I was one of the first subscribers to Radar magazine, because the rate was cheap and a buddy of mine was going to be writing for them, and I wanted to support him. (Aside to young writers: If you want to get anywhere in this business, you've got to help each other out. This has been Mentor's Corner.) I received one not-all-that impressive issue of Radar in the mail back in 2003, and then nothing for a solid year until suddenly a new issue appeared in 2005. The 2005 version of the magazine was a lot better than the 2003 version. My friend was long-gone, and the focus on snarky pop culture schematics was too indebted to Spy, but a lot of stories–like the one about Tom Cruise's scientology adventures, and the one about Disney costumed characters gone wild–ran a lot deeper than I expected. They weren't just breezy and cute; they were well-written, and really trying to say something about the truth beneath showbiz glitz.

I may have gotten another issue or two in the mail in 2005–according to what I've read, three issues were published that year–but basically I forgot all about Radar until a new issue showed up unexpected a month ago. I started reading the new one last week, and despite far too much Spy-esque filler–and a generally skeptical tone that frames even a simple profile of Paul Verhoeven as "can you believe this nut?"–the magazine contains a handful of stories that are as good as just about anything I've seen in the pop reportage field lately.

I enjoyed the two somewhat scandal-sheet-y but largely even-handed examinations of movie stars in apparent psychological crisis. (That would be Wesley Snipes and Jim Carrey). And I really enjoyed the fascinating look at the dust-ups over joke-stealing in the stand-up comedy world. But the champ of the issue is a piece about unwitting YouTube personalities–like Afroninja and that dude who sang "One" to celebrate a bank merger–and how their lives have been affected by a kind of celebrity they never craved.

If there's a theme that unites these stories, it has something to do with how the mass media universe consumes and hollows out anyone who spends any significant amount of time there. That's really driven home by the YouTube piece, which makes it clear that being a national joke for a week wouldn't be so bad, if only millions of net-dwellers and news anchors didn't make such hateful presumptions. (In the case of the stumbling Afroninja, a.k.a. Mark Hicks, he's a successful stuntman who got the job he was auditioning for, though the YouTube commenters calling him "stupid dumbass" clearly didn't know that.)

Of course, Radar doesn't help matters with pieces like "Toxic Bachelors," which dishes on the worst womanizers on the international playboy scene. But at the same time, that story has a "here's what no one wants you to know" quality that's bracing–and maybe even therapeutic. It'll be interesting to see if Radar can reconcile its "look at these idiots" side and its "symptathy for the fame-afflicted" side in the issues to come. And I hope Radar stays around long enough to figure out what it ought to be. I'll say this: The new issue arrived in my mailbox wrapped in a subscription renewal notice, and I've already filled out the card.

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