Dobrow Sees the Future, Is Glad It Upholds the Best from the Past

Media Reviews for Media People: Esquire's 75th-Anniversary Issue

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My checklist of things I want from a thick, thumpy "special collector's edition" of a magazine includes the following: A sober-minded appreciation of the publication's heritage. An art/photo exclusive of some sort, not involving Olympians in fancy clothes or a modern-day tart dolled up like Marilyn Monroe. Some indication that the title has ambition for the future beyond "direct readers to website, under threat of physical duress if necessary."
The cover has become the story.
The cover has become the story.

To that list I now add: A flashy, all digital-like cover that costs $7.25 million to produce and requires a fleet of nonunionized Guatemalan laborers to assemble. That's the tactic Esquire has devised to buzz-ify its 75th-anniversary issue, and it seems to have worked from a PR perspective.

The must-have magazine
The cover has become the story. When I asked the guy at my local magazineatorium if the new Esquire had arrived yet, he gave me the sad-clown shoulder shrug and let out a curt "All gone." This bummed me out, as it's not every day I have the chance to own a magazine cover that might be described as "potentially seizure-inducing." After I had similar luck at two other local vendors, I conceded defeat and picked up the mag at Barnes & Noble.

Given all the hype -- hell, we even sent one of our reporters to the Connecticut factory that engineered the cover technology, conning him into the assignment by suggesting the company was a front for a chocolate-beer bootlegging operation -- it comes as a surprise how artfully and subtly Esquire has executed the gimmick. In fact, maybe the execution is too subtle: What drew my eye to the issue wasn't the pale display with its dim, billboard-like text crawl ("The 21st Century ... Begins ... Now"), but its jet-black cover, brightened only by the iconic Esquire logo. How much more black could this cover be? None more black.

So yeah, as a not-so-cheap marketing gimmick, the blinky-blinky cover is a winner, plus it earns bonus points for steering clear of the men's-mag holy triptych of George Clooney, Daniel Craig and Tom Brady. The issue itself? It's exactly what you'd expect from Esquire, for better or worse.

We don't usually toot our own horn, but ...
Predictably, the 75th-anniversary Esquire is wildly self-congratulatory, to the extent that some readers might feel the need to hose it down. The mag devotes one of its two foldout spreads to a comprehensive, for-all-time masthead, which serves to proclaim WE HAVE EMPLOYED MORE BRILLIANT, SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE IN OUR 75 YEARS THAN J.P. MORGAN HAS IN ITS 113. Esquire takes pains to note that the issue was nine months in the making and that its enormity prompted -- nay, forced! -- the editors to bring back an alumnus to oversee the project. There are seven pages worth of contributor blurbs.

At the same time, Esquire's 75th is the rare special honorary collector's commemorative eBay-able limited-edition publication that actually feels special, even exclusive of the cover bit. The mag has smartly chosen a broad unifying theme ("The 21st Century Begins Now"), and milks it in a way that even Esquire devotees won't anticipate.

Over the course of 318 pages, the issue packs in six lengthy profiles, three "arguments" (about food, art and terror), a well-annotated compilation of the "75 most influential people of the 21st century," three migration chronicles (from India, the U.S. and Google), and another three typical Esquire features. As always, there is Chuck Klosterman and there are shirts.

The magazine has so mercilessly hammered readers with its highfalutin brand in recent years that it's easy to forget the incredible volume of great writing showcased in its pages. Every story in this issue lives up to the mag's legacy, and a few of the pieces -- especially the profile on Steve Jobs, about whom I thought I'd read every word worth reading -- build on it. Say whatever you want about Esquire's too-frequent attempts to be droll and hip, but this issue affirms once anew that few American publications are as committed to carrying the torch for long-form magazine journalism.

I'm not as keen on the artwork commissioned specifically for this issue, mostly because you can only get so much of a sense of it from an 8.5-by-11-inch reproduction on the printed page. Take the piece that accompanies the Google story, which is appended with the following description: "Regroup (The Google Diaspora) ... fleece, rope, paint, PVC cap, hose barb, metal hardware, 8.5' x 21' x 13'." That's one big honkin' piece of art, ain't it? Unfortunately, even after seeing it on the page, I have no more idea what it looks like than you do. Chalk this up as an opportunity missed.

Like Vogue, only for men
Meanwhile, the 75th-anniversary issue boasts more ads than you'll find in an entire quarter's worth of Time, though they likely aren't representative of the mag's usual slate ("Dude, you gotta be in this issue! All the cool brands will be there!"). A few observations: One, Ford capitalizes smartly on the blinky-blinky effect with an ad for its Flex model on the flip side of the front cover. Two, every men's fashion brand apparently uses the same photographer and models. Three, Johnston & Murphy could've picked a better time to roll out a new ad campaign featuring sex-havin' thespian David Duchovny. Four, the few non-luxury brands featured in these pages come off like a kid trying to snag a seat at the adults' table, especially Buick with its clumsy Lexus comparison. And five, the a.testoni folks ought to be institutionalized for failing to display a single frigging pair of shoes over the course of the company's eight-page spread. Close-up shots of laces and unprocessed leather might wow 'em in art school, but let's not lose sight of the fact that the primary goal of advertising is to sell stuff.

Even after having ripped through the commemorative super-Esquire for this exercise, I've still assigned it a place of prominence on the back of the toilet. There's plenty of writing here that's worth going back to, which is high praise in this era of disposable journalism. Mock Esquire all you want for its practiced frivolity and its "Women We Love" deifications, but the mag remains a better idle-hours companion than most anything else out there.

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