National Geographic Adventure

Of all the mass-media megabrands out there, I don't see too many walking quite as tall as the National Geographic Society nowadays. Its cable arm is regularly out-Discoverying the Discovery Channel, its film unit hit paydirt with a bunch of marching penguins, and its kid publications rank among the few imaginative enough to divert young'uns from the gaming console. Yes, the society's flagship National Geographic title remains as engaging as test patterns, but the organization has more than compensated on just about every other front.

Add to this hot streak National Geographic Adventure, a travel/outdoor hybrid that should spur even the most resolute couch potato to break out the parka (or at least think about doing so while watching "American Idol" contestants get emotionally emasculated). The magazine doesn't do a whole lot that other titles haven't done before (Outside and GQ's occasional manly-men-in-the-wilderness stories come to mind as possible inspirations), but the travel twist gives Adventure an appeal wholly its own.

The December/January issue scores the most points with its punchy design. Take the two-page spread on the training "secrets" (lifting one's arms to prevent shoulder injuries? Do tell!) of Winter Olympians: It runs through four different font colors, four illustrations, three photos and seven product shots, adding bottom- and side-of-the-page blurbs for the otherwise understimulated. Nonetheless, the spread's economical use of the space at hand renders it visually rousing rather than cluttered.

For its "Best of Adventure 2006" extravaganza, the mag breaks down product and travel trends by environment (desert, snow, NYC apartment littered with magazines, etc.) using the same font/sidebar formula. While the presence of an additional foldout gift guide feels like piling on--especially given the dubious outdoors cred of items like a Cuban shirt that "survives nicely in the bottom of your duffel" --the boxy layout neatly offsets the slightly askew product shots, like one of a SanDisk memory card wedged into the ground.

Adventure also excels on the photo front--as well it should, given the Society's photographic legacy of wintery super-vistas and desert rot and such. At the same time, the publication doesn't overdo it. Sure, we get the requisite "what the..." cover shot (some kind of surfing/parasailing amalgam, with a cresting wave thrown in for kicks), but the special report on a controversial rescue operation in the Himalayas commences without the forced-artful photo/headline combo. And while I've sworn to ignore the gimmicky last-page dreck of every publication I critique, the "Your Turn" shot that closes out the issue is a bona fide marvel.

As opposed to the writers of other outdoors and especially travel pubs, the Adventure scribes don't seem to have Hemingway aspirations, sparing us the rhetorical flights of fancy that plague the genre. Best are the part-travelogue, part-history piece on Mongolia and a report on a hardier-than-thou adventurer who is dodging military junta and poacher alike to help preserve Myanmar's tigers. While the smaller items elicit the occasional giggle--gotta love the field test of "The Outdoor Bible" in a Central Park rainstorm--I wonder why Adventure hasn't been able to attract sharper, wittier columnists. If you're going to run a piece identifying backpacks and flashlights as travel "necessities," you better include a little humor or personality to blunt the duh-really? obviousness of the message.

Frankly, my main complaint about the December/January National Geographic Adventure is that it includes precious little to mock, which has rendered this a pretty lifeless column. I'm not a travel/adventure guy, as it's hard to summit Everest wearing slippers and sweatpants, but Adventure tantalizes with the promise of personal glories that don't involve a remote control. As such, it's one of the few titles that can chuck around the word "aspirational" and have it actually mean something.

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