Monday, March 14, 2011

Magazine Review: Bull Spec #4

Disclosure: The publisher sent a review copy for the purposes of this review.

As much as we might mourn the departing of genre magazines--both established and amateur--the good news is that new publications are popping up. They aren't replacements by any means, but they are venues for both readers and writers, as well as delivering something (hopefully) new and different. Bull Spec is one such publication, available in both print and online. If we look at the technical aspects, it's very much a professional publication: professional pay rates for original fiction/poetry, has distribution, an ISSN, etc. In terms of content, however, it has a grassroots vibe. Twelve years ago, I started a fanzine for anime/manga (it's now long gone) but if I were to do one for speculative fiction, Bull Spec could have been one of my babies, which unfortunately includes some of the mistakes I would have made.

In many ways, Bull Spec is my ideal genre magazine. It has fiction and poetry (although from the table of contents, it's the former that has priority), reviews, and various features such as essays and interviews. In this issue, it even has a comic. While it gets a thumbs up for me in terms of diversity of its selection, the real challenge of any publication is standing out. Let me break it down into its various components.

In terms of fiction, Bull Spec is healthy. "O, Harvard Square" by Nick Mamatas and "City of Shadow and Glass" by Erin Hoffman stand out, while the other stories are competent. Mamatas's piece is strong on characterization and gives readers much wiggle room with its ambiguous ending. Hoffman, on the other hand, provides an engrossing opening, and while I don't particularly enjoy flash fiction, this is one of the more memorable ones, and whets my appetite for more.

The poetry section is similarly memorable, although the editor's tastes is fairly traditional (which suits me just fine). The most sophisticated piece is undeniably "Beastwoman's Snarled Rune" by Rose Lemberg, whether it's technique, rhyme, or narrative. Still, it's difficult to find fault with the rest, such as "Masdevallia" by Mark Brandon Allen. Overall in terms of quality, the poetry section is better than the fiction.

Moving on to its feature articles, what's great about Bull Spec is that there's synergy. For example, there's the "Closed System" comic by Mike Gallagher but this is also paired up with an interview with the creator. The interview with Mark L. Van Name is accompanied by both a personal essay and excerpt from his novel. This is where the chinks in the armor pop up, however. When it comes to "Closed System", Gallagher has his own unique art style, and while this is the fourth part in a series, it stands well on its own. My problem though is with the narrative and the ending: the former feels too didactic while the latter will polarize readers (I fall under the dislike it crowd). The excerpt with Van Name is honestly not enticing although it is a good enough starting point for unfamiliar readers. These two interviews are satisfactory, but they honestly pale in comparison to the other interview in the magazine: Lou Anders. The feature with Pyr and Lou Anders is honestly what the magazine should be focusing on: it's comprehensive and energetic, and interviewer/editor Samuel Montgomery-Blinn writes a terrific introductory piece. I could easily imagine the Anders interview being the centerpiece of its nonfiction. There are also two other interviews in the magazine which aren't highlighted as the previous three, one with Clay and Susan Griffith, the other with Orson Scott Card. Interviewer-writer Alex Granados knows how to frame the narrative around these personalities and the feature article comes out stronger for it, although the lack of emphasis in the design hurts it (they could easily have been mistaken for reviews), but I'll get back to that later on.

When it comes to the reviews, I find them as a whole uneven. The reviews by Richard Dansky and Paul Kincaid for example are very detailed and helpful. Majority of the other reviews, however, read a bit too generic.

The last element I want to discuss is design and this is arguably the magazine's biggest weakness. Not that I blame the editor as Montgomery-Blinn's passion is in the content, but I find that for a lot of magazines, overall design is an afterthought and gives the impression that it's an amateur production. I find it disturbing for example that the header/footer has a significantly larger font size than the body. When it comes to the fiction and non-fiction, they are for the most part large chunks of texts and there's not much breathing room. This is usually remedied by photos and illustrations, or even emphasized quotes (which is done in the Lou Anders interview), but that's lacking here (which isn't to say it's not possible to create an elegant layout without images: Black Clock for example). Two of the interviews are tucked with the reviews that it's not immediately evident that they're important features. It's all these tiny details that add up. Which isn't to say there's no great design in the magazine. The spread preceding the interview with Lou Anders, for example, is simply brilliant and stunning. But sadly it is the exception rather than the norm. Ironically enough, these flaws wouldn't be evident if the magazine was delivered in ePub and Kindle format since most of the design is stripped, but as a PDF and print magazine, it's a detriment.

Overall, Bull Spec is commendable for its attempt. It's not perfect as it has its own fair share of flaws, but it also has bright spots which make the publication worth buying.

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