Industry News 10/25/2005

Mainstream Commentary on Surfer Magazine's Guest Editor Issue

Mainstream Commentary on Surfer Magazine's Guest Editor Issue

by Larry Dobrow, Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I'VE NEVER BEEN MUCH of a fan of the whole "guest editor" gimmick. Yes, readers tend to get a bit of a different presentation--photos and interviews and all that--but more often than not, it comes across as a sad, transparent grab for attention by both title and erstwhile K-list editor alike ("Kelly Osbourne's taking over this month's CosmoGIRL! and it's gonna be OUTRAGEOUS!"). Thus when the November Surfer arrived on the local newsstand with its front cover heralding "The Guest Editor Issue," I expected the usual mix of sanitized babble and faux exclusives.

Mercifully, the venerable title handed over the keys to the van to two of its own: Hawaii-reared musician Jack Johnson and California surf guy/filmmaker Chris Malloy. The result? An issue of the magazine that's more or less like any other, boasting tons of astonishing photos and worshipful paeans to the daredevil types who populate them. That's a good thing, by the way.

As way-cool as surfing looks, I'm not a card-carrying member of surfer nation mostly because I'm a... what's a good euphemism for "coward"? Also, there don't appear to be too many waves in the Hudson worth cresting, at least not without exposing one's skin to a smorgasbord of oxides and sulfites. Surfer, then, isn't a magazine for me or my fellow novices; the price of admission here is a wealth of surfing knowledge and more than passing familiarity with surfing lingo.

That said, it's difficult not to admire the enthusiasm that teems from every page of the November issue. Guest editors or no, Surfer remains one of the few enthusiast titles that transcends the small-time feel of supposed niche publications. Too, Surfer takes its mission seriously, pushing an environment-friendly agenda (the November issue is its first printed on recycled paper) and, despite the most densely ad-packed environment this side of InStyle, shying away from anything that might emit a corporate pong. You don't have to be a surf rat to realize that Surfer's enduring success can be directly traced to its authenticity.

As for the November issue, its best moments are the ones steeped in water-sport lore. The Q&A with Mark Cunningham--sort of the Neil Young of bodysurfers--offers rich insight into the mind-set of an ocean lifer. Similarly, despite its goofy hook ("five surfers living outside of the box"--cliché tidal wave approaching! Head for higher ground!), the "HUMANoids" profiles of long-distance paddleboarder Jamie Mitchell and musician/artist (I think) Alex Knost present a sharp younger-generation counterpoint to Cunningham's weathered twinkle.

Johnson and Malloy more than earn their keep, too, presenting personal surf scrapbooks (as if they needed to prove their mettle) and enlivening the collection of "ejectoid" wipe-out shots with welcome snark. Their photo choices, especially the panoramic fold-out cover and the scrapbook shots, consistently surprise.

The November issue's failures are mostly noble ones. From having read a Sports Illustrated profile a few years back, I realize that the Kelly Slater/Andy Irons rivalry has fueled competitive surfing for years. But the account of their clash at the Billabong Pro at Jeffreys Bay contest would have benefited from more straightforward reporting, as opposed to the writer's conversational approach. And while I'm assuming that "Everybody Surfs" is an ongoing fiction project, the obvious, flat prose practically begs for a ghostwriter equipped with a thesaurus: "A hate began to swell and fester in young Jameson Huntley's heart, a hate that tempered within him a steely resolve." Uh-oh, sounds like somebody's gonna take a whuppin'... Oahu-pipeline style!

I don't have the slightest idea if that last line makes any sense, which is why I'm kind of the wrong guy to be weighing in on Surfer. But I can say this much with confidence: anybody wanting to indulge his or her own inner Spicoli ought to grab this mag pronto.


Larry Dobrow is a Contributing Writer.