Sunday, April 28, 2013
The cover of my first edition of Inertron
A fanzine made me what I am today – for better or worse.
Perhaps I can trace my desire to write back to my love of reading and my visit with noted children’s writer and environmentalist Thornton W. Burgess when I was in first grade.
Perhaps it was the good grades I received on reports I wrote in the sixth grade.
Perhaps it was in the eighth grade, when my English teacher assigned me to be the editor of a “literary” magazine.
My late father, faced with the realization I was not going to be a high school industrial arts teacher, asked me, “What made you want to be a writer?” With his tone of voice he might as well said, “dump picker” or “hobo.”
Years later when I sold an interview to USA Today, for their editorial section, a story that was read by more than two million people, the old man was still unimpressed.
And yet it was my mother and father who aided my writing career by helping me with my fanzine Inertron.
And Inertron, a fanzine that never had a print run of more than 100 copies, in many ways, made me the writer that I am today.
I came to loving horror films late in the day. My mother didn’t want me to see them, as she didn’t want me to read superhero comics – thank you Dr. Wertham. Subsequently as a kid, I freaked out whenever I was exposed to any film with a horror element.
Living in Montgomery Alabama in 1962, I went to kiddie matinees with my younger brother Patrick. They were run on Saturdays on a continual showing and we walked into the conclusion of “Voyage to the Seventh Planet” with the giant brain with one eye, the alien monster of the story. Gobsmacked, I promptly turned around and marched with my little brother in tow and waited two hours for my parent’s return outside of the theater.
I lost my movie-going privileges for years because of my actions.
It wasn’t until junior high school when I decided that I needed to come to grips with this phobia and started watching horror movies on television. I started realizing that actors such as Boris Karloff, whom I came to love, also appeared in non-horror films, so I watched those as well as I found them. Before long I was interested in a variety of films.
I was pretty much alone in my pursuits at Granby (Mass.) Junior Senior High School. My brother liked a lot of things I liked, but I quickly realized that comic books and monster movies were not the norm. I had learned that prattling about Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing at school was not something I should do. I had enough problems being the new kid in a small town.
This was before the kind of fandom we know today. Before “fans” were seen as an important demographic group for marketers. Before anyone would have willingly or proudly called themselves a “nerd” or a “geek.”
Fandom was truly underground. Being a movie fan was acceptable, but seeking out films that most movie fans just seemed to tolerate at best was something else.
Horror, science fiction and fantasy were seen as marginal genres, bordering ¬– if not crossing the line – on juvenile entertainment.
Somehow I found out about fanzines. Perhaps it was through Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and the first one I ordered was Photon #18 in 1969.
I was smitten beyond belief. Photon was well written, had illustrations by Richard Corben, and Dave Ludwig and featured as a bonus a movie still – a copy of a “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi.
This all for $1.
It underscored that I was certainly not alone in my interests, which was actually quite comforting.
A magazine I could buy in the newsstand that had the same fannish spirit was Larry Ivie’s Monsters and Heroes. A quick search of the Internet reveals little about Ivie, who was clearly a fan, but also a pretty accomplished artist. Ivie featured a story about young people who made their own movies – MADE THEIR OWN MOVIES ?! – that also blew my mind.
Could non-professionals do such things – publish their own magazines and make their own movies? Apparently the answer was “yes” and I suspected that some of these people were not much older than I was.
Please understand that being a film fan dedicated to a particular type of movie that didn’t get much serious attention from the mainstream press wasn’t an easy proposition in the era before home video. If you didn’t live in an area with a group of movie theaters, or television stations that elected to buy packages of films with your type of movie included or art house theaters that would bring back older films, then being a fan of such entertainment was difficult.
Fanzines, in my mind, were the first great step in the democratization of being a serious film fan. Since the establishment press didn’t cover these movies, the fans did through their own publications.
For example, there is no one on the planet that has done more in advancing the movies made by Hammer Films than Richard Klemensen and his “Little Shoppe of Horrors.” Dick has done an incredible job presenting interviews with the filmmakers and analysis of the films.
