Thursday, March 6, 2014

Things I dig: Sci-fi Mags from the Fifties and Sixties

Lately I've been really getting into old postwar sci-fi mags. These cheap, newsprint digests are a treasure trove of legendary authors, great stories and wonderful art. The Golden Age of this genre was a little before my time, roughly 1946 to 1970. I started reading sci-fi and comix in 1970, when I was 10 years old, so I narrowly missed the end of it. I bought sci-fi digests from time to time throughout the Seventies, but they had faded considerably in quality, replaced by the more profitable and popular paperback book. There used to be spinner racks in stores, just for paperbacks, like there were for comic books.  The sci-fi digests, they were stuck on a wall shelf, if a newsstand or bookstore carried tham at all.  Curiously, many of the popular paperback collections were first published in these mags, ten or 20 years earlier.

I love the feel and look of the sci-fi digests. That, and the price. You can score these things really cheap and, if you know what you're looking for, can find some pretty significant work, in its first published form.

For example, here's a copy of Galaxy from 1951, with a cover story by Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was a prolific pulp writer at the time, but hadn't yet achieved the critical acclaim as one of the late-20th century's most important writers. Sci-fi was still considered junk fiction, of course.  So the only place writers like Bradbury or Philip K. Dick or Issaac Asimov could be published was in these magazines. They weren't getting big advances, or wined and dined by the literati. They were punching out dozens of stories a month, for $25 or $50 a piece. It was low pay, even for the time, certainly a pittance compared to the A-list authors like Norman Mailer et al, but if you were fast and in demand, a writer could make a living. By the Sixties, as the cultural and commercial status of sci-fi rose, it became a very good living. 

What makes this issue of Galaxy so special, is the Bradbury story, The Fireman. This fireman, sometime in the future, burns books. Yep, it's the first incarnation of Fahrenheit 451! A first printing of that book, published a few years later, will set you back a couple thou. I picked this mag up for $10! 

Here's another one. Analog from 1963. This was the premier sci-fi magazine of the era, and is still publishing today. It started as a pulp in 1930, called Astounding. It's the mag that brought the world the work of Asimov and Robert Heinlein.... and also the first Dianetics ravings of L. Ron Hubbard. We'll forgive that.

This issue features a new work by Frank Herbert, published in three parts, Dune World. Yeah, it's the first version of Dune

I love comparing and contrasting these early incarnations to the final ones. Bradbury's changed quite a bit. Herbert's didn't change much at all, simply grew in length. They're really cool artifacts to have. Each issue also is full of really interesting features: musings on the future of sci-fi, letters from fans, book reviews by prominent sic-fi authors. There are very few ads. These mags stayed alive through subscriptions and newsstand sales. Kay's Books, the legendary Cleveland bookstore that is the setting for my webcomic, The Baron of Prospect Ave., carried tons of these magazines. It's a world, and, alas, a career, that has all but disappeared.

It's amazing to think about. Communication was done by mail and phone call. I'm guessing most of the writers lived in or near New York, where all the mags were headquartered. Can you imagine being the editor when Frank Herbert called to pitch Dune? All that changed as Hollywood beckoned and sci-fi writers started making big bucks as screenwriters and moved to California. A lot of them, like Bradbury, still wrote for the mags, though. It must have been the editorial freedom, and the chance to work out ideas and concepts without interference. Think of it.  A classic Philip K. Dick or Robert Heinlein story arrives in the office mail in a fat envelope! Man. In it's purest form,hand typed , straight out of the imagination of creative geniuses and onto the paper you held in your hand. 

Dig also, the great covers and interior art. There were some big names, and quite a few comix guys, who worked regularly for sic-fi mags. Kelly Freas is probably the best known. Jeff Jones, who drew the cover for Fantastic, above, is another. National Lampoon fans will recognize him for his sexy, funny comic, Idyl, which was a regular feature throughout the Seventies heyday of NatLamp. These mags didn't pay artists much either, of course, but it was probably twice the slave wages Marvel and DC and the comic book companies were paying at the time. And the work was a lot easier. Must have been a great gig. Most of the artists toiled in relative obscurity, that was the downside. There wasn't the rabid fandom that comic book artists enjoyed, not that it  made a difference in their lot back in Sixties. Today, some comic book creators pull in six figures just doing cons. That wasn't the case then. By the Seventies, with the paperback era in full bloom, a lot of these guys made an even healthier living doing cover paintings. But they all started at the mags, so you can run across some real visual treasures.

Check it out. That's fun drawing! This is another keeper, a copy of Other Worlds from 1950, with a Bradbury story that would, years later, be included in his classic, The Martian Chronicles. This is especially satisfying to have, because Chronicles was the first sci-fi book I ever read. I picked it out of the Scholastic Books catalog they passed around at elementary school. I'm not sure if I'd even heard of Bradbury then. Maybe I had. Maybe I just fell for the short sales blurb. Maybe I just liked the title. In any case, it set me on my way. Years of comix and sci-fi and fantasy followed. It's not all I read (thank God) but it was the majority of it.

Last one. Like all dorks of the Seventies, I was huge into Robert E. Howard and Tolkien.  Howard's Conan stories had just been re-discovered and published with those amazing Frazetta covers. Lord of the Rings was also newly a smash hit, following the late-Sixties paperback release by Ballantine that turned a cult fave into a literary phenomenon. After I devoured all their respective bibliographies, all in paperback form, I looked around for more. Unfortunately, there wasn't much more, not much worthwhile anyways. Lots of knock-off junk mostly. An exception was the prolific Fritz Leiber and his wonderful sword & sorcery duo, Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser. These stories, 30 some, were collected in a paperback series, but they originally appeared in the mags, like Fantastic above, over the course of three decades! I loved the paperbacks, and that's where I first read them (all with Jeff Jones covers) but it's marvelous to see them in their original form.

A lot of times when I look over things like this, I feel like I missed out. Definitely missed a more colorful and exciting era in newspapers. I missed out on punk rock, too, because I just wasn't developed enough as a creator to be a contributor, only a fan. This is another one. I could've done this, drawn covers and illustrations, hell, maybe even written. Problem was, it didn't last long. The cool things never do.