Interview: Victory Journal’s Glory-seeking Creatives

Victory Journal Digital - sports and culture

Devote your attention equally to photos, design and writing, and the result can be staggering.

Take Victory Journal, a New York magazine dedicated to Sports and Culture. Recently it launched its digital edition, an aesthetic exhibition of storytelling styles.
Dutch News Design interviewed Creative Director Christopher Isenberg on inspiration, compulsive workflow, and following the gut.

Victory Journal print magazine - Dutch News Design

This is Victory Journal:

  • An aesthetic ode to iconic sports, in the shape of a print magazine plus digital edition;
  • in a vintage, raw, contemporary artistic design, and written in a new journalism, literary style;
  • made by creative devotees from the world of journalism, arts, photography and design.
  • A visit to feels like stepping into an art gallery dedicated to sports culture.

… or in Chris Isenberg’s words:

Where else are you gonna see French water jousting, Muhammad Ali, Six Man Football, Superfly Snuka, a collection of Las Vegas ashtrays, and an animated comic book about a historic Cold War ice hockey match?

Christopher Isenburg interview with Dutch News Design

Creative director Christopher Isenberg

The New York Kid

Ever watched How to make it in America, a tv-series about grown-up New York kids trying to make a dollar in Brooklyn? That’s Isenberg’s world. Chris is one of these entrepreneurial, creative, typical New York kids. In 2004 he founded No Mas NYC, a vintage design T-shirt brand, featuring the sports heroes of his own childhood. Exactly the kind of company the main characters of How to make it in America would launch.

Ever heard of New York Newsday? If you’re a journalist you have. They won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. That’s also Isenberg’s world. His father worked for the mayor of New York in the 60s and 70s, ‘but after that, he became the publisher of Newsday – which at that time, in the 80s and 90s – competed with the Daily News and New York Post,’ tells Chris, ‘So during high school I got to visit the newsroom a lot and meet amazing writers and editors like Don Forst, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, Sidney Schanberg , Molly O’Neill and Jim Dwyer.’

Cold War ice hockey match - animated comic journalism

Victory Journal’s animated comic journalism: Cold War ice hockey

Not surprisingly Chris wanted to become a journalist. He attended Stanford, studied English literature at Oxford University, and worked as a freelance journalist for Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The New York Times and New York Times Magazine.

It was my fantasy to be a globe-trotting feature writer like Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese. But, it didn’t work out that way. One reason was that the magazine business shrank and that kind of career didn’t really exist any more―except for maybe Sebastian Junger. The other is that I found out I didn’t like to sit in a room alone all day and write. I needed to work more collaboratively.

Inspired by: The Greatest Of All Time

So he launched the sport culture brand No Mas, and not long thereafter partnered up in the creative studio Doubleday & Cartwright, in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn – nowadays undeniably successful with clients like Nike, Red Bull and ESPN. Yet he still felt the desire to produce journalism content on his beat: sports. His eyes were opened when he read Greatest Of All Time, a 20 x 20 inch book on Muhammad Ali – according to Der Spiegel ‘The most megalomanic book in cultural history.’

The Greatest of All Time - Taschen Design and Journalism, Victory Journal

Page from the 75 pounds (34 kilograms) book Greatest of All Time (G.O.A.T.) – a tribute to Mohammad Ali.

‘What Benedict Taschen did with the giant Muhammad Ali book, G.O.A.T., the way they treated the photos, the objects and the writing all equally. That was for me, well…in some ways a confirmation of what I already knew was interesting, in other ways, a revelation.”

Victory Journal magazine was launched in 2010 by Chris and his fellow creative directors Aaron Amaro and Kimou Meyer, both with a background in graphic design.

The magazine appears in a large 11 x 17 inch format, limited edition. Chris: ‘To this point it’s been printed on a cold press at the same plant a lot of New York neighborhood weeklies and community newspapers use. My partner Aaron Amaro will be down there on the floor the whole time it runs, telling them to add more cyan and stuff like that. It’s strange to work so hard to get photos and illustration of such a high caliber and then run them through this very inexact printing process. But there’s also something we love about it.’


From left: Kimou Meyer, Aaron Amaro, Christopher Isenberg


Childhood heroes: drugs, crime, steroids and ear biting

Despite the raw aura and issue titles like Blood and Asphalt and For Love or Money, the magazine has an optimistic vibe. Victory is concerned with the eternal glories and ignominies of players and pursuits the world over, the About page reads. Chris: ‘Our brand No Mas, which started as my personal project, has the motto: The thrill of victory and the ecstasy of defeat. With Victory Journal, the defeat part is not out of it. We like to cover losing as well as winning. We’re interested in both heroes and villains. But there is definitely something more positive about Victory.’