And Hammer movies were never the ones that would receive much attention in the mainstream.
The idea that I as a callow youth could make my opinion known about movies – and other pop culture subjects – was intoxicating.
So in 1970, I assembled some high school friends at my house – I believe I was 15 years old – handed out assignments for various reviews, which they obligingly finished. Looking back, I’m amazed they contributed. I’m also amazed that I didn’t wind up being seen as any greater freak that I know some kids viewed me.
I hit up my teachers at school to be “patrons” – today I don’t recalled what that meant and my mom helped me with typing.
My mom enjoyed movies, but she had a real aversion to horror films. She told me that as a young woman her favorite actor was Spenser Tracy and she never got over his performance in the glossy MGM version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
The thing that stopped so many would-be fanzine publishers didn’t stop me. I wasn’t worried about the cost of printing as I had my own printing press, so to speak.
My dad had retired from the Air Force and entered teaching. He was a character with a capital “C” and rather than waiting his turn in the print shop of the school, he bought his own A.B. Dick Spirit Duplicator to run off hand-outs for his students.
Forgotten about today, the spirit duplicator supplanted the mimeograph in school across the country. You typed on special carbon masters that produced the page who wanted to print. As paper passed through the machine a special alcohol would cover the page and dissolve enough of the carbon to leave the imprint on the paper.
Now I wanted to make Inertron look like a “real” magazine so I wanted to print on both sides, a daunting proposition as I had to make sure the page was dry before I could run it through the machine again otherwise it would become translucent.
For a cover, I decided to do a silkscreen of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Again, my father was instrumental in helping me reach my goal as it had taught me how to silkscreen.
The result was a magazine that sold for 35 cents. I managed to sell some at school and placed copies on consignment at a hippie bookstore in nearby Amherst. I sold one copy there.
I was undaunted, though and decided to keep publishing. For some reason lost to me now, I decided to go digest size. Perhaps I thought I could save on paper.
“Inertron,” was the substance in an anti-gravity backpack that allowed Buck Rogers in the original comic strip to fly. My mom had brought me a huge hardcover collection the comic strip for Christmas one year and I was struck with the word, so I stole it.
I have no copies of Inertron #2 left, but I do have the spirit masters. My cover feature was a story on Fu Manchu and I used a shot of Christopher Lee in the role that I received through the Christopher Lee Fan Club. I did use either photocopy or offset for my cover, an improvement.
This time, though, my friends didn’t help and my right hand was my brother Patrick, who shared many of my interests and had those of his own.
I submitted review copies to other fanzines and was elated when Gary Svehla, the editor of what was known then as Gore Creatures but what is published now as Midnight Marquee.
Gore Creatures was everything I wanted my ‘zine to be. It was well written and all offset printed. It featured great artists, such as Bill Nelson, Dave Ludwig, Mark Gelotte and Steve Karchin.
To say I was anxious to see what he said and I was over the moon when I read, “Amazing! Nostalgia works in strange ways. I love Inertron for a very strange reason. It reminds me of the early ditto issues of GC, only it’s better! The ‘zine is very informative and friendly and I think it can go far. I strongly recommend it.” Thanks, Gary!
Could that have been better? No. Orders started coming in and I decided I wanted to continue.
Getting this form back seems to make everything I had done "official."
Issue #3 came out in 1972 – my senior year in high school. My brother did the cover, a pen and ink drawing of Christopher Lee as Dracula.
The third issue was significant for the addition of Kevin Shinnick as a writer. He was a great contributor and made me think of myself more as an editor. Kevin contributed an interview with fellow fanzine editor/publisher Bill George, which was the first interview we printed.
Although more of the issue was offset, I still used dad’s ditto machine. Working with the masters was not fun. If you spotted a typo you could take a sharp blade and scrape the carbon off that spot and then correct it. Luckily for me my late mother did most of the typing.
