Have you been to a newsstand lately? Yes, there are still a few out there. While the selections may have thinned in the last decade, there are still row upon row of glossy magazines and boxy journals vying for your attention — if you put down your phone.
In this crowded, colorful arena, a new Berkeley publication called Anxy stands out for several reasons. First, there’s the striking cover of the spring/summer 2017 issue, the magazine’s first: A mysterious humanoid made up of red spikes with an all-caps cover line announcing The Anger Issue.
Then there’s the magazine’s approach: raw, at times aching, honesty. There is no part of Anxy that flaunts its coolness or its creators’ desire to elevate themselves above their readers.
Finally, there’s the magazine’s subject matter: mental health.
As founder and creative director Indhira Rojas explains in a founder’s letter, she and her team created Anxy “to make a space where vulnerable personal stories can be shared.”
These stories, she goes on to explain, “we often keep to ourselves because we are worried that if others knew, they would want nothing to do with us — so deep is our shame.”
If that sounds like heavy reading, it’s not. Anxy is full of surprises, with stories and art that are often amusing. A spread of short interviews with retail workers and others by Beejoli Shah is headlined What It’s Like When People Shout at You All Day. Accompanied by colorful marker portraits by Ana Popescu, it’s a look at the inner lives of people who aren’t usually seen in magazines. (Sample nugget: The Minnesota call-center employee who keeps a crocheted Pokemon and “a warm, fuzzy blanket” near her desk to remind her who she is.) There’s also an illustrated examination, by Kevin Braddock and Teddy Hose, into why the Samsung ringtone is so annoying featuring cameos by Julius Pringles (potato-chip mascot) and Sigmund Freud (psychoanalysis mascot).
One of the more haunting pieces is a portfolio of intimate portraits that Brooklyn photographer Melissa Spitz took of her mother, who lives with mental illness and addiction. The artist describes these images as “an ongoing conversation between us … simultaneously upsetting and encouraging: honest, and theatrical: loving and hateful.”
Like its prickly cover image, Anxy can be alluring and a little off-putting. Despite its newness and circulation of just 8,000, the magazine is already resonating. “I’ve never connected with a magazine or idea as quickly,” one reader in the United Kingdom tweeted. As another reader put it on Instagram: “So. Much. Yes.”
On a recent morning in her sunny design studio in Berkeley, Rojas, 34, explained why she created Anxy. “I’ve always been interested in publications and magazines but never had an idea of my own,” she said. Two years ago, she was working at Medium, the digital publishing startup created by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams. It was a high-pressure job with long hours and a serious risk of burnout, even for a self-described “high-functioning, get-(stuff)-done creative professional” like Rojas. She was going to therapy and “thinking about my own life and all the things I was struggling with and I thought other people were, too.”
For years, the Web (including Medium) has been awash in confessional click-bait. (“It’s like a waterfall,” Rojas said.) Some social media users are just as comfortable announcing their need for “self-care” as they are presenting their #blessed lives.
Celebrities are also shedding their mystique to speak openly about mental illness. Lena Dunham has been vocal about her OCD. Lady Gaga wrote an open letter to her fans about her PTSD. Comedian Chris Gethard has been frank — and funny — about his suicidal depression. MTV News writer Ana Marie Cox opened up about living with bipolar disorder, inspired in part by the death of the fearless Carrie Fisher (whose ashes were placed in an oversize replica of a Prozac capsule).
Even the royal family is doing its part to de-stigmatize mental illness with it #headstogether campaign.
For her project, Rojas envisioned something more measured and visually appealing than what she saw online. She also drew inspiration from the intimate conversations happening on podcasts like Marc Maron’s “WTF” and radio shows like “Fresh Air.”
At the time, Rojas sat across from Bobbie Johnson, an editor at Matter, Medium’s digital magazine. Over lunch one day, Rojas told Johnson about her idea: A print publication devoted to mental health, personal stories and art.
“He didn’t completely dislike it,” she remembered. “So that was something!”
Johnson, 38, agreed to help, becoming Anxy’s editor-at-large, even though he may not have been an obvious choice.
“I’m British,” said Johnson, 38. “We don’t talk about our feelings.”
That changed when he moved to the U.S. 10 years ago as a reporter for the Guardian. “It was bananas,” he recalled. “So strange. California in particular. I knew what to expect but I was still surprised by it.”
For the second issue he switched roles with editor-in-chief (and Chronicle contributor) Jennifer Maerz, who moved to Portland, Ore., in January yet remains involved with Anxy.
Still in its early days, the magazine is a side project for Rojas, Johnson, Maerz, et al. Rojas continues to create branding for clients like crowdfunders Patreon, Backchannel (a Medium tech site recently acquired by Wired) and 21st century cabinet of curiosities, Atlas Obscura.
“I think what’s unusual about it is that it’s a side hustle for everybody yet nobody flakes,” Maerz said later by phone. “A lot of that is because Indhi is so driven.”
Issue two is in development, and according to Rojas and Johnson, its theme goes back to their tech startup days and speaks directly to their current lives: “From Work to Workaholism.”
“There’s a big public story about work right now,” Johnson said. “Can you bring your whole self to work? Should you?”
When he tells people the theme, “Everyone was like, ‘Whoa I have a story to tell you!’” Johnson said. “There’s a big public story about work right now.”
As for their own work story, Rojas described her team as having “really good flow, which is really hard to find.”
“There have been some stresses, of course,” she continued, defaulting to Anxy’s reflexive honesty. “We’re all perfectionists, so there’s the pressure of that. But it’s been good for my mental health because I’m working on something I care about.”
Matt Haber is an East Bay freelance writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @matthaber
Where to find Anxy is sold at Alley Cat Books, Barnes & Noble, Green Apple Books & Music, Heath Newsstand, Needles & Pens (all San Francisco), and Issues in Oakland. https://www.anxymag.com.