Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What Was The First Zine?

There it was. I never expected to see it, but there it was just inches away behind the glass in the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle: The Comet, the very first zine.

With the first issue dated May 1930 and published by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago, The Comet is generally credited with being the first science fiction fanzine, starting a tradition of amateur publishing that spread the gospel of comic books, rock and roll, and whatever else rallied someone's enthusiasm enough to publish about, ultimately leading to the zines we know so well today as well as the Internet's electronic Babel of blogs and websites.

But was The Comet really the first zine?

Well, yes, but a lot of that claim depends on how we define "zine". As probably everybody reading this knows, fanzines get their start out of the letter pages of pulp magazines, specifically Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, when Gernsback published the addresses of letter writers, and the readers started corresponding with one another. This led to them publishing their own magazines which they differentiated from the professional magazines by calling their own publications "fan magazines", which soon contracted into "fanzine", coined by fan Louis Russell Chauvenet. This term, soon contracted even further to just "zine", and the concept it described soon spread beyond science fiction fandom.

That's why forms of publishing that predate science fiction fanzines such as pamphlets, broadsheets, dissident newspapers, literary journals, cultural magazines, and amateur press associations aren't generally considered zines, though they share a number of attributes with zines, and one can view science fiction fanzines as just another evolution of amateur or subcultural do it yourself publishing, not much different in spirit from the others listed above. If it was personal, out of the mainstream, noncommercial, and produced as cheaply as possible, then it was likely an ancestor of the zine.

However, the direct lineage comes from science fiction fanzines. Mike Gunderloy, founder of Factsheet Five, the ground zero of 1980s zinedom, came out of science fiction fandom. So did Greg Shaw and Paul Williams who created the first rock and roll fanzines in the 1960s, which led to the punk zines of the 1970s, and so on. Comic book fanzines of the 1950s emerged from the tradition of science fiction fanzines, and presented the first published work of Robert Crumb and many other cartoonists, ultimately birthing underground comix, and leading to today's indie comics and minicomics. Even with the subsequent influences of 1950s Beat chapbooks and the 1960s underground press, today's zines are basically extensions of the original science fiction fanzine idea.

Nevertheless, even if we agree that the direct lineage of the zine stems from the science fiction fanzine, what makes The Comet the very first zine? After all, it has some rival claimants to the title. There is Jerry Siegel, the co-creator of Superman, who published a collection of his science fiction stories as Cosmic Stories in 1929. Then there are Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, who would go on to edit Superman comics, but whose fanzine The Time Traveller was "the first nationally distributed science-fiction fanzine" (according to Schwartz in his autobiography Man of Two Worlds, page 14). And also in the 1930s, there were all those girls (and some boys) who published movie star fan club newsletters, just like those boys (and some girls) published about science fiction, but who have been forgotten from zine histories, as well as the women who met through the letter pages of Nursery World magazine and published a magazine of their group correspondence. Couldn't they also be contenders for the first zine?

Well, sure. But I still think it's The Comet. Here's why.

First up, Siegel. Man, Cleveland sure could use something else to crow about but as much as I'd like to claim the first fanzine came out of Cleveland, I just can't. It's true that Cosmic Stories, published in the fall of 1929, beats The Comet by a few months. According to Gerard Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, Siegel made ten copies using a hectograph, and advertised the collection of stories in Gernsback's new science fiction magazine Science Wonder Stories (Gernsback had lost control of Amazing Stories so he started a new magazine devoted to science fiction). But according to Jones, Siegel wasn't sure later on if he even ever sold a copy of Cosmic Stories. Apparently, some did make their way in the world, as Sam Moskowitz in his The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom notes that Cosmic Stories and apparently a subsequent title (both probably one-shots) titled Cosmic Stories Quarterly are "the earliest--and rarest--fan-published 'magazines'" (page 5). However, if we're going to credit Siegel for this then we've ripped open the floodgates because dating back at least to Victorian times, writers such as Lewis Carroll liked putting together private compilations in magazine form of their own writing. Most of these only exist in editions of one and were passed around Samizdat style but if we're going to base criteria on a print run more than one, then we have to note, as Harry Warner Jr. does in his "A History of Fanzines" (in Science Fiction Fandom, edited by Joe Sanders) that amateur publications devoted to fantasy fiction had appeared earlier such as W. Paul Cook's Recluse from 1927, most renowned for including an essay by H. P. Lovecraft called "Supernatural Horror in Literature". So, sorry Jerry, you, along with artist Joe Shuster, will just have to settle for creating Superman and birthing the modern superhero and as a result pretty much comic books as we know them today.

Next up, Schwartz and Weisinger. I love Schwartz for bringing back The Flash, my favorite superhero (hey, admit it, you have one too!) after the character had ceased appearing in the comic books in the early 1950s, and creating the Silver Age of comics as a result, but again, I don't think he and Mort can be credited for zines. Although there was some grumbling in early fan circles that The Comet (and Cosmology as it was later titled) covered too much science in addition to writing about science fiction, and subsequent fanzines that it inspired such as The Time Traveller focused more on science fiction, the key words here are "it inspired". Even TTT is predated by another fanzine Schwartz and Weisinger were involved with some others called The Planet (no, I checked and this doesn't seem to be the reason why Superman's newspaper changes from The Daily Star to The Daily Planet--the name change appears to predate Weisinger's work on the Superman comics), which published its first issue in July 1930, a couple months after The Comet. And, I don't know that it matters that TTT was "the first nationally-distributed" fanzine since they all were distributed by the postal service essentially, and so all could be said to be "nationally-distributed" in that way. However, TTT and the other early fanzines did inspire Siegel along with his pal Shuster to publish a fanzine in 1932 called Science Fiction and in it a character named Superman appeared for the first time, which eventually provided Weisinger and Schwartz with lifetime employments in the comics industry, so that had to be a nice consolation prize for them not creating the first zine.

As for the early female "fanzines", the earliest I can trace them is to the mid-1930s, which is a few years after The Comet kicked off the continuous tradition of fanzines, and there doesn't seem to be any interplay between them and the science fiction fanzines of the time. However, they're an interesting and noteworthy precursor to the feminist and riot grrrrl zines which would become such a major part of zinedom from the 1980s on.

So as the first zine I guess I'll stick with The Comet, which lasted 17 issues from 1930-1933, and left a trail in do it yourself publishing that lingers in the sky of the printed page and electronic screen to this day. What do you think?


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