My parents had little tolerance for the material that clearly enthralled me and yet they supported this enterprise, as did my moviemaking, which started in high school. My dad went to a local camera shop and brought home a wonderful Bolex Super 8 camera and turned it over to me. I wanted to make live action films, but quickly realized I had a very shallow talent pool for actors. Instead I turned to stop motion animation. I recorded sound tracks on our reel-to-reel recorder and would sync the projector and the audio up as best I could.
In issue three, I started a series of articles that I dubbed “The Anti-Rip-off Page.” A reader and contributor, Ed Learner, had had a bad experience ordering items from the Cadillac of monster film magazines Castle of Frankenstein. So had I. It became a popular feature and appeared in each subsequent issue.
I also started printing movie stills from my small collection as “fold-outs.” It was as close as I could get to Photon’s bonus still.
I soon realized that having a good interview with a well-known figure from fantasy, science fiction or horror could boost the standing of your magazine and somehow I snagged a big one – Flash Gordon himself, Buster Crabbe for issue four in late 1972.
I had learned that Crabbe lived in Rye, N.Y. and had managed to find an address. He graciously consented to a telephone interview. In those days you could buy a microphone that you attach to your phone with a suction cup and tape a conversation onto a cassette recorder. I still have the original tape.
I sat in the kitchen nervously tapping my foot as I talked with him.
At that time, Crabbe was riding a wave of nostalgia that brought attention again to performers such as Buffalo Bob Smith of “Howdy Doody” fame and Clayton Moore, the Lone Ranger himself.
It was the first time that the childhood heroes of the Baby Boomers saw they had a second or third career as college students rediscovered them.
Clarence Linden “Buster” Crabbe came to prominence in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics as a gold-medal winning swimmer. His athletic fame was translated into a contract with Paramount Pictures.
Crabbe was a utility player at Paramount. He was handsome and had a great physique, something which was played up in his first starring role as a Tarzan-like hero in “King of the Jungle” in 1933. He was never deemed by Paramount brass, though, as anyone who was “A” film material.
Instead Crabbe found himself as a supporting player or as the lead in program pictures. Perhaps his most prominent role for many people was in the W.C. Fields comedy, “You’re Telling Me.”
His place, though, in cinema history was assured with the success of the three “Flash Gordon” serial in which Crabbe played the comic strip hero. Serials were deemed as entertainment for children and other not so demanding audiences, but the Flash Gordon serials received a prominence that few serials reached.
After his contract with Paramount ran out in 1940, he found a new home at PRC, the lowest of the low budget studios where Crabbe made westerns and jungle adventure films.
In the 1950s, Crabbe made numerous appearances on television and had his own successful series, “Capt. Gallant of the Foreign Legion.”
Acting took a back seat starting in the 1950s, when Crabbe became involved with several profitable businesses – a swimming camp, an affiliation with a pool company and work as a stockbroker.
Crabbe had made his final film, a comedy titled “The Comeback Trail,” in which he played a retired cowboy. He was clearly enthusiastic about the film, which received scant theatrical release and has yet to appear on home video.
He died in 1983.
One thing I learned at the tender age I conducted this interview is just because a statement about an actor or director is made in a book by a film historian that doesn’t mean it’s true. Crabbe refuted two “facts” that were stated about him.
Also in my ignorance, I sort of had an idea that if you worked in a genre of film – such a serials or low budget Westerns – you knew other people who worked in similar films. That wasn’t necessarily the case.
Here is the interview:
Since you were an Olympic champion I was wondering what your opinions were of this year’s Olympics [1972 in Munich, Germany].
“Well, I think it was very poorly handled, much to be desired management wise. I certainly didn’t agree with taking the Gold Medal away from the youngster Demanche who won the 400 meters, he’s the one who had the asthmatic condition with the pill. I think it’s inexcusable that two boys were sleeping when they were supposed to be up for the preliminaries and that began with, I feel, the coach’s and management’s fault, not the athletes’.
“The basketball was certainly an all fouled-up affair and if I had anything to do with the Montreal Olympics in 1976 I certainly would take a wary eye at what might happen before they spent a lot of money preparing for the 1976 Olympic Games.”
