JOURNEYS BY FANZINE
by Nick Cooper ©1997
This is not history. This is not the result of months of in-depth research (God forbid - it's Sunday 20 April and it gets printed on Thursday!). Rather, these are my own observations on my own transit through the wonderful world of fandom and fanzines. This is personal.
By 1980, DWAS membership - effectively fandom in its entirety - was just over a thousand, which represented just about the lowest threshold for viable fanzine sales. For this large readership, Celestial Toyroom (CT), the DWAS monthly newsletter, merited "proper" lithographic printing, as was the case with the quarterly TARDIS magazine and Cosmic Masque fictionzine, although being optional, their circulation was some 50% of that of CT. That said, while TARDIS and CM were both "traditional" A5 format, CT consisted of a varying number (anything from three to eight) of loose A4 sheets, stapled in the top left corner! The early CT's were produced on typewriters (of varying quality) and composited - with not much coherency to the use of Letraset™ - by hand, although the prestige of TARDIS and Cosmic Masque resulted in the luxury of typesetting.
Fanzine development is inextricably entwined with advances in office and information technology. In 1980, just about the only requirements for aspiring fanzine editors was access to a typewriter, and either a duplicator or a photocopier. By the early-80s, it was standard office furniture, and was also found in libraries and academic institutions, although the latter often still used duplicators for high print-runs. This was a far cheaper process, using ink (usually a lurid purple) and typed wax stencils, although it was eventually refined to the stage that the latter could be produced on a photocopier, which was about as good as it ever got! Many fanzines, then, were printed in parent's office or on college campuses.
The problem was that they couldn't cope with particularly high print-runs, one reason businesses like Prontaprint flourished - they could afford to maintain the bulk copying machines most businesses couldn't. Accordingly, they weren't that interested in copying smaller quantities, which was reflected in prices of around 10p per side of A4 when the real cost was less than 3p! But this didn't affect most fanzine editors, since most didn't expect to shift more than 50 copies of each issue, while if they could push 100+, and could afford the investment, litho-printing was an option, but being so expensive the page counts were usually under 40.
The convention had been set for A5 (148mm x 210mm) being the standard size for a fanzine, and there are a number of possible explanations for this. Firstly, if you could afford litho-printing, but only to the equivalent of, say, four sides of A3 (297 x 420), it could only be folded into a fairly flimsy 16 page A4 (210 x 297) format; folded to A5, it would be 36 pages - A5 was simply a way of making a small amount of page-space more substantial. Secondly for the vast majority of photocopiers A4 was the maximum paper size, although a very small number could handle the intermediate B4 (250 x 353) format. Unable to photocopy on A3, fanzine editors could either fold A4 to A5, or staple A4 down one side, which was just messy. Reflecting the rarity of B4 machines, few B5 (176 x 250) fanzines appeared, the early issues of Gary Levy/Leigh's Doctor Who Bulletin (DWB) being an exception. Lastly, it is simply easier to type conventionally on a sheet of A4 and reduced direct as an A5 page, than to type in column on A3.
Joining the DWAS in 1984, I knew about fanzine from an article in Doctor Who Monthly, and I started buying them in bulk. CT then was virtually all fanzine adverts, squashed in between the various Executive department columns. There was no letters page, no articles, and little news, since it was all in TARDIS. The first issue of CT I ever got was March 1984, and there were nineteen fanzines advertised, and I bought seven of them. The last issue of CT I received was February 1993, and while three were reviewed, only two fanzines were advertised (along with an audio play and a videozine). So what went wrong? The decline of the programme itself could be cited, but in the situation was probably far more complex.
Before the 1985 cancellation, you couldn't move for fanzines, with dozens appearing during each year. Many were short-lived, but it seemed as if everyone had at least one fanzine in them, and many managed to produce something at least once! Some of them were pretty awful, but that was a risk you always took buying mail order; you couldn't exactly send one back with a note saying, "I'm sorry, but it didn't look crap from the advert. Please can I have my 70p back?" Others had more longevity, such as the original Skaro, Gary Russell's Shada and my own favourite, Space Rat.
