In the early 1980s the Powers That Be in IPC decided to test the water with a “lifestyle” magazine aimed at boys in their early-to-mid teens. There was already one-and-a-half plethoras of mags for girls in that age-range, and some of them were selling very well indeed, but there was nothing comparable for boys.
So Look Alive was conceived, a weekly magazine that would cover all the things in which teenage boys of the time were interested. With the expected exceptions, of course, as dictated by decency and market restrictions.
The name was presumably chosen to suggest a connection with the successful Look and Learn (1049 issues between January 1962 and May 1982). Comparative girls’ mags were sometimes given girls’ names — Diana, Jackie, etc. — but I really can’t picture teenaged boys buying a publication called Stephen or Nigel.
Look Alive‘s first issue was cover-dated 18th September 1982, and I snatched it up eagerly. I was sixteen and a half years old, at the top end of the intended age-range, I suspect, but it was packed with potentially interesting stuff: dinosaurs, computers, Vince Clarke from Yazoo, a very nice-looking comic-strip that was written by Alan Grant and drawn by Angus McBride, and free poster mags for the first eight issues — how could it possibly fail?
Sadly, fail it did. Look Alive lasted only five issues before the plug was pulled. According to the editorial in the final issue, the mag went to the printers “six weeks ahead of the day the actual issue arrives in your newsagent.” This means that that the publishers knew from day one that it was a non-starter. I’m sure that was a bitter pill for the editorial team to swallow. (That final issue didn’t know that it was the final issue: it includes several references to a “next week” that never came.)
Why didn’t it work? Well, probably there are several reasons, but I reckon that the top of the list is occupied by “There Was No Precedent.”
Back in that era, teenage girls’ mags such as Oh Boy and My Guy had articles on fashion and make-up and pop-stars and movie-stars, there were horoscopes and pin-ups and photo-stories of true love and a black-and-white comic-strip or two. These mags were stepping-stones between all-strip comics like Debbie, Tammy, Bunty and the like and proper grown-up women’s magazines like Woman’s World or Cosmopolitan.
But general-purpose magazines aimed at grown-up men didn’t really exist. Men’s mags tended to be specialised, focussing exclusively on one topic like fishing or golf or cars or hi-fi systems or women’s unclad bodies.
There had been a few all-purpose boy’s magazines before, but they hadn’t been overly successful: Top Spot, for example, ran for 58 issues from October 1958 to January 1960 before it was absorbed into Film Fun. Ranger clocked up 40 issues between September 1965 and June 1966, when it was absorbed by Look and Learn.
That, I reckon, is where Look Alive fell down: it was meant to be a step away from comics, but a step in which direction? It’s hard to fill a gap when you have now idea how far it is to the other side. Plus boys of that era just weren’t accustomed to buying non-specialist magazines.
Look Alive‘s scattergun approach was, for me, the second reason it didn’t take off. See, here’s the entire first issue in small-o-vision:
Let’s break those thirty-two pages down, and see how the contents appealed to young Rusty…
02-03: Editorial & News
04-06: Sports. Feature on rally cars
07-11: Frontline Britain. Feature on British fighter jets and aircraft carriers
12-13: Street Level: “Are you Neat on the Street?” Boys’ fashion stuff
15: Chip Shop. Computers and such
16-17: Comic-strip: The Chronicles of Genghis Grimtoad
18-20: Silicon Chip Superstars — Interview with Vince Clarke
20-21: Live Action: Future letters page, stuff about CB radios, misc. news
22: Have Your Say: Would it matter if there weren’t any whales?
23-25: I, Dinosaur. Article on dinosaurs
27-30: London Floods: What would happen if London flooded?
31-32: Acti-File: Boardsailing
That’s twenty-nine pages of content, not counting the cover. I’ve no interest in sports, so take away the three pages on rally cars and two on boardsailing (I swear I thought that was called “Sailboarding”). Fashion? Pfff! Another two pages gone. CB radios and the filler where the letters would go? Nope. Another 1½ pages not for me. I wasn’t that pushed about the war stuff, either, so ditch a further five pages. That leaves around half of the magazine that would have been of interest to me.
That’s actually a very good hit-rate for a magazine — even with a specialist mag you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who loved every single element of a given issue — but I was more used to anthology comics where I’d skip maybe one story out of six. While I did enjoy a lot of the articles in Look Alive, the other stuff just left me completely cold.
Since Look Alive only ran for five issues, and I have all five (except for the free poster-mags: I know I must have had them — because the ends of the magazines’ staples are not lying flat, indicating that something was pulled out of the middle pages — but I can only remember the Genghis Grimtoad poster/map from #3, and I’ve no idea what happened to it), let’s extend my analysis for the whole run, putting Rusty’s Feature Interest Index (i.e., marks out of ten for how much I care about the topic) for each feature on a nice little graph…
Look Alive was a brave experiment, and it’s a shame it didn’t catch on because the potential was enormous. But it’s also no surprise, with hindsight: the market just wasn’t there.
A few years later, Newsfield Publications — which had experienced tremendous sales and acclaim with their computer games magazines Crash, Zzap! 64 and Amtix — attempted a similar late-teenage boys’ lifestyle magazine, LM, but with even less success than Look Alive: it lasted a mere four issues.
It was another decade before male-targeted lifestyle magazines like Loaded — aimed at even older readers, and with rather more “grown-up” content — would see lasting success. Whether or not that was a good thing… is outside the scope of this article!
Look Alive‘s strongest feature, in my opinion, was The Chronicles of Genghis Grimtoad. Eight years later it was revived — with its existing ten pages redrawn by Ian Gibson, and with John Wagner now credited as co-writer — in Marvel UK’s Strip magazine, which ran from 17 February to 10 November 1990, for twenty issues.
For those interested in such things, and indeed also for those who aren’t, I present here the first episode of both the Look Alive and Strip versions… Same script, different artists!
Later still, the story was completed and published by Marvel as a 48-page graphic novel.
It ends with “Here ends Book One of the Grimtoad Chronicles” but — to the best of my knowledge — it has yet to be continued, but it’s well-worth a read if you can track down a copy.
(Note to publishers: how about a new edition of the book, complete with the Look Alive pages along with the poster and map given away with issue #3? That’d be great, thanks!)
Bonus: As is well known, comics fans are extremely fashion-conscious and trendy and “with it” and such, so here’s a closer look at the fashion pages from the first issue of Look Alive: