Comics

Behold the Fan

A celebration of the obsessive chronicling of America's greatest subcultures

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The Internet, for all its vast treasure houses of information, entertainment, and—most valuable—infotainment, has also claimed many beloved victims. Leaving aside its merciless destruction of millions of man-hours of innocent human attention, one of the things I miss most from the immediate pre-Web era is the thwarted rise of the zine, a thriving genre of amateur enthusiast paper magazines, with name and concept derived, via many hideous atomic mutations, from the ur-geekdom of science fiction fandom. (Gerald Jones' Men of Tomorrow, one recent mainstream journalistic look at the origins of the community from which zines arose, tracks the simultaneously successful and sad-sack careers of Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the creators of Superman [and Superboy].)

Sure, access (or more importantly, popular awareness of access) to paper reproduction and distribution had gotten cheap and easy by the mid-'90s. But the Internet made it easier still to spread your words and images. It seemed cleaner and easier somehow to lose money merely by not selling your product than to have shady distros go out of business owing you a couple grand.

So, as the zine era passed into our supposedly paperless now, we lost a source of voluminous documentation (both competent and not) of the human comedy of obsession and ambition and unbridled passion. Web sites and blogs have replaced them all, to be sure, as far as the sheer wordage of amateurs available for our delectation is concerned. But that world is dominated almost entirely by the short squib and comment on other things going on in the neverending world of Now—current news, TV, movies, TV newsmen who deserve to die, personal gossip, or the comments on same from other blogs.

The zines did something that no other medium I've found has adequately replaced: serious but enthusiastic historical studies of the hidden depths and characters behind what many would consider useless or childish ephemera, but which are to some few (frequently very few) of us a glorious amalgam of golden fleece, fountain of youth, and Rosebud-the-sled.

Zinesters interested in detailed historical documentation are perhaps ideally equipped to ignore the reality that their time has passed. (After all, so has that of the subjects they love the most.) Thus, we are blessed by the continued and glorious existence of my two very favorite magazines (ahem, present company excepted). These magazines are dedicated to honest, open-hearted, completely unambiguous celebrations of, respectively, rock n' roll and comic books.

One is called Ugly Things, (slogan: "wild sounds from past dimensions!"), dedicated to the obsessive documentation of the lives, times, records, and reissues of some of rock 'n' roll's most mysterious and obscure heroes (emphasis on '60s garage and psych and '70s punk), from the well-known Yardbirds to the less well-known Pretty Things to almost complete unknowns such as Gandalf, the Boys, The Matadors, the Dickens, the Churchills, and the Gants, to, most gloriously, the Misunderstood. That band of "who theys?" is honored (in an annually issued zine, no less) with a four-issue-long serialized epic recounting its ill-starred members' lives and times. The story will quite literally be more than book-length by the time Ugly Things has finished detailing every move, side project, bitter fight with roadie, draft-dodge, and bad trip. The Misunderstood went from Riverside, California, to Old Blighty at its hippest late '60s zenith to Indian ashrams in order to end up, in standard rock historical terms, absolutely nowhere. Until UT's heroic editor, Mike Stax, brought them all back home for us in a tale based on what must be hundreds of hours of fresh interviews that is as surprisingly and endlessly fascinating as it is surprisingly endless.

UT, now selling around 6,000 copies per issue, is also the only zine brave enough to run a 29-page interview with Kim Fowley, the bravado-besotted co-producer of "Alley Oop" and svengali to the Runaways telling lies and wild tales of sex and degradation of '60s icons. (He got, and gives, one-sentence summations of the secrets of the Beatles, Dylan, and the Beach Boys straight from the mouths of the golden calves.) It's also the source of perhaps my favorite retold punk rock anecdote, from Britain's forgotten school of 1977 stars, The Boys. One Boy said of one of their tunes that it was "written about one night when I was walking home from the pub. [Someone] saw the way I looked and—WHAAAAM! Kicked me straight in the balls."

Asked by an interviewer if there was any explanation for this sudden violence, the Boy answered: "Oh sure."

"What was it?"

"He said, 'I can't stand your kind.'"

"Oh."

It's that last "Oh" that really sells that one.

My other favorite document of America's pop past is Alter Ego, dedicated to the worlds of comic books from the '40s to the '60s. It's edited by Roy Thomas, a man who started as a fan contributing to a '60s version of Alter Ego and parlayed his passion for superhero comics into a gig as right-hand man to Stan Lee at Marvel Comics during the height of Marvel's cultural influence in the late '60s. Roy "the Boy" become the primary successor to the Man as writer of Marvel's biggest comics, and helped create the modern Marvel mega-crossover-epic in emulation of his childhood faves, the '40s superhero gang Justice Society of America.

Now mostly absent from professional comic writing, Thomas and his crew every single month produce 100 pages of art reproductions, commentary, and (mostly) interviews with a pantheon of otherwise lost comic greats whose work Roy remembers fondly, from obscure DC great penciler Mort Meskin to Timely editor Art Fago to Marvel colorist Stan Goldberg. Mickey Spillane fondly remembers his comic writing past, second-string Batman artist Dick Sprang recalls his DC days, and an enormously long list of forgotten creators grows longer at an extraordinary monthly pace.

There is a popular misconception that this sort of geeky fandom of mostly despised objects is caused by, or encourages, a retreat from "real life." But these zines don't encourage any kind of molelike burrowing among poorly colored pamphlets or justly scratched-to-shit old vinyl slabs. Rather, they are tenaciously dedicated to widening the world in which we fans, or any historian wise enough to examine them, can situate our memories. What was it like in the offices of Timely in the '40s? Who was there, how did the artists socialize, prop each other up, date each other, play practical jokes, complain, offer succor, help ink a late page? What made these musicians make the decisions they did about labels, shows, fellow bands, their art, the drugs, the war? This coverage is, in UT, frequently for musicians who mostly sold little then, less now—though our rich modern digital world has produced a golden age of reproduction for both old records and (less so) for old comics, rescuing anything anyone ever cared about from the trashheap of history.

But to read every detail of the jokes, peregrinations, opinions, and even commutes of these now-obscure figures is fascinating and even inspiring. Behind these tawdry objects (as those of us who loved them always suspected) is human life, complex, hilarious, hopeful, striving. Not always striving for the empyrean—the artists Alter Ego celebrates were driven by a quiet but dedicated professionalism, not lofty artistic ambition. But these guys did want to draw a good page for their usually miserable pay, did want to deliver sincere quality work, for their own sake as much as for those the barely imagined reader (who none of them could imagine would still exist 50 years later). For the rockers, it was often just a desperate but frequently successful mad dash for good times and bad girls. The cultural cornucopia of modernity is worthy of celebration, perhaps above all else, for the variety of ways it provides for us not only to make new memories but to preserve the memory, and reality, or our pasts, collective and personal. As UT says on its Web site, "In the pages of UGLY THINGS the past continues to happen … NOW." (Dedicated paper fetishists, neither zine puts its content online.)

Eccentric semanticist Count Alfred Korzybski identified the distinctive characteristic of mankind as "time binding"—communicating our knowledge and conclusions and passions and accomplishments through time. These zines, too loving and fun for academia, too hyperdetailed and obsessed for popular magazines that need ad-driven mass audiences, are expert in a unique style of maddeningly thorough, affectionate, non-academic time-binding regarding what might have been lost secrets of America's forgotten pop past. Issues of Ugly Things and Alter Ego are being kept—by me and, I'm certain, hundreds of others—in as totemic and devoted a manner as the objects they celebrate, whose stories they tell, whose creators they honor and chronicle. And they are unmined sources of oral history of the twentieth century that any university should envy.