News of any import is quick to spread on the web. But even knowing that, the number of outlets reporting on the return of Arthur Magazine was pretty surprising, especially for a print publication that focused on various strains of the counterculture: music, drugs, magic, underground comics, and organic gardening. Yet everyone from The Wire to the New York Times expended a few lines of HTML to announce that, after a four year hiatus, Arthur would be returning to print starting on December 22nd.
"Frankly, the culture is in such bad shape that even something this tiny is being taken as something significant," says Arthur's editor and founder Jay Babcock. "If that's become newsworthy, that's kind of sad. But you're the journalist, that's your call to make."
I'll gladly make the statement that Arthur's imminent resurrection is noteworthy. During its initial run, from 2002 - 2008, the bi-monthly magazine (released for free) covered an impressive amount of territory. Its debut issue set the template: on the cover was BMX icon Matt Hoffman; inside were interviews with confrontational electro-clash singer Peaches and psychedelic drug enthusiast Daniel Pinchbeck, comics by Silver Jews frontman David Berman, music reviews by Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, and an advice column from comedian Neil Hamburger. The magazine gained so much attention and cultural cache that the publishers were able to put on music festivals in their L.A. hometown in '05 and '06, and released a batch of DVDs and CDs, including the Devendra Banhart-curated compilation Golden Apples of the Sun, which introduced the world at large to the burgeoning freak folk movement.
"There was a window of opportunity in the mid-2000s where technology had not yet crushed the arts," says Babcock. "There was still a moment where you could challenge the gatekeepers. That window has closed now. They won."
The writer/editor is obviously still stinging from the ignominious demise of Arthur about four years ago. By the time the print version shuttered, he was over $100,000 in debt and feeling emotionally and spiritually shattered.
"Arthur took so much time and energy," he remembers. "There was not time to do anything else. It was freighted with a lot more than it could bear."
Even after all that, Babcock held out hope that he could bring Arthur back in some form or other (he did keep a regularly updated web version for about two years after the print edition stopped). But it wasn't until recently that he was able to make that a reality.
"A lot of things clicked into place over the last year," Babcock says, citing his move to a five-acre spot outside of Joshua Tree, California, where he subsists of the income made from a rental property on the land, and his regular practicing of Vipassana meditation as necessary steps forward for him. "What I've got now means I don't have to depend on Arthur's success to be happy in life. I can do it from the position of financial stability, personal stability, and spiritual stability, which is a much deeper place than before."
Aiding Arthur's return is Jason Leivian, the owner of Portland's Floating World Comics. During the magazine's Internet-only run, Leivian held the role of comics editor, and helped publish a collection of Anthony Alvarado's columns on "DIY Magic."
"Jay started seeing the bigger format newspaper-style publications that I was doing," Leivian remembers. "He must have asked me about the printing costs of those newspapers and how affordable they were. That's when the wheels started turning."
The final steps forward moved pretty quickly from there. Babcock decided to change to a 17" x 22" newspaper style format ("on compostable paper," the editor proudly notes), and insisted that the magazine not be dependent on advertisers to survive. "We will be 80% reader supported," Babcock says. "So the ad money will come in if it's there, but we don't have to spend our time hustling for it."
With that, though, comes the biggest change: Arthur will carry a $5 cover charge. That means, says Babcock, "we'll print less copies, but the ones we do print will end up in the hands of people who actually want them."
Beyond that, the new Arthur will be very much like its predecessor. Many of the magazine's regular contributors will be returning, and it will carry the same puckish spirit that drew readers like Leivian in almost a decade ago.
"It was such an antidote to most of the media happening at the time," Leivian says. "The music reviews, the comics, the Paper Rad stuff. It just took one issue to get hooked."