There is a new book out entitled “Heroes, Heavies and Sagebrush” that claims your first movie was “Island of Lost Souls” with Charles Laughton. Is that true?
“No, I was not in that film at all. My first was ‘King of the Jungle,’ a Tarzan-like picture Paramount made and released in 1933. I don’t know where that ‘Island of Lost Souls’ came from.”
I was wondering if that had been any rivalry between you and Johnny Weissmuller?
“Sure there was.”
When you were both Tarzan?
“Well, no. I never considered myself a Tarzan. I thought you were talking about the competitive days. You know he’s older than I am and I started off as a kid racing him. After the ’28 [Olympic] games he retired from swimming and started in the movies in 1930.”
Did you make up your own Tarzan yell?
“No. The Tarzan yell, which was learned by a lot of kids – the original Tarzan yell, the one Weissmuller did – was the brainwork of my wife’s father, a fellow named Tom Held, who was a cutter at MGM. They didn’t know what kid of yell they were going to do and believe it or not, it turned out to be not one voice. The original Tarzan yell was three – a baritone, a tenor and a hog caller. Then Weissmuller learned it and every kid in the neighborhood learned the Tarzan call, too. So they used it ever since, but originally it was three voices, three separate voices all melted together.”
I know that you worked with W.C. Fields on a picture.
“Oh yes, I worked on two.”
Do you have any stories of him?
“He was just as he was on the screen. As a matter of fact, this nostalgic thing has been a plus for his films. Box office-wise his films drew, but he wasn’t a big tremendous box office star. I would hazard this: that the Fields pictures are doing better now than when they were first released 30 or 40 years ago.”
Do you ever get tired of being recognized as Flash Gordon?
“Well, no. You know, you didn’t have the coverage in the old days in the middle ‘30s and early ‘40s, you didn’t have the coverage you do now with television. Not that many people recognized me. More people recognize me now even though I’m older, as having played Flash Gordon than in the ‘30s and ‘40s, I think. They run the things on television and let’s say it plays to two million people. A serial that played to two million people might have taken two years to do it.”
You were one of the top Western stars. Who were your favorite cowboy stars?
“Well, Tom Mix. I used to see him as a kid. I thought he was really tops – Col. Tim McCoy, too. I liked [Wild Bill] Elliot very much in fact. You know, nothing fancy in dress and what not.”
I was just reading Jim Harmon and Don Glut’s new book, “the Great Serial Heroes,” that you were offered the role of Superman first in the serial which eventually starred Kirk Alyn. Is this true?
“No, that’s not true.”
I heard that you’ve finished a new movie with Chuck McCann in it.
“Well it’s a thing called 'Comeback Trail,' and the deal is that it is supposed to be previewed now. It was made a year and a half ago, but they have been stalling on the cutting. However, I think that it’s going to be a very funny Western, a semblance to a Western, take it or leave it – it’s in a Western locale.
[Note: 'The Comeback Trail' never received a wide theatrical release and is not readily available on home video.]
“The plot is about a couple of fellows, Chuck McCann and Bob Staats, who are producers of skin flicks, horrible skin flicks and they have to do something to make some money because they owe a lot of money.
“In checking over the bills they owe they come across an item of insurance and Chuck wants to know what this $12,000 worth of insurance is about. Bob explains that when you make a film, you’ve got to insure it in case anything happens, you know, if the negative film is destroyed by fire or some such thing.
“The wheels begin to roll and they decide to make a Western film and instead of taking a young fellow whom they could develop into a Western star, they pick an old fellow for a reason.
“They’re going to make him do all of his own stunts, all his own falls off of horses ad infinitum, hoping to bring on a heart attack and have him drop dead on the set so they can collect the insurance.
“They insure the film for $2 million and go about finding the fellow and it turns out to be me.
“All during the film we go along telling our story, you see it’s a film within a film – you see us actually getting ready to shoot the scenes for the film – it bounces back and they never do succeed in putting me away, so to speak.
