Wizard #74: Andi Watson

October 1997 (on sale date: August 1997)

Here it is: the very last “Palmer’s Picks” column. After 68 installments published on over 140 magazine pages over the span of a little more than five and a half years (and featuring interviews with more than forty different comic book creators), Wizard finally pulled the plug on my monthly gig. At the time, I had the longest run as the writer of a regular column in the magazine, and I’m pretty sure that record was intact when Wizard closed up shop in 2011.

After the year-long “Heroes Reborn” event that saw several popular characters handed over to Image creators Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, Marvel heralded the “Heroes Return” story that brought them back to regular continuity. Alan Davis and Mark Farmer created this Fantastic Four cover for Wizard #74 to mark the occasion.

Before I get too carried away providing some details about the ending of “Palmer’s Picks,” I want to make sure I mention Andi Watson, the cartoonist who was profiled this issue. He had been sending me issues of Skeleton Key as they were being published, and it was astonishing to see how his work was changing and evolving at a rapid pace as he kept up with his monthly deadlines. That was the main reason why I felt he deserved the spotlight and an interview. And his comics were really great too! After Skeleton Key wrapped up, he got a few writing gigs at Dark Horse and Marvel while also keeping his toes in the creator-owned world with serialized graphic novels like Breakfast After Noon and Slow News Day. And he’s currently producing a bunch of kid-friendly books like the Glister and Gum Girl graphic novels and the upcoming Kerry and the Knight of the Forest. I think he was the perfect choice for my final column, and I remember he was a great interview subject as well.

I don’t recall exactly when I was told that this would be my last “Palmer’s Picks,” but I’m pretty sure it was before I did any actual writing because I made sure to skip the “Recommended Reading” section to ensure that I had enough room to write my farewell letter. Since I was on staff as the assistant editor of ToyFare magazine, I was told in person that the column was going to be ending. I was basically given the same reason outlined in the original column: Wizard was going to be increasing its coverage of small press books, which made “Palmer’s Picks” a bit redundant. (Another way to construe this reason could be that the editorial department at the magazine would rather decide what small press books they were going to cover on two pages of their magazine instead of having someone else choose for them, but I’ll leave that interpretation up to you, dear reader.)

I was assured that I was going to be part of the increased small press coverage in Wizard. But in reality that only turned into two assignments: an article examining the future of the small press in Wizard #77, and a “Wizard News Special Report” from the 1997 Small Press Expo two issues later. Wizard‘s promised dedication to more indie-focused articles was spotty. Aside from the two pieces I wrote, there were a handful of short features here and there over the next few years, but it definitely wasn’t a regular thing in every issue. Wizard did start another monthly column devoted to alternative comics—called “Secret Stash”—but it wasn’t until issue 117 in 2001. I’m not privy to the origins of “Stash” since I had left Wizard a year before it began, but it appeared to be an editorially-driven column with a revolving cast of writers. Shortly after that began, Wizard even decided to publish a few special editions called Wizard Edge that featured “The Hottest Buzz Books!” Knowing what little I know about magazine publishing, those specials were only created because there were enough advertisers willing to cough up some cash to make it worthwhile.

Back when “Palmer’s Picks” wrapped up, the comic book market was in a nosedive. Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1996 was a huge event that sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Things were starting to catch up with Wizard. The company was going through a bit of belt-tightening around the time “Picks” ended, which was another unmentioned factor in deciding to put it out to pasture. A short time later, an edict came down to cut back on freelance assignments as a way to trim the budgets. Staffers on each magazine were assigned more writing as part of their day-to-day duties, and cross-magazine freelance work was frowned upon (e.g. someone working at ToyFare was no longer hired for features in Wizard and vice versa). So even if I was able to convince the powers-that-be to keep the column around, it wouldn’t have been for much longer.