Edited by Val Douglas and Jackie Marshall, Space Rat reflected their tastes, incorporating Blake's 7 and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as Doctor Who, often in the same stories! I'd heard about Space Rat, and immediately bought the first issue I could (#6). It's difficult to quantify the experience of reading that first issue of Space Rat, but it was a bit like you'd gate-crashed a party, yet no-one showed the slightest intention of throwing you out! In retrospect it seems remarkable that it was all of thirteen years ago that I first became familiar with names like Val and Jackie, Martin Day, Alec Charles and Martin Wiggins. I'd always wanted to writing, and having a short story I felt reasonably sure would stand up to other people's inspection, I offered it to Val and Jackie. It was printed in the last issue (#8) of Space Rat, before it evolved into the all-Who Queen Bat and the Rat's Tales fictionzine, and it was in the first issue of the former in early 1985 that Martin Day praised my story as, "a marvellous piece." Thirteen years on, I'd just like to say cheers, Martin!
It was not long after this that I got involved with the West Yorkshire DWAS Local Group and, in the process, first met Tim Munro. Having by that stage read a lot of fanzines, and even contributed to one, I floated the idea of some sort of group effort, but with met with an overwhelming wave of apathy from everyone except Tim. Everybody not involved in fanzine production, it seemed, had an excuse for why they weren't. I contented myself with writing a article on press coverage of the cancellation for Queen Bat (followed by my first rejection, but it was well-deserved!), but still harboured editorial ambitions.
By mid-1986, Tim and myself had become estranged from the WYLG (!), and it was around then that I again suggested doing a fanzine. Tim was enthusiastic, so we sent an ad to DWB requesting contributions, which reflected our intentions to produce something "different" by asking for, "Decent stories & artwork and honest articles." In the middle of the hiatus, we both thought that there was an awful lot that needed saying in fandom, but nobody was saying it, with the DWAS especially keeping its head down. The one exception seemed to be DWB, but even then it was becoming far too much of a fandom institution in its own right - worthy, but predictable. There was also more than a small degree of mindless praise and hero-worship amongst fans towards the programme and those involved in its making, and we thought a certain degree of good-humoured realism was in order. Tim had already produced Not So Much a Fanzine, More a Way of Life with Michael Piatkowski (who later compiled a tribute to Roger Delgado published by DWB), which, while inelegant in execution, was a blueprint for Star Begotten's satirical angle, testament to our mutual liking for Private Eye and the then-new Spitting Image.
Fandom in 1986 was very different to the one I'd first encountered in 1984, since it was by then split over the cancellation, the DWAS adopting a "wait-and-see" approach, while DWB agitated for... something, but mainly against Michael Grade, a vendetta later proved to be utterly misguided. DWB had evolved from ropey fanzine to glossy monthly news magazine, which brought it into direct competition with CT. The DWAS newsletter accordingly changed to a standard A4 magazine format in late 1985, but on a far lower budget than DWB, it was a foolish move, to say the less. In addition, it took over many of the existing functions of TARDIS, which only undermined the position of the other publication.
The cancellation sapped many fans' interest, reflected by the fact that there were far fewer fanzines on the market,although they were the better ones. Some fans were even talking enthusiastically about the emergence of a "de-centralised" fandom.. This was based on the assumption that all the DWAS' major functions were being challenged, matched, and even surpassed by other individuals or groups: DWB for news, CMS for in-depth information rather than the DWAS Reference Department, and various organisers for conventions. What it actually meant was that fandom had two centres: the DWAS and DWB. But in the process, Gary Leigh's publication had blurred the line between fanzine and professional magazine, although for years he steadfastly maintained the former status.
There were also other forces at work. Private Who appeared in late-1985, the first of a new breed of glossy A4 fanzines, although at least in it's early issues it maintained a pretence of fannishness. Pre-1986 fanzines were characteristically based more on personal opinion, reflection and invention than fact. Before the days of widespread availability of early episodes on video, many fans were largely ignorant of the detail of the series's past, the only window on this "lost" world being the official Marvel magazine, although then it was obviously weighted more towards the current (or not!) series. Fan access to that photographic and documentary material that did exist was virtually minimal, and the best the average fanzine could come up with was the occasional badly-reproduced "rare" photograph or two. By the late-1980s the situation was difference, with certain fans having established impressive contacts that would allow them to disseminate the information they had access to to a wider audience.