“That’s the story. It’s a funny picture, a real funny picture. These fellows are good; they work well together like a Laurel and Hardy team. I think that after the film is shown and I’ve only seen a couple of days work and some cuts – I’ve never seen even a rough cut of it – but watching the fellow work together and whatnot I really think that they have a chance of getting to be a comedy team a la Laurel and Hardy.”
Other than your Flash Gordon role, which role is your favorite?
“Well, I like the 'Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion' – that was 65 films we made for television in 1954 and ‘56– because my son was in it. I enjoyed making that series. He was with me all the time and that was kind of fun.”
Speaking of that series, some people would condemn it today because its supposed excess of violence would be detrimental to Saturday morning viewers.
“Oh that is so very wrong! Take a look at what they have on the screen now! This is tame compared to what’s going on now! Look at cowboy pictures that they make now. Look at pictures Clint Eastwood and people like that make! Blood and thunder! This, they looked down upon 25 and 30 years ago. No, we don’t even hold a candle to what’s going on, Too much violence? That’s asinine.”
Well, it was bothering me because I was raised on your Foreign Legion show and the old Lone Ranger series.
Sure, they were a lot of fun. If they try tried to shoot you and they weren’t successful you shot them, you know, it was one of those things. But violence wise we don’t even compare.”
Which role have you enjoyed most in life: that of an athlete, movie star or a businessman?
“I never really considered myself a movie star. One of the reasons for that is that I never had a top grade triple A script and a top grade triple A director and producer. I never had the chance to work with a real big director in the business. The result is that I made action pictures, which turned out to be fortunate for me. The Billy the Kid Westerns, all the Westerns I did for Paramount, the serials I made and the other action things stood me in good stead because when television came along they sort of resurrected me, so to speak.
“But I always considered myself, when I was a college student and before that, as a fair to middling swimmer and I go for the physical fitness type of thing, That’s why I’m involved in the Masters Swimming program now, which is for guys and gals who aren’t so young anymore.
I was reading a book by William K. Everson who said that your career, like that of W.C. Fields’ Paramount career, was mismanaged by the studio.
“I think that they could have really done something with it had they put on their thinking caps and brought me along. They took me dripping wet of out of a swimming pool.’
“Now don’t misunderstand me, I had a year in law school and wasn’t a dummy who came out of left field or anything like that. I think with a little bit of grooming and the right kind of coaching then I might have been able to do something, but that’s over the hill now.
“I was there a long time at Paramount and I did what I was told – you know body and soul belonging to Paramount Studios. The type of comedy that Fields did, I don’t think they appreciated. I think that they could have done a better job promoting him – tours and things. Maybe he turned them down, I don’t know, maybe he said the hell with them – “I don’t want to go on the road “ – but I kind of doubt this because he came off vaudeville back east here. I think the man has a point particularly in regard to W.C. Fields.”
Well, he mentioned in the book that they gave you a fairly good starting picture, “King of the Jungle.”
“King of the Jungle” was fine, but it was the “Me Tarzan, you Jane” type of thing. The word got out around the studio that regardless of my background – you know, college and a year of law school – that “he looks fine if you’ve got a life guard part, you strip him down and put him in a G-string, he’s okay, don’t give him any dialogue.” This is what I had to live down the first two or three years there.”
Would you like to do more films after this last one?
“Oh yeah, sure, I’d like to work in a movie. Of course, I’d have to be a character [actor] now. I love to play heavies. I had more fun playing the heavy than the lead by far. Love to play the real nasty guy.”
My brother did a drawing of Crabbe for the cover and I had a very timely piece of luck. Famous Monsters was offering a free classified ad to fans and in the 100th anniversary issue, they ran mine for Inertron # 4. Suddenly I was even more on the radar and received orders for Inertron and fanzines to review.
Inertron #4 was also the first all offset issue and I felt that I had made a quantum leap in quality. If course it was still crude by almost any standard, but I shared the desire of every fanzine editor I ever knew to constantly try to improve the look and content of the ‘sine.
It was the better part of two years later that I produced by fifth issue. I blamed the delay on college.
