Speaking of covers, a close-up of George Clooney graces the May issue. But, wait, there's more! It turns out it's the "first-ever Mix & Match cover," and by ripping and folding horizontally, you can replace George's chin, or browline, or philtrum -- and, hey, it's Barack Obama! Or one of 25 other guys. Collect 'em all, kids!
Apparently this is no ethics violation, but it does seem an odd gimmick for a mag that has achieved the gravitas of Esquire. In fact, last year the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibit saluting the Esquire covers of George Lois, circa 1962 to 1972 (Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell's tomato soup, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, etc.). Somehow it seems doubtful that in 40 years MoMA will place the Mix & Match series under glass, no matter whose nose is chosen.
Obviously Esquire is willing to employ new and innovative methods to sell issues, and that's no small task for print publications these days. But is it too 20th Century to suggest that blinking lights (yes, Esquire tried that with an E-Ink cover a few months back) can't do the work of excellent writing and artwork?
The May issue features some content that is excellent and some that isn't. Not surprisingly, there's some really good writing here, particularly:
Other pieces don't soar quite as high. A profile of another Todd --"Todd Palin is the Man for America Now" -- fails to elevate the First Dude into the icon of manhood we're meant to believe he has become (unless you work for the Republican Party of Alaska).
If you're noticing a pattern, it's not accidental. Mr. Clooney's facial parts are on the cover for a reason, after all. This is a themed issue: How To Be A Man 2009. The magazine's first person plural -- we this and we that -- never stops offering advice, though much of it focuses on what to purchase (leaving the feeling that ad pages come in many guises). But whether Esquire is advising you which power tools to keep in your garage or how to make a killer barbeque sauce, you're often left with an overarching sense that the editors are trying just a bit too hard.
It's a given that other generations -- such as my father's -- would have gotten a good laugh out of all this man stuff. But then he and many like him were facing the hostile guns of a German Panzer Division when they were learning how to become men. That's not to say our definition of manhood hasn't radically changed in the decades since; I know I've succeeded in ways he never dreamed about.
But I remember a true tough guy who once told me that the toughest guys he had ever met never spoke about being tough. Corollary: If you have to learn
how to be a man from a magazine article, it may be too late. Ironically, on page 25, Ian McShane of "Deadwood" more or less states this in his Q&A:
"ESQ: What's the best advice you ever got?
IM: None at all. Work it out on your own, son."
In one of my other lives, I teach a college course entitled "Writing Creatively for Magazines," where last week we discussed at length Tom Junod's transcendent profile of Mr. Rogers for Esquire, published in 1998. Without any hyperbole, I described it to my students as being the single best magazine article I've ever read. Thankfully, Junod still writes for Esquire.
Nobody asked, but that would be my 21st Century strategy for Esquire: Fewer Blinking Lights on the Covers, More Tom Junods on the Inside Pages. That's something even MoMA could celebrate.
Published by: Hearst Communications, Inc.