The Frame, edited by David J.Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker, appeared in early 1987, blessed with professional printing, design, and more photographs per page than most fanzines would have in a whole issue! It was a dream come true for the data-hungry fan, but traditionalists baulked at this, and the publication very soon became the target for far more vitriol than it ever deserved. There had been a tendency by some elite members of fandom to hoard photographic and other material as personal rarities, while Howe, Stammers and Walker's philosophy seemed to be to print everything they got their hands on, while presenting Who within the wider context of contemporary British television as a whole. The Frame was the best of the A4s, a serious and valid contribution to fandom, but because it emerged at the same time as far more vacuous and worthless examples of the type, it was pilloried.
Amidst all this, the first issue of Star Begotten appeared, after just four months of work. I was (rather badly) studying for my A-levels at the time, and was getting far too distracted by being on the college Students' Union Executive, but one advantage to this was that I had unrestricted access to the photocopier! One advantage was that the price was the same, regardless of whether I ran off one copy or fifty, so we didn't have to fork out for a large print run at once and then hope that people would buy it, rather we advertised the issue, got it ready to print by the time the first orders arrived, and thus printed accordingly. In this sense, what was make or break for a lot of fanzines (i.e. the investment in advance printing) was not a problem for us, and we ambitiously decided to produce four issues a year, a target we nominally achieve up until the end of 1989 (although by that stage there was a distinct gap between the advert appearing and envelopes going into the letter box). This flexibility more than made up for the fact that, due to a rather bizarre stylistic decision, we had to cut the printed A4 sheets down to A5, and then collate and staple them down one side. From the fourth issue a slide-binder was added for neatness' sake, while this practice was totally discontinued from #13 onwards.
The innate irreverence of Star Begotten seemed something new, but we weren't on our own for long, being joined in late-1987 by David Gibbs's Five Hundred Eyes, Ian Berriman's Cybermag and - at the more extreme end - Jamie Woolley's Dwarf Star. The only thing that set us apart from them was that we didn't have access to a word processor! Although few realised it at the time, the availability of WP-capable computers had a great effect on fanzine production. Initially, it had involved hours hammering away on often only a manual typewriter, only to be followed by a long round of laborious correction, and eventually cutting and pasting to make the finished master copies. By 1987, however, a number of fans found themselves in possession of computers which were pretty pathetic by present standards, but nevertheless could be used for word processing.
In computing terms, Britain was a bit of a back water, as while the rest of the world had opted for either IBM-compatible or Apple personal computers, we were buried under a heap of substandard black boxes calling themselves "computers," but were really little better than toys. But from these emerged a few which did just about make the grade, such as the Amstrad CPC and Commodore series. Most of these had been bought primarily as games machines, but some owners realised an untapped potential, and all of a sudden discovered that with a decent word processing package they could make half the job of producing a fanzine infinitely easier. In 1988 Amstrad launched the PCW series of integrated word processors, which came complete with software, printer, and monitor with built-in single or twin 3" floppy disk drives (a format apparently chosen as they initially had access to a large stock of cheap drives!). Despite the "PC" part of the name, they weren't directly compatible with IBM-standard machines, because they used the CP/M operating system rather than MS-DOS (in fact, IBM had intended to use CP/M on Bill Gates' recommendation, but were so unimpressed with it's inventors that they went back to Microsoft, who subsequently sub-licenced to them a third party's generic copy of CP/M, which is what made Gates richer than God), but since the Amstrad machines cost less than half an IBM-compatible machine sans printer, nobody was complaining.
After ruining two manual typewriters (only my father's old wartime Olivetti - complete with cork rather than rubber roller - proved fanzine-proof!), and severely taxing an electric model, I forked out some £800 for an Amstrad PCW 8512 in mid-1989. That was a lot back then, but the only real option considering that an IBM-standard PC would have cost around three times that. The Amstrad made the fanzine easier to produce, which turned out to be something of a blessing given that Tim dropped out after Christmas the same year. With increasingly ambitious plans for the fanzine, we had brought in Simon Colenutt and Mark Wright as editorial assistants, but what business usually refers to as a, "conflict of management style," led to a rather acrimonious break-up in January 1990.