I had a lot of plans for “Palmer’s Picks.” It was a well-oiled machine by this point, so I had to keep things fairly organized to make sure the column was as good as it could be. I maintained a running list of creators that I wanted to interview, based on what was due to be published in the near future and on any standouts from the many submissions I would receive in the mail. If you glance at the end of my farewell note, you’ll notice the names of a few creators as some parting recommendations. These were all of the artists that I had planned for coverage in the next several columns. So, if the plug wasn’t pulled, I would have conducted interviews with Bill Willingham, Marc Hempel, Debbie Drechsler, Joe Matt, Zander Cannon, Jessica Abel, Jason Lutes, Charles Vess, Dylan Horrocks, Joe Sacco, and Ivan Brunetti. That’s a damn fine list of comic creators, if I do say so myself.

I think I pretty much said what I wanted to say in my original goodbye from over twenty years ago. Losing “Palmer’s Picks” was definitely a let-down, but I’m grateful that I was able to work on it for so long. It was one of the last remnants of the “old” Wizard, and I was constantly worried that I was going to be shown the door whenever the magazine would go through one of its frequent redesigns. Just like anything that you do for a significant length of time, it had become part of my life and I definitely missed it for a long time after I had moved on.

But going back and revisiting all of these old columns for this blog has been almost vindicating in a weird way. I think “Palmer’s Picks” was mostly met with indifference by the majority of Wizard‘s readers; it was certainly never the main reason someone bought the magazine. And I never got the sense that the powers-that-be completely understood it. I can’t recall the countless number of amateurish comics I got from well-meaning Wizard staffers who would say, “I met this guy at a convention and he gave me his comic. This looks like something you would write about so you should interview him.” I definitely had a few misfires here and there (don’t remind me of all of those Hepcats recommendations!) but for the most part I think I got a lot right. It’s gratifying to see that so many of the artists I profiled have stood the test of time and gone on to bigger and better things.

It’s been a lot of work putting this blog together, but I think it’s important to make sure these columns can be preserved online. Thanks for sticking around and reading along! (But don’t go away just yet… The next two blog posts will reprint my small press-focused writing assignments from Wizard #77 and #79. Stay tuned!)


Palmer’s Picks

Unlock the Door to Fun

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Practice makes perfect. That’s one thing that British cartoonist Andi Watson learned when he started his comic Skeleton Key back in 1995. After two years of monthly issues, Watson has quietly constructed one of the most thoroughly enjoyable series being published today. If you think comics can’t be fun and cute anymore (without being sappy), then you owe it to yourself to try Skeleton Key.

Back before he started Skeleton Key, Watson drew a comic called Samurai Jam, a slice-of-life series about skateboarding and other fun stuff. The book didn’t catapult him into superstardom, so he envisioned Skeleton Key as a way to appeal to a more mainstream audience. “I thought I would meet people halfway,” Watson recalls. “I could do a mainstream book that I’d like to read. I put in the trappings of superhero comics like costumes and other fantastical elements, but I wanted to make sure I had a fully realized setting and a couple of fairly detailed characters for it as well.”

Watson’s initial concept for the series involved Tamsin Mary Cates, a young high-school girl who discovers a key that can open doors to other dimensions. On one of her excursions, Tamsin digs up Kitsune, an ancient Japanese fox spirit who can take on human form and ends up joining her on adventures and at school.

After some initial plot-driven stories, Watson took a turn to develop some stories based more on character interaction. “The whole concept was designed to have a really basic framework in which I could tell any kind of story,” Watson explains. “I could move the story from dimension to dimension and do a detective story, or I could do a Jane Austen period piece. I could hop around, so that kept it fresh for me. Ironically enough, since issue #19, I’ve been bringing fantastic elements into the fictional Canadian town of Garfield and having things happen from there. That gives me more room for character development.”

In addition to the stories, the art on the comic has evolved immensely, due mostly to the monthly deadline Watson has maintained since the book started. “I started off kind of crude and cartoony,” he says. “Maybe I was mixed up in my head, but I thought if I did this slightly realistic comic style, maybe people would be drawn to it, but now I don’t think that was the case at all. Gradually, I worked my way through it, and I think that since issue #9 I’ve found my own voice. I don’t think my art looks particularly like anyone else’s and I’ve found my own kind of design sense. The effect is simple and cartoony, but detailed enough so I can convey fairly subtle emotions on the characters’ faces.”

