Paper Darts has taken the concept of the literary magazine and knocked the stuffiness out of it.

Launched by three recent University of Minnesota graduates, the ambitious new print and online triannual publishes fiction, poetry, artwork, reviews and interviews with artists and writers. But Paper Darts is also a thing of fun and funky beauty -- not how you would describe most lit mags.

Woven between all the belles-lettres are video and music links, wild and colorful graphics, comics, even -- horrors! -- fashion. Whatever would they say at the New York Review of Books?

Named in part after a collection of Virginia Woolf's letters, Paper Darts also aims a tiny metaphorical missile at tradition.

"We're trying to take the stick out of the butt of the literary world," said Regan Smith, one of the young women behind the venture. "We value irreverence and humor and beautiful design. We're anti black-and-white text blocks."

Paper Darts represents the next generation of lit/art mags in a few other ways, too. It's a mash-up of art forms, pairing poems and prose with artwork by different contributors in a way that makes them seem fused as a larger whole, leaving interpretation up to the reader. They're using social media to great effect to expand both readership and contributions. And their love of print is balanced by an equal devotion to new media.

"So many literary magazines don't pay enough attention to their Web presence," said Jamie Millard, editing head of the "three-headed octopus," as she and her cohorts have dubbed themselves on their website. Smith's primary responsibility is publicity, and Meghan Suszynski is creative director.

As Paper Darts thus far is a strictly volunteer operation, they all hold down paid jobs despite spending an average of 30 hours a week on their labor of love.

The three got to know one another by working on two other publications together, the U literary magazine, the Ivory Tower, and Alive Magazine, a now-defunct quarterly aimed at teens and young women.

The first issue of Paper Darts, published in August 2009, was a small, thin chapbook, hand-cut and -sewn. The third issue, debuting Saturday at a release party at Honey in northeast Minneapolis, is a full-sized, four-color glossy, with 44 pages filled with work by local poets such as Alex Lemon and Matt Mauch, artist Terrence Payne and other contributors from as far away as Belgium. About 75 percent of content is by locals, Millard said.

"We really stress the community here," she said. "So much attention goes to the coasts, and we want people to know the perspective is Minneapolis, but the reach is international."

Priced at a necessarily steep $10, it may be ordered from the website (which also has a sneak peek at contents) or found at many area bookstores.

A commitment to costly, gorgeous production values despite a beer-bottle budget has earned enthusiastic fans on the local arts and letters scene. Fiction contributor Maggie Sanford, for one, is not prone to understatement.

"Paper Darts represents everything that is good and pure about the Twin Cities art scene, and I mean that in the grittiest, sauciest, most titillating way possible," she said. "The three editors are like these mythical weird sisters who pluck exciting and divergent work from their surroundings, toss them into a bubbling caldron, and end up with this complex, aromatic ointment even more powerful than its parts."

Old-schoolers are applauding, too. St. Paul poet Jim Moore, a founding member of the original Ivory Tower at the U in the 1950s, gave this assessment after perusing the Paper Darts website: "I love the look and feel of it, their desire to take risks, have fun, make connections that wouldn't otherwise be made. But most of all I love the passion and vision of the editors, the sense that they are on to something new."

Minneapolis-based author Dennis Cass met the three at a Literary Death Match competitive reading series event. He became a mentor and an advisory board member because "they want to keep the timeless values of a literary magazine, but make it fresh with humor and high style. There's this mistaken idea out there that something thoughtful and high-quality is mutually exclusive with fun: It's got to have a serious aesthetic and you have to go on MPR and speak seriously about this serious work."

Other locals advising the trio include their former Ivory Tower instructor Terri Sutton, fiction writer John Jodzio ("If You Lived Here, You'd Already Be Home") and the staff of Graywolf Press.

While the troika is billing Saturday's launch of issue No. 3 as their coming-out party, it's not the first one they've thrown. For the second issue, they rented out the old Arise! Bookstore on Lyndale Avenue for parties three nights in a row, and drew 100 to 200 people each night via Twitter, including other literary groups such as Books and Bars. They are adept at using social media to widen their contributors' circle, as well, recently holding a "Hot Flash Haiku" contest on their Facebook page.

"We used to grab at whatever, and now we're curating the content much more, but we're also getting a lot higher-quality submissions," Suszynski said. "We're just trying to change it up every few months. We don't want anything to become routine."

In the current economic climate, the three editors don't think it's wise to apply for nonprofit status or grant funding. They'll be seeking alternative means of raising revenue and the achievement of one other short-term goal.

"It would be great to have an office," Millard said.

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046