Today, joining a fan community can mean learning about a book, show, movie, or game from fan art or Twitter conversations before ever experiencing the source material. A quick round of searching will take you to wikis, tumblrs, media sites, art, fiction, and lengthy threads about any piece of media you choose.
But while the technology is new(ish), the interactions are not. Before the internet age, fans still connected and communicated in ways that are strikingly similar to today. Beginning in the late 19th century, when printing technology became more widely available, fans began publishing and distributing the latest thoughts, creations, and debates in fanzines (shortened from “fan magazine”).
For the past six months, as part of the exhibition As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now at The Drawing Center, a small art museum in New York City, I have explored illustration, novels, and posters as well as fanzine materials from as far back as the 1940s. Zines were hard for fans to get their hands on, as they were printed and collated in school clubs or at the dining room table, sometimes mailed out to subscribers and contributors one by one. And yet, these publications formed the backbone of what would become modern fan culture, not just a reflection of media but a reimagining of reality.
The cost of a mimeograph machine may have been high, but the cost of not talking to each other was higher — even in some of the most dire moments of the 20th century. The oldest zine included in As If is also the longest running fanzine to remain in distribution in Britain throughout the course of the second World War: Futurian War Digest, or FIDO, which printed from October 1940 until March 1945.
FIDO reviewed science fiction works and reflected on the fragile state of the fan community in the United Kingdom during wartime. The first issue of the zine, which was published and distributed less than a month after the start of the London bombing raids known as The Blitz, made a point of announcing the conscription of fan William F. Temple and the death on active duty of sci-fi enthusiast Edward Wade. These sombre announcements ran alongside musings about John Carter of Mars.
In a time of great uncertainty, publisher J. Michael Rosenblum said in the pages of FIDO that his self-avowed goal was to “a) to give news of and to fandom, b) to keep burning those bright mental constellations possessed by all fans.” The publication was created just as much to be an archive and time capsule as a source of entertainment, news, and distraction. By publishing the fanzine, Rosenblum recorded the history of a subculture of science fiction enthusiasts, and helped to keep a community that was being actively ripped apart together.
The first issue of FIDO also presented plans for a poll of British fans, recording their favorite books, magazines, big name fans, artists, and fanzines. Rosenblum prefaced this poll by explaining that those behind Futurian War Digest “hasten to put machinery into motion to record the views of fans here before fandom ceases entirely to exist.”
Reflecting this concern with extinction, the cover of Futurian War Digest Vol. 1 #12 shows us “The Fall of Atlantis,” in which Atlanteans rush and stumble in a crowded street as pillars and buildings crumble around them. Lightening rends the sky, suggesting that the destruction comes from above. The (unfortunately uncredited) artist is showing us a well known alternative history, the advanced island civilization of Atlantis, as it is destroyed by calamity and destined to fade into myth.
On the cover of a publication distributed exactly one year into the Blitz, the parallels are clear. This is the future that Rosenblum feared for his own island nation, and for his community of enthusiasts — each issue reported on which fans’ homes had been recently bombed out.
As the war continued, Futurian War Digest became a resource for updates on fan activity both in Britain and abroad. Issue #9, published in June of 1941, included an entire section entitled “Our Wandering Boys,” listing changes of address following air raids and the latest military assignments. Much of FIDO was printed on scrap paper, and reused paper from American fanzines, in an effort to skirt around paper rationing, an endeavor that landed Rosenblum under government surveillance.
The physical evidence of this transatlantic fan solidarity can be seen in the unusual shape and size of Futurian War Digest Vol. 1 #9, which was printed on four packages of paper donated by U.S. fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman, who became a pioneer in his own right, helped fund publications and initiatives similar to FIDO in the United States, contributing to Le Zombie fanzine. Le Zombie, which began production in December 1938, likewise included a “War Department” section which organized to provide fanzines to American fans who had enlisted, in order to help them maintain some level of connection and normalcy under the pressures of war.
Indulging in speculative fiction, whether through comparison to Atlantis or escape to a different reality entirely, served as a diversion from a frightening reality. FIDO’s final issue, published in 1945, urged fans to continue to support other fanzines and fanworks, and to join the related British Fantasy Society, continuing to serve as a tether and outlet during a time of chaos.
