BLVR RDR: First Issue


VOL 1, ISSUE 1 March 2003

Yes. No. It’s complicated.
Lots more after the jump.

Both the type (kerning, sizing) and Charles Burns’ illustrations have gotten much better since the first issue: they both seem sloppy here. I am guessing Burns probably hadn’t had a whole lot of practice with real people before his monthly stint here? But notably, the layout (a great combination of 9 panel grid with illos in the corners, 4 callout articles and a circle with interviews in the center), type (lovely Clarendon, though poorly kerned and sized on this issue + I think Caslon) and illustrator (Charles Burns for the interviewees, someone else doing line art for article spots, which will be Tony Millionaire after it’s Beto Hernandez for a few issues, but isn’t either yet, it’s Matthew Carter) have stayed fundamentally the same for six years. I won’t go on and on about it, but that is pretty rad, I think.

Believer is always printed 4/4, and yet it chooses to use reduced colorschemes almost all the time, and just switch it up issue to issue. And, it’s almost all text in most issues, much moreso than any other color publicaton I can think of… I think if the layout and colors were treated differently it might be a lot more intimidating/unapproachable. They also colorscheme the page borders by content. In this issue, articles are bordered in pale blue, interviews in a dusty yellow, and flotsam (anyone know what the Believer calls this single page nonsense they used to do?) in rust brown.

I am tempted by this last correlation, to look for a meaning behind the rest of the colorscheme — why the thirty-fifth issue breaks conventon and goes dark type on the spine, what to make of 16-18 or 27-30 having very very small distinction in their spine colors, etc — but nothing yet. I’ll keep looking.

Every issue has a table of contents (on the back cover) running roughly 20 entries. This is divided between articles in the front, interviews in the rear, and single-paged excercises I’m calling flotsam interspersed. Oh and there’s a chart which they call a Schema. Although rest assured I am reading the whole issue, let me say one thing right off the bat: the articles are where it’s at. I may not even comment on the interviews and flotsam in some issues. The blogging portion need not be exhaustive, lest it be exhausting: in the spirit of “the Optimist” I’m going to mostly just talk about the articles that are super good.

That said, let me just say, the flotsam has either gotten much better at or I’ve zoned out completely cos I don’t remember it being this obnoxious before: the first issue it is super precious and crappy, and I say that despite the fact that one of them, the Tool: Planer one, is written by Ben Marcus. That guy can write the hell out of a one page piece, but somehow given the framing conceit that he must write it about a tool (these things are weirdly regimented) it’s weak. And the motel and mammal (and CHILD, eventually?), ugh.
Even with Idea Share and Underway, with their underlying idea seeming to be to blur the line between the reader and, say, Dave Eggers, there’s a feeling looking at this early stuff that the Believer really was trying too hard to be so clever and funny and sincere and to my ear it just comes off cloying, desperate. Actually it comes off a lot like Dave Eggers at his worst the more I think about it. Luckily they got better, further from that vibe, and lucky for me I stayed with them.

The Schema lives at the spot where the articles end and the interviews begin. This first one is “A history of Magic Realism” and it’s so much less complicated than some of their later charts! It has no key, employs a color scheme but doesn’t annotate it (Fabulists have no name in chartreuse, language surrealists have four, and what does this even mean?) It seems to play favorites but also has a note suggesting that it is nonauthoritative this way.
Many favorites on here, Vonnegut and Barthleme and Murakami, and on the bottommost, recentest fringe of this chart — Bender, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, JS Foer, Kelly Link had it been made a few years later would be here — lives absolutely my favorite stuff that is being done with words.

In the beginning, the BLVR had a goal to have an interview with a living philosopher every issue, about their ideas/theories. This strikes me, like the aforementioned flotsam, as being overly precious and insistent that they are the smartest ones in the room. I mean, ok glass-half-full, they’re introducing a readership who maybe has no theoretical or philosophical background, to some complex and interesting ideas, in short-attention-span chunks. But glass-half-empty, this is not the right forum. And to jump from zero to heady philosophy is unsettling: often times these interviews are simply not appropriate for someone who hasn’t read up on the philosopher previously.
In this issue they also have an interview where Salman Rushdie and Terry Gilliam talk together. This was such a coup that both got Charles Burns’ cover treatment. These two are heroes of mine, they admire each other’s work, and it was a joy to read. That said, even with these two luminaries: the articles really are much more gripping.

Heidi Juliavits on book reviewing
. This whole thing is online, and I recommend it highly. Fascinating, optimistic, tangentially a mission statement, sort of. Still relevant, if I may butcher the premise of all of its nuance: negative book reviews are sort of sensationalist, and sort of in bad faith. Positive book reviews for blurbs and so forth have too much of a whiff of quid pro quo and grade inflation. Juliavits has some suggestion towards a moderate path, and one suspects that that is sort of what the BLVR is about.

Jim Shepard on Badlands. (Only the start of this is online) I put this movie on the top of my Netflix after this. A great long discursive review, my favorite form of BLVR article. Discursive in that it goes off the ranch of talking about Badlands to talk about John Wayne and Western masculity and Donald Rumsfeld.

The Believer
was a pretty great magazine right out of the gate, though it’s gotten much better since.

I am up to issue 12 now in this project, but here I am finally posting the writeup to no.1. The distance between reading, notetaking and blogging is just not working out.  So while I am going to continue reading the Believer in order, and blogging about it occasionally, I’m throwing in the towel on the idea of blogging issue-to-issue. Actually, since I took good notes on issue 2, and because issue 2 is actually incredibly chock-full of awesome, I’ll do that one too. Sorry loyal readers, but I think you’ll like it better this way anyway.

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