1990 was an important year for fanzines, it being the year Stephen O'Brien launched Purple Haze onto an unsuspecting fandom, making a virtue out of the fact that it was A5 and photocopied. It had precious little to do with Doctor Who! The second major event was the relaunch of Skaro, which had last been edited by Simon Lydiard six years previously. Now edited by Julian Chislett, like Purple Haze it was produced in Bath, and that wasn't the only similarity, although Julian was far more restrained. The only thing "wrong" was that it was A4, but many were prepared to overlook this, as a conversation with Paul Cornell demonstrated:
HIM: Yah, well Skaro is an A5 fanzine.
Meanwhile, Five Hundred Eyes had ended up at much the same point, as had Brave New World, courtesy of Simon, Tim and Mark, and Paul Kirkley's The Fan Zine, while Nick Pegg's Perigosto Stick took it to unbelievable heights. Fandom was in two camps again, or rather one camp, and one large clique, since these fanzines incestuously shared the same writers and artists, to various degrees of excess. January 1991 saw the first Fan Olympiad "anti-convention," and if it didn't develop around this group of fanzines, they were certainly closely allied to it.
At the same time, vacuous A4 entertainment was provided by Private Who and its ilk, and then things went a bit pear-shaped. Older fans recognised the new A5's as fanzines, but younger fans, effectively brought up on a diet of A4 glossies which told them that they were fanzines, suddenly seemed to have a different idea of what a fanzine was. Worse, some seemed positively anti-fanzine. In June 1990, one CT reader complained that 25% of a recent issue had been adverts, but qualified it with the unbelievable: "Having said that, all the adverts are for WHO related material and therefore of interest to most fans who wish to experiment with new WHO merchandise, hopefully without being ripped off." In the issue in question, of eight adverts, one was for DWB, one for a convention, and six were for fanzines. And Star Begotten #13 was one of them. Where once fandom had been a sub-culture of participants, it suddenly seemed than many of it's recent recruits were merely passive consumers, differentiating little between professional "merchandise" and fan-produced work.
Who fandom in the 1980s mirrored British society as a whole. Market forces applied and while some swam, others sank. But just as the consumer dictates the character of the market, so the market can change the habits and nature of the consumer. The final cancellation of the programme in 1989 did not affect this consumer base, which was ripe for the arrival of Virgin's New Adventures. The old hands flooded to Virgin, and many succeeded in getting at least one book published (some, while not achieving that status, did at least get other work, such as Cottage Under Siege editor Neil Corry). Some deserved it, some didn't, others yet didn't even appear to try, much to the surprise of their peers. The supreme irony was that many of the writers whose books for Virgin the fans snapped up were the ones who had written for fanzines the same fans would never have bought. So where does all this leave the A5 fanzine. It lives on, through Colin Brockhurst's Circus, Dave Rolinson & Richard Bonham's Quango (typical - these guys have done nearly two academic years at Leeds Uni and I've yet to meet them), to name but two (namely because they're the only one's I've seen lately - ahem!).
I suppose I should fill in a few gaps, with no apparent care for chronology. Issue two of Star Begotten appeared in April 1987, with all but twelve of its 54 pages being printed in lurid green because the photocopier was out of black toner and further supplies would arrive too late! In later years, the first run of one issue was blue for the same reason. The history of Star Begotten is one of unfinished business and threads left hanging. To my immediate recollection, a Quatermass script, three long works of fiction, a satirical cartoon adaptation of Aliens and a series of proposed novels were truncated, with the second volume of the latter some 85% complete (the first novel, Arcade was effectively Star Begotten #7/8).
My view was that just because it was A5 and photocopied, that didn't mean that we couldn't aspire to the standards of our more high-profile competitors. This meant reproducing photographs as well as possible (i.e. getting a proper photographic copy for the masters when possible, and having it dot-screened if necessary), using real Letraset™ and other commercially available graphics supplies where appropriate, and using the copier's spot-colour facility as inventively as possible (i.e. not as per #2!). There are individual bits of certain issues that I'm still proud of, but as a whole? It still seems strange to receive from someone - be they less than an hour's drive away, or even on the other side of the world - an unsolicited fanzine, with justification from the sender that Star Begotten was one of their main inspirations.
What the future holds is a good question, and the InterNet does spring to mind, especially since as a forum for debate it is far more immediate. Will Web pages become the fanzines of the new millennium? Perhaps, but only for those who can afford to see them. After all, to read a fanzine, you just use the eyes you already have.