Review: How Cult Magazines kept us connected before there were blogs

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

The mediasphere these days is all abuzz with discussion about the fate of hardcopy magazines. Those handy vehicles for the dissemination of fiction and fact, once regarded as timeless and eternal, are presumed now to be either dead or terminally ailing. In theory, the internet has supplanted and superseded our beloved old-fashioned magazines.

Nowhere does this debate carry more weight—and rage more fiercely—than in the field of fantastical literature. Roughly a century ago, the magazines gave birth to modern science fiction, fantasy and horror: fantastika, to use John Clute's all-encompassing term. For generations, the magazines were simultaneously the core and the cutting-edge of fantastika, the R&D wing of the literature. Without them, how can the genre flourish? What forms, if any, will the magazines of the future take? How will they be born, grow and survive? Where are the readers for short fiction?

Well, such matters remain outside the purview of this article. But we can make the best educated guesses about the future only by studying the past. And no recent survey of magazines is more exciting and useful and purely entertaining in this regard than Cult Magazines: A to Z: A Compendium of Culturally Obsessive & Curiously Expressive Publications (Non-Stop Press, $34.95).

Co-editors Earl Kemp and Luis Ortiz are experts in the field of zinedom, with decades of experience between them. But they have also enlisted a select staff of experienced contributors, including such mavens as Mike Ashley, Will Murray and Bob Weinberg. Together, the writers have produced what I estimate are well over 100,000 words of alphabetized entries, the majority keyed to zine titles, but some focused on people or themes. The remit of the editors—the nature of what makes a "cult" subject--is broad: sex, genre literature, humor, gossip, music, drugs, politics, media--in short, all the fascinating topics dear to the average fan's heart.

This encyclopedia boasts a wealth of material on fantastika—illuminating entries on everything from Doc Savage to Weird Tales, from Galaxy to Famous Monsters of Filmland—but there is really a thematic and historical unity of relevance and interconnectivity that stretches from Alfred Hitchcock to Myron Fass to "Captain Billy" Fawcett, from Ralph Ginzburg's Eros to the Humorama chain of one-panel gag cartoons. As displayed here, it's all one organic, glorious, interlinked, endlessly fascinating saga of 20th-century publishing, full of zesty personalities, wild anecdotes ("R. Crumb created the famous 'Boy Howdy' milk bottle logo for Creem when he needed money for a clap shot."), and magisterial factual information.

But beyond the wordage, which possesses novelistic readability, lies the superior artwork, filling nearly half the page-space of the tome. The editors have gone all-out to find zine covers and interior illos that have not been reproduced ad infinitum. Patrons of such earlier histories as Di Fate's Infinite Worlds (1997) or the compilations assembled by Frank Robinson will find almost zero overlap here. The carefully arranged nostalgic eye-candy is truly a feast.

This work of love and respect is simultaneously a paean to what was, and an inspirational battle cry not to let the wonderful tradition of magazine publishing die out. It just might succeed in inspiring a whole new generation of zinesters in their unforeseeable adaptations.