For Chris personally this seemingly trivial change of perspective, has deeper significance. ‘In 2005 I did an art show called Fall Classic, with No Mas. It was about the athletes I was obsessed with in my childhood, during the 80s: Mike Tyson, Darryl Strawberry, Pete Rose, Lawrence Taylor, Mark Gastineau, Ben Johnson. ‘They all had had these precipitous falls whether it was drugs, gambling, steroids, ear biting or a combination of all the above.’

During that time Chris identified closely with these characters. ‘I was struggling to figure out my place in the world. Sometimes using too much drugs and alcohol or otherwise screwing up. And my relationship with these fallen idols felt very central. Not that I’m completely over that, but I feel just a little bit more…heroic. Victory Journal reflects that shift. It comes from a more purely positive place.’

Jimmy Superfly Snuka at the Orange County Fair - still from the documentary

Still from the documentary “superfly” on Victory Journal

Consequently, when Victory Journal made an online documentary on wrestler Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka, they did not address the serious accusation that the former WWF-wrestler killed his girlfriend in a hotel room in 1983. Chris explains: ‘We are not there to burn people. We made the documentary because we were fascinated with Superfly. He was wrestling for very little money at the Orange County Fair, in upstate New York. It was a broiling hot day and half of the audience were disabled young people, brought there on a day trip. There is something difficult and sad about him still wrestling at his age and in this place, when he had once packed the house at Madison Square Garden. But it was also triumphant.’

Victory’s creative workflow

How Chris and his team came to make Superfly, tells a lot about Victory Journal’s workflow. The story of Jimmy Snuka came from Chris’s best friend, Victory’s “Spiritual Advisor” and frequent contributor Bud Schmeling, who also works as the maître d’ at the famous Brooklyn Steakhouse Peter Luger. Schmeling had always been obsessed with Jimmy Snuka – a former Fijian prince who became a legendary wrestler, and inventor of the famous “Superfly”: a flying jump from the top corner of the ring upon a floored opponent.

‘Bud went to his house in New Jersey and interviewed him for Victory Journal issue #2. It was only there we realised that he was still actually wrestling, so we said: let’s do a documentary around one of his matches. Almost a year later we shot Superfly at the Orange County Fair in upstate New York. I really like that type of progression.’

Victory Journal 6 - Dutch News Design

Victory Journal #6

The documentary Fast Eddy and the Boys had the same kind of pairing. In Victory #6, Blood & Asphalt the cover story is about photographer Jerome Liebling and his incredible 70s era images of handball in Miami. ‘These are 80-year-old Jewish guys from Brooklyn but with the play of shadow and light, they look like giants.  For, we have a documentary that was made on the same subjects, but suddenly you see them in VHS-era color and hear their voices and stories. The two pieces of content both make the other richer.’

Victory Journal is unambiguously open to new storytelling techniques. All their stories are created with no other restriction than the print magazine format and the latest digital publishing inventions. ‘With Victory Digital, it’s very exciting to be inventive with the frame as well as the story itself,’ says Chris. So whether it is animations, comic journalism stories or long reads, the team puts a lot of time and effort in creating really high quality productions. In the media world, where the general standard is to make a lot of content at a small price, that sounds like a rather counter-intuitive approach. Chris: ‘You’re right, it’s a compulsion to work like that, but it’s worked for us so far, and we believe Victory Journal has a financial future.’

Animated storytelling by Victory Journal

La Gran Fuga – animated storytelling by Victory Journal

The Future: Follow the gut

In addition to their magazine and website Victory has begun collaborating with more established media. Recently the Victory Journal team co-produced The Perfect 18 with Grantland/ ESPN. A touchingly amusing documentary about IT manager Rick Baird, who scores a perfect round of mini-golf in 2011. The legendary streak is retold by him and his fellow sportsmen (yes, mini-golf is all men). The story is part interview, part animation.

‘It was incredible to work with them. We got to make something at very high quality level and it has gotten an amazing response. Over 350,000 hits on Grantland’s YouTube Channel. It ran on ESPN SportsCenter twice. And the subject of the doc, Rick Baird, got invited onto The Today Show, which is a whole lot of eyeballs. Pretty amazing for a story about mini golf.”

But as romantic and artistic as it sounds to make a beautiful magazine in Brooklyn, with a team of extremely talented designers, journalists, artists and photographers, somewhere money has to be made. ‘A lot of time and resources go into it,’ Chris agrees. ‘Victory Journal is a very big investment, but that’s just how my partners and I operate… So far in my journey as a writer and creative, not chasing the money, but following the gut and areas of true interest, has always led in one way or another to making money.’

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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