World war was not the only conflict that drove fans to support each other through escapism. 1975’s Janus, later renamed Aurora, was not the first feminist publication in the North American speculative fiction fandom, but it was the first long-running one, and nurtured a space for feminist readings of speculative fiction.
Janus’s contributors, like FIDO’s, recognized the value of the publication as a means of realizing a better future. Where FIDO countered an environment of fear under bombing and foreign aggression, Janus was acting in a different moment of historical upheaval and resistance, this time to a centuries-old history of oppression; drawing directly on the revelations of Second Wave Feminism. Like Futurian War Digest, Janus connected far flung fans and creators, in this case many of whom did not feel welcome in preexisting, male-dominated science fiction and fantasy communities.
Janus’s creators also launched Wiscon, the oldest (and still running) feminist Science Fiction convention, transforming that alternative intellectual space into a real, physical space. Just as stories like Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, a second wave feminist science fiction novel published in the same period, imagined different existences for women, modeling new futures by freeing its characters from our shared past, so too did fanzines both reflect on and actively create alternatives to the social realities of the 1970s United States.
In Janus 9, volume 3, number 3, editor and contributor Jeanne Gomoll concisely presented the potential of speculative fiction when combined with feminism.
“Rather than seeing the feminist activity within fandom as something that has grown from within fandom and is pulling it apart[...]” she wrote, “I conceive of the growing awareness as a part of fandom that has at last opened up […] that is not pulling fandom apart, but in fact is drawing people into fandom, revitalizing fandom! Certainly that relates to the reasons I became involved in fandom. (Working on Janus gave me a chance to explore and articulate connections between feminism and the literature I had grown up with. Science fiction gave me a forum to imagine and dream in ways that are very important to anyone who is interested in creating a new world…)”
Gomoll focused on female, gay, and lesbian fans in this essay from Janus 9, but she also pointed out that the controversy over feminist discussions in fandom existed because it was being actively talked about, and that there was a need to have similar discussions about other underrepresented groups in fandom as well. Entrenched in the cultural upheaval of the 1970s, and already dedicated to exploring previously unexplored narratives, Janus was well positioned to have these discussions. It provided an outlet for writers, both women and people of color, in speculative fiction, to share and explore their perspectives.
In an early interview with award-winning, science-fiction visionary Octavia Butler in Janus Vol. 4 #4, the author talks about her fledgeling Kindred novel, then still titled To Keep Thee in All Thy Ways. When asked whether or not she approached her novels with a political goal in mind, Butler responded with hesitant assent, saying “They are only novels. But, what I would really like it to do is just make people feel comfortable with characters who are not all male, who are not all white, and who just don’t fit. Who are not middle class, who don’t fit the stereotype.”
Janus was an early outlet for the appreciation and discussion of narratives like Butler’s, filled with allegorical explorations of real world power dynamics. It also opened up space for face to face conversation about these topics, as the many convention reports in its issues attest. Janus contributors held and witnessed panels on feminist issues, and, because of the tradition of letter writing to fanzines, they were also able to continue and facilitate larger discussions after the fact.
The Drawing Center’s exhibition is full of published work that explores direct changes to the past. Novels like The Female Man and The Indians Won tweak or entirely reverse major world events, and deal with the outcome. Comics like Black Panther present fictional “what ifs,” inventing a new means to explore, say, the prosperity of an African state free of European colonial interlopers.
In these zines, on the other hand, the change is less direct. The publishers and contributors — that is, fans — knew the power of inventing historical events, kingdoms, and aliens when the real world fell short. And they transferred that potential to what they were making, creating alternative, real-life spaces where their pasts could be preserved and the futures they desired could be freely imagined.
The Drawing Center, a museum in Manhattan’s SoHo district, explores the medium of drawing as primary, dynamic, and relevant to contemporary culture, the future of art, and creative thought. It will be housing As If: Alternative Histories from Then to Now, an exhibition offering examples of how we might reimagine historical narratives in order to contend with the traumas of contemporary life, from April 12, 2019 until July 28, 2019.
Isabella Kapur is an art historian who currently works as Curatorial Assistant at The Drawing Center. She has previously written about the intersection of art and popular culture for The Mary Sue and as a member of the ASK Brooklyn Museum program.