By looking at current issues of Skeleton Key, it would seem that everything evolved smoothly, but there have been a few minor adjustments that had to be made—one of which involved getting accustomed to the shorter length of the comic. An issue of Skeleton Key is only 16 pages long (to keep the cover price low), so Watson experimented with both multi-issue, extended storylines and self-contained issues before finding something comfortable. “I think I like shorter stories,” he claims. “I think I can do something fairly involved in three issues. But 16 pages can be especially tight when you like to do a lot of dialogue, which sucks up a lot of pages. You can’t have too many talking heads, because the plot demands that you kick things along. You have to discipline yourself and make sure you don’t meander too much.”

One of the biggest things Watson has had to adjust to is setting his story in Garfield, an imaginary town in Saskatchewan. Until recently, Watson spent all his life in England, so it was a challenge to make his fictional setting realistic. “I’ve tried to make it as real as it can be,” Watson says. “You can’t get all the details right, so it’s good to have people that will set you straight. Sometimes British-isms slip into the dialogue. For instance, Canadians would never say ‘ice hockey skates’; they call them ‘hockey skates.’ ”

Despite all the little hassles, Watson is happy he has an opportunity to get his comics out there for people to see. “I do comics, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do,” he says. “I like drawing and I like telling stories. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”

Tom Palmer Jr. is sick of being so friggin’ nice all the time. Pucker up and kiss his lily-white ass, you pathetic pieces of wretched refuse.

FYI: Skeleton Key is published every month (issue #25 will be out in August) by Amaze Ink for the low, low price of $1.75. Get your store to snag a copy for you. Or you can order right from the publisher by writing to Amaze Ink/Slave Labor Graphics, 979 S. Bascom Ave, San Jose, CA 95128 or calling 1-800-866-8929. Some back issues are available, as well as two trade paperbacks. Beyond the Threshold collects the first six issues, while Celestial Calendar gathers up a mammoth 12 issues.

Watson’s Recommended Reading

“My favorite comics right now would have to be anything by Jaime Hernandez, like Whoa, Nellie! or the Maggie and Hopey Color Special. Kane by Paul Grist is an excellent book, as well as Akiko by Mark Crilley. That’s about it. I’m going to feel really guilty half an hour from now when I remember somebody I left out!”

To All Good Things…

Well, folks, this is it. The last “Palmer’s Picks.” It’s been 68 issues and almost six years (making this the longest continuously running column in Wizard, as a matter of fact) for me and it’s time to move on.

There’re a bunch of reasons I’m leaving that are too boring to get into, but one of the main ones is the increased small press coverage in the rest of Wizard. In case you hadn’t noticed, a lot more small-press books like Strangers in Paradise, Hepcats and Box Office Poison have been popping up regularly in full-length articles and other parts of the magazine, and they’ll continue to do so. The reason? There’s a lot of damn fine comics out there that deserve more attention than the two pages I can offer here in Wizard.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper sign-off without a bunch of thank yous. It’s been an outright joy to work with the kooky gang here at Wizard. For some reason, they let me stay and I can’t thank them enough for that.

I also have to thank the numerous cartoonists I’ve interviewed over the years. Your work has inspired me, and I want to thank you for allowing me to spotlight your comics, even though some of you probably thought talking to a “mainstream” mag would ruin your rep.

I can’t forget to mention my friends and family (you know who you are), and my legion of bitter enemies.

And I also want to give a shout-out to all the people who read what I wrote and maybe took a chance on a new small-press comic. Without you guys there would probably be a lot fewer quality comics out there.

Just in case you need some reading material for the next few weeks, check out all these comics: Bill Willingham’s Coventry, Marc Hempel’s TUG & buster, Debbie Drechsler’s Nowhere, Joe Matt’s Peep Show, Zander Cannon’s Replacement God and Other Stories, Jessica Abel’s Artbabe, Jason Lutes’ Berlin, Charles Vess’ The Book of Ballads & Sagas, Dylan Horrocks’ Pickle, anything by Joe Sacco and Ivan Brunetti’s Schizo (Whew!).

Thank you and good night.

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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