, gay parents, the best new restaurants of the year, chess prodigies, Joe Ely, the (supposed) pending death of Austin’s soul, and an insider’s guide to the Capitol.

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