“Well, here it is 1974 and I am way behind my schedule for this magazine. A fanzine editor’s life can be a frustrating one. One wants to work on the up-coming ish, but there’s always a test or a paper that needs your immediate attention. This semester at the University of Massachusetts, I was teaching a course in the history of the American Movie. The students got one credit and I got $150 and a lot of experience. No wonder some professors go nuts! College students can be a trying lot to an instructor,” I wrote in my column at the end of the issue.
I was now attracting some fine writers such as Jim Doherty, Steve Bashaw and John Antosiewicz, as well as continuing with Kevin Shinnick.
I was also being asked to contribute to other fanzines, something, which deepened my confidence.
The sixth and final issue of my fanzine was published in 1975 and I wrote as an introduction, “You are holding in your hand the product of much sweat, worry, money and joy. This sixth issue has been the most rewarding and yet the most frustrating INT I’ve published.”
I continued, “ You remember that I had said that the nest issue of INT would be ready by Halloween of ’74. This statement was made because of an agreement that had been made with a local printer. However when it came time to begin printing, he changed the price that we agreed on and then states that he would do the work when he felt like it.
“Not having the money to go out to another printer and get the ‘zine done, I waited until now – tax refund times! This waiting time has resulted in things: a better issue of INT and a decision not to lose money on the ‘zine anymore. The next issue of INT will be out in September and will cost $1.25. However I’m really going to make sure that your get your money’s worth.”
More on my cunning plan to continue publishing will follow.
The sixth issue featured an interview I conducted with William M. Gaines, the legendary publisher of EC Comics and MAD magazine. Gaines was great to me and even sent a note of encouragement.
Michael Moyle drew this caricature of William Gaines for me.
The Gaines piece was the first time I took something from my fanzine and was able to make a professional sale. The local alternative weekly, The Valley Advocate, published an edited version and I was very pleased to have broken into being a professional writer.
This note from Gaines made my day. I wound up interviewing him twice more over the years.
I tried something different visually with the film reviews and asked a talented artist, Michael Moyle, at UMass help me design the page with a number of monster caricatures.
So by the time I had published this sixth and last issue, I had several interviews with noted figures under my belt, I was starting to play around with the use of graphics and collaborating with an artist and had learned of the advantage of taking something that had appeared in one publications, revamping it to make a sale in another – all valuable lessons for my life ahead.
I was about to learn another: when to pull the plug.
I had decided to make my fanzine a break-even operation and thought what I would do is to solicit advance orders for the regular edition and send out a mini-zine free every month. I didn’t get the orders I needed and dropped the whole idea.
In the latter part of 1976, after graduation, I sent our to a number of regular readers a newsletter that I thought, again, if the reaction to is was positive I would get back to what is now called self-publishing.
I wrote, “So where have I been and why haven’t I kept in touch with folks and published Half Pint and Inertron? Well, I’ll tell you. The response to the last issue of Inertron was less than encouraging. People just didn’t; comment, much less contribute and except for a few hardy souls there were no advance orders for the next issue of Inertron. This confirmed my suspicions that people would not pay more than $1 for my zine and I, quite frankly, let my other interests take the limelight.”
Those interests were primarily finding a job.
I had, by this time, started researching the Fleischer Studios and went back to fanzines with articles about their animated cartoons, first in Mindrot (later Animania) and then in Animato, which my business partner and I bought in 1992. With professional distribution, Animato was part of the all-too-brief heyday of small press publications on film and pop culture, many of which paid its contributors. This era was undermined by the decline of independent distributors and, in my case with Animation Planet, my successor to Animato, the bubble bursting in the animation art field, my primarily advertising base.
Once again I had to call it quits and walk away without too much regret.
I admire the people today who publish magazines such as Phantom of the Movies VideoZone and Shock Cinema and buy them faithfully. They have the spirit of the fanzines I loved so much in a professional package.
So much of what I became professionally was due to my experience with what it is now considered a quaint curio of the pre-Internet era. I still buy amateur and independent publications when I see them and I tip my hat to anyone who is willing to create a physical artifact and out it into the marketplace.
©2013 by Gordon Michael Dobbs