Thursday, May 13, 2010

For the Love of Comics #12: Josh Bernstein's Royal Flush

Words: Seth Kushner

Once upon a time, magazines were filled with illustrations by the top artists of the time.  Sure, today’s mags still use the occasional illustration and the the New Yorker features weekly illustrated covers by the likes of Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine and others, but the days of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post Covers are long gone.  Photography has long since replaced traditional magazine illustration, but not so at Royal Flush magazine.  I recently spoke with Royal Flush Publisher/Editor Josh Bernstein.

Seth Kushner: Royal Flush strikes me as having a strong editorial direction and does a good job of connecting comics, rock, and tongue and cheek entertainment.  Is that a reflection of your own personal taste and aesthetic? 

Josh Bernstein: Why thank you! I think it took us a little while to find our voice, but the last few issues have really come together nicely with a mix of art, comics, film and rock and roll. These are areas that are of great interest to me in my personal life, as well as the main interest of most of my contributors and collaborators.

SK: Who is the target audience that shares your taste?

JB: We’re all fans of these amazing art forms and want to celebrate them to the fullest extent. The fact that it appeals to others outside our circle is just icing on the cake. Much like your website Seth, you cover and photograph subjects that are of interest to you, and the end result is it makes for much better photos, interviews and passionate & revealing insights. Getting to do something you love is beyond a pleasure.

SK: In an age where magazines have all but dropped illustrations for photography, you rely almost entirely on illustration, and from many top artists.  Was this a conscience decision?

JB: Yes, I’m a struggling/failed illustrator (haha) and went to SVA with many of the other Royal Flush artists. I know that the avenues for a contemporary illustrator to get their work seen, let alone published is very rare. In my day job as Creative Director of Revolver Magazine, I have made it my mission to stuff as much illustration in there as possible. Most of it by design, as magazine budgets get slashed, photoshoots become very pricey. The “pub” photo is always an option for a magazine of their subject, but why bother when you could have a custom, one of a kind illustrative portrait? The artists get to draw someone they idolize, or have always wanted to draw and usually it ends up in the hands of the celebrity, making a very personal connection between all parties that is very unique. A lot of what we do about Royal Flush comes from my background in an artist’s collective. I love working and collaborating with other illustrators, designers and comic book creators. We never realized how unique Royal Flush would be, by having an entire magazine hand-illustrated. It’s a real lost art (pun intended!)

SK: You recently did a cover story on Hugh Hefner, how much of an inspiration is Hef to you and to  Royal Flush?

JB: I really can’t say enough about Mr. Hefner as a man, a publisher and a friend to comics. Getting a chance to correspond with him the last few years has been amazing. He was very gracious to me and Royal Flush, and it means the world to me to have met him. Who wouldn’t look up to the man that embodies the American Dream? Publish a legendary magazine, create an empire, get a personal jet, mansion, bunnies, you name it. Getting to chat with Hef was an eye-opening experience.  To realize that he was a comic-book nerd just like all of us, and really humanized him in my mind. He basically was a comic strip artist who took some cues from his day job at Esquire and decided to self-publish his new little magazine Playboy back in 1953. His legacy of publishing and support to some of the greatest artists, writers, musicians and cartoonists of our time is stunning. That, and he let me hang with him at the Mansion.

SK: The latest issue featured contributions from such comics creators as Paul Pope, Rick Veitch, and Harvey Pekar, what about the magazine do you think attracts such top comics talent?

JB: For me it’s such an honor. I am fans of all of our contributors, but to have new contributions from names like that and Peter Kuper, Drew Freidman and Danny Hellman blows my mind. I have been fans of some of these fellas since my early childhood. I think the message that is conveyed from the book is that this is a safe haven for modern underground illustration and comics. Hopefully the go-to destination. The artistic freedom and collaborative spirit is very much alive here. Due to Royal Flush’s large distribution network, these artists’ work also reaches an entirely new world beyond comic shops, record stores and tattoo parlors. We hope that this is only the beginning, and can’t wait to see which exciting artists will pop up in future issues of the Flush from the worlds of comics, art and design.

SK: You did a Royal Flush panel at the King Con in Brooklyn last year, and held your own Royal Flush Festival, what other plans do you have for expanding the brand?

JB: Yes, both of those events were a blast. From the very beginning since 2001, we’ve always had big concert book release parties at CBGBs and Bowery Ballroom. Having events, live music, screenings has been integral to the Royal Flush brand. The panel at the King Con was a great moment for us, as I got to have about 10 of my best friends and fellow art accomplices on that stage together. It was good to match the killer art to all those sexy faces. The Festival was an epic undertaking that required a million moving parts. My partners in that were amazing, and the same enthusiasm that went into the magazine went into that festival. The next big moves for us are a re-launch of our site, ( tour sponsorship, Book 7 and our debut at this year’s San Diego Comic Con. Then it’s onto another festival in in mid-October with the 2nd Annual Royal Flush Film Festival. Stupid doesn’t sleep.

Royal Flush Magazine and Midnight Dreams Productions have joined forces for a massive special event combining music, comics and art May 15 at Public Assembly, 70 North 6th Street in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.  The evening will celebrate the release of New York based musician/filmmaker Alex Dementia’s new comic Vrykolakas: The Unholy and feature performances by Dementia’s own The Resurrection Sorrow, Panzie, The Bambi Killers and DJ Jenn City, highlighted by the reunion of the mighty ‘80s mock glam metal band Satanicide.  In addition, there will be exhibits and items for sale including Royal Flush issues, posters, t-shirts and more.  The show starts at 8:30pm in Public Assembly’s front room and tickets are $12 at the door.