Separated at death?

Spy magazine died a final death after the March 1988 issue but its legacy lives on in ironic itterations and glib graphics that fill most other glossy magazines


James Poniewozik
February 19, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)

Ironically, the March 1998 issue of Spy predicted doom for George magazine; the hilarious cover story labeled founder John F. Kennedy Jr., "a poster boy for poster-boy behavior." Spy also deemed JFK Jr. an insecure poseur who created George as a beard for his lack of intelligence (the giveaway for which: He evidently considers magazine editors brainy). "Ironically" because, while George limps on, cover by inane celebrity cover, Spy went out of business shortly after the March issue hit the stands -- the indignity of its sudden demise compounded by the fact the magazine inadvertently made John-John look like a canny survivor, a heretofore impossible feat.

"Ironically" -- but isn't that more or less a given by now? And wasn't that, in the end, exactly Spy's problem? You could look at Spy's second death (it folded temporarily in 1994) as the overdue end of an '80s satire vehicle that outlived its bread and butter -- its Henry Kravises and Tama Janowitzes -- but really it's a sign of the magazine's success. In an age when Ethan Hawke and Alanis Morrisette hold forth on the nature of irony, a modicum of snark and celebrity-skewering graphics are as mandatory in today's magazines as a statement-of-ownership announcement. So much so that Spy -- whose diaspora of writers and editors has been spreading to the New York Observer, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Time, ad infinitum -- finally ended up redundant.

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The most obvious -- and thus most widely ripped off -- manifestation of Spy 'tude is the satirical chart, reborn this decade in Wired's self-promoting "Wired/Tired" feature and Time and Newsweek's separated-at-birth "Winners and Losers" and "Conventional Wisdom Watch." Even In These Times (the lefty magazine that, with the Nation, may be America's last great refuge for political cartoons featuring portly millionaires in top hats) packages some of its earnest heart-cries as a Spy-esque "Appall-o-Meter."

Too often, though, such clones are more about the appearance than the reality of hip skepticism. Features like Spy's "Review-o-Matic" satirized pop-culture phenoms and clichis, but -- and here's what the imitators fail to get -- they also satirized the idea of learning anything of importance by reading a chart. The best of Spy's charticles worked not because they were dead-on but because they were slightly absurd, thus exposing the follies not only of their targets but of too-facile commentary.


James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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