Exclusive: Josh Bernstein of ‘Royal Flush Magazine’ on the Power of Alternative Publishing
Last week we showed you a preview of the latest issue of Royal Flush, the alternative magazine responsible for, among other things, having Paul Pope illustrate naked women, putting Harvey Pekar through his modern metal and punk rock paces, and transforming Frank Zappa into one of Jack Kirby’s New Gods courtesy of artist Rick Veitch.
It’s comics; it’s rock and roll; it’s art and design. Full disclosure: that combination is unto a birthday party (that serves really, really good pizza) for my brain.
Of course, prepackaged euphoria doesn’t manifest out of thin air. That’s why we went to the man behind the Royal Flush’s continued comic book conversation — Editor and Publisher Josh Bernstein.
From creating underground comics in art school to trekking through the offices of everyone from Revolver and Maxim to Marvel Comics and The Wall Street Journal, Berstein’s a mind keen on collaborating in the post-post-publishing era where he believes magazines can still flourish on both sides of the digital divide.
ComicsAlliance: While longtime readers likely have a pretty firm grasp of “Royal Flush’s” editorial focus and tone, new readers might be surprised by the significant portion of the magazine designated to comics and stories about comic book culture. Is this a response to reader demand, an editorial decision intended to boost interest in a medium you want to share with others, a combination or something else entirely?
Josh Bernstein: Actually, longtime readers know that when “Flush” started out (in 2001) it was an B&W all-comics anthology. Most of the Royal Flush gang were self-publishing our own comics and zines throughout the ’90s and thought that we’d combine forces for one big mamma-jamma of a comic anthology. After the first couple of years, we realized that creating an all-comic content magazine was limiting to us as we all played in bands, did animation, loved horror movies and wanted to break down the walls of the traditional “comic book” much in the way “MAD” magazine had done 50 years earlier. Comic anthologies in general are a mixed bag – I looked to “MAD,” “RAW,” “World War 3,” “Blab” and “Dark Horse Presents” as anthologies I thought pulled it off well, growing up. As far as longtime and current readers, I’ve only gotten better and better responses with each issue. But yes, I can see a new reader being drawn in by a “celebrity cover” or as a music fan and being turned onto some amazing, and hilarious comics.
CA: As Editor, Publisher and Art Director, you wear a lot of hats when it comes to getting “Royal Flush” out the door each issue. How has juggling these roles honed your approach to running the magazine? Do you ever find the editor in you arguing with the art director? Does the publisher have a lack of sympathy for the deadline extensions your editor side might be willing to let slide?
JB: Great question. I’ve had the fortune of holding a lot of these titles “for real” in my professional life working at “Revolver,” “Marvel Comics,” “The Wall St. Journal,” “Maxim” and about every bookstore in NYC. When I started “Royal Flush,” it was an avenue for a bunch of my friends and myself to print our comics and dick jokes. Over the years I would use my skills I was learning at my day jobs and adapt them to the magazine to make it better and better and using each issue as a platform to push the limits of how good a self-published magazine could get. I just tried to note make my bosses mistakes. Haha. With that growth, came all these other new titles and responsibilities… publisher, salesman, marketer, writer, editor, concert promoter and to this very day, lifter of heavy-assed books. Once you accept the mantra that “if you want it done right, do it yourself,” you can really appreciate and get past the truth that no one is going to write it, promote it, sell it better than you. But honestly, I’d trade that all in to be able to draw f–ked up stuff with my buddies and make rock posters!
CA: Do you have a favorite piece from this issue, or something that really stood out to you?
JB: Getting Harvey Pekar to cut loose in this forum was amazing. But yeah, the Jack Kirby / Frank Zappa secret friendship article was amazing on so many levels — just the sheer amount of people that put that piece together, realizing how unique this tale was…. Jeff Newelt, our new comics editor, was with Paul Pope last year when Bryan Talbot of all people showed him this photo of Frank Zappa and Jack Kirby from 1981. It was insane, like, those guys partied? [laughs] … Then to top it all off, we had comic legend Rick Vietch draw Zappa as a Kirby-esque New God! I was so psyched as a fan of all of it to do the type design and layouts on this. And stepping back, that article sums up the magazine really as a whole: comics, rock and roll, design, fantasy and awesomeness all rolled into one tasty package. If you get that, you’ll love the whole magazine experience.
CA: You also regularly feature artwork by creators like Paul Pope and Rick Veitch, among others. Do you feel like comic book culture (past or present) helps bolster RF’s general aesthetic?
JB: Yes, of course. Like I said earlier, this was a small comics zine done by some art school buddies. The fact that we drew the attention of Danny Hellman, Shannon Wheeler, Tony Millionaire, Drew Friedman, and now Peter Kuper, Paul Pope, Harvey Pekar and Rick Veitch blows my mind. I really think we’re building a home and safe haven that is so pro-illustration, pro-comic, pro-cutting edge design, that other creative types see what’s happening here and want to get in on the action. I am not really a loner, I’m a collaborator. I love working with artists, and get to talk shop with many of them and expose their work to other people. It’s also a great joy to work with so many talented up & coming artists and I’m always keeping my eyes open for people that have that undeniable “Flush Factor.”
CA: Although “Royal Flush” has a clear web presence, at its heart it remains an art heavy publication meant for the printed page. With mainstream print media facing turbulence and failure across the entire spectrum (including the comic book industry), are you losing sleep over what many perceive to be the end of days?
JB: My outlook is very positive. Nothing for me beats the printed page – I love the smell, the feel. As a kid, I loved the smell of the old 10 and 12 cent comics. I love the heavy ink we use in “Royal Flush,” it really has a distinct smell that is awesome. You can’t smell a Kindle… And also, some print should actually die — there’s a lot of s–t out there. They’ve said that print is dead since the dawn of the 1900s, and we’re still here, and there were more magazine launches last year than ever before. It’s sad; the readers in many cases haven’t left print, it’s the advertisers, and the general economy. But we’ve only gotten a bigger readership and more attention with each successive issue. Due to its unorthodox print schedule, each issue is more of an event. We’ve always done a huge party in conjunction with each book – this year we took it to another level b
y launching the first ever Royal Flush Festival here in NYC.
CA: Lastly, do you have any personal favorite comics or comic book creators that you maybe haven’t found opportunities to work with yet? Can you drop any hints as to what comic fans should be looking forward to in future issues?
JB: Well my wish list would include any of the original “MAD” artists, Jaffee, Davis, and Drucker, Jim Steranko, George Perez, Mike Allred, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Crumb. I just had the pleasure of meeting Tim Bradstreet and Rick Parker very recently, and I can’t wait to drag them, kicking and screaming into the “Flush” Fold. I also would cream for many different famous gigposter artists, cartoonists, graphic designers and illustrators in future editions. The sky’s the limit!