Let Us Now Praise Famous Monsters: A Conversation (Part Two)

Reclaiming historic models of fan practices has proven challenging, so I am hoping we might take some methodological insights from the ways you each approached this project. What were some of the challenges and opportunities in reconstructing monster fandom as a historical phenomenon?

Matt:  I found it essential to foreground the nature by which FM presented and remediated fan practices.  As such, FM offers a wonderful model of how fandom can be presented to itself.  This was, of course, key to my analysis of Ackerman as an intermediary who would liberally revise letters sent to the magazine, speak for the fan, and shape fan desires.  Ideally, I would have liked to include in my essay examinations of fan films that could not be represented in the magazine outside of stills.  There are a couple of very good compilations of “monster kid” amateur films available on DVD that would be a very good resource for this work (even if one cannot make a direct connection to FM in all cases).  Bob’s essay in particular did a good job of considering the actual film production in very productive ways.

Bob: I never think of myself as practicing anything so organized as a methodology, but certainly this project’s method hinged on having access to the text and texture of Famous Monsters itself, in particular the Captain Company advertising pages where so much of monster culture’s material practices were on explicit display. To today’s eye, FM’s ads might seem like simple commercial hype (as Mark mentions below), secondary to the editorial content. But along with other fixtures of the magazine like contests, fan clubs, and classifieds, FM’s ads were extremely busy sites of social and material exchange — invitations to participate, nodes of interactivity in the magazine’s paper network of publishing and the U.S. Postal Service. And excitingly, through those pages thread names, titles, products that connect to larger histories of fan creativity and cult media, like Jim Danforth and Dennis Muren and their movie Equinox. My “archive,” by the way, was a DVD containing the entire run of FM in the comics-reader .CBR format, purchased online. No libraries nearby have FM in their holdings, and my personal collection is a handful of favorites cherry-picked over the years from eBay. Admittedly, then, that “texture” I mentioned earlier is a pallid, pixelated ghost of the weighty stacks of beautiful pulpy newsprint and vivid covers that constitute FM’s own material being. But without the digital archive’s ease of access, comprehensiveness of content, and ability to do screen captures, I wouldn’t have been able to write the essay.

Mark: I’m particularly interested in diachronic studies of fan responses to celebrities, and methodologically this means lots of time spent reading through letters to the editor of various old publications, hoping to stumble across those little gems that communicate something about audience reactions and responses in their historical contexts. For this essay, I wanted to chart the continuities and discrepancies of reception of Lon Chaney’s star image from the 1920s to the present. I find it fascinating that Chaney was one of the biggest stars of the silent era, but at some point in time interest in him became something “specialized,” and he also became an idol for boys rather than a star appreciated by a broader audience. FM is a really valuable source for researching this shift–in part because of Ackerman’s much-proclaimed love for Chaney, but even more because of the ways, as Matt put it, that FM presented and modelled fandom to fans. Primarily, though, FM is fairly unique in the sheer amount of reader-generated content, which at least theoretically provides greater access to “the people” in their own words. But this also raises a caution as far as methodology. I hadn’t realized that, as Matt mentioned, Ackerman would tinker with readers’ letters before they were printed. It just goes to show, with historic reception studies one always has to be on guard, both in granting too much credence to the evidence, and in being alert to ways in which you might be making presumptions or “thinking for” the historical audience through a 21st-century mindset.

 

Natasha: Like Bob, my primary archive consisted of a DVD (purchased online) that contained the entire run of FM.  Access to every issue of the magazine in a digital format was crucial in allowing me the opportunity to trace a female fan presence in the magazine spanning 25 years.   I was able to borrow a sampling of paper issues of FM from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, however, echoing Bob’s point,  it would have been impossible for me to write this essay without access to the entire digital archive.  Being able to access a comprehensive collection of the magazine was essential in conducting a diachronic study and tracing Ackerman’s steadfast and consistent support for a female fan presence in the pages of F.M. Digital access to a whole range of historical documents that used to demand time-consuming and expensive visits to archives provides a rich ground for re-examining cultural assumptions, generalizations and creating a more nuanced and multidimensional understanding of historic fan practices.

 

Most work in fan studies has centered around mostly female-centered forms of fan culture. In what ways does studying Famous Monsters give us a way into talking about the relationship of fandom to masculinity?

Matt:  Of course, Mark’s essay is an excellent model for this and Natasha’s essay offers an exemplary model of how to consider female fandom in the context of male fandom.  For me, both of these essays have inspired much thought and reflection on the gender politics of superhero fandom.

Mark: I think FM is very useful in the ways it complicates what we think we might know about childhood and adolescence in the 1950s and 60s, in that it provides a historical record of things not “spoken” elsewhere–or at least not spoken as directly. You can find readers talking about feeling alienated from their peers, or of paying some price for non-conformity, which often means not conforming to normative masculinity. For another project, I spent quite a bit of time looking at old Boy’s Life magazines, and the contrast between the stereotypically uncomplicated, all-American, Leave it to Beaver image of 1950s/60s boyhood found therein and the more fraught relationship to masculinity evident in FM is pretty remarkable (although I must add I love Leave it to Beaver). I also want to voice my admiration for Natasha’s essay–not just for her valuable work, but for those girls and young women who sent their letters and photos in to FM, which in the 1950s was probably a pretty daring, brave move for many of them. They were pioneers!

Bob: I’m definitely interested in the boy culture reflected in FM’s pages, and the magazine’s larger function as a kind of primer in certain modes of fandom (the “affirmational” as it’s sometimes called, to distinguish it from the “transformative”) conventionally associated with the male gender. However, I take seriously the caveat that no fannish activity or orientation is exclusively the province of one gender or another, and that FM’s readership was a diverse collection of boys, girls, and presumably transgendered individuals outside that limiting binary. But the skills and predilections we discover as children are the roots of those we take into adulthood, so certainly I see FM as an important player in the acculturation and encouragement of behaviors that later come to seem “innate” or “essential” aspects of fanboys — in particular, the accumulation of knowledge about make-up and visual effects that marked my own fascination with FM and most subsequent fan objects. So in short, while boys aren’t a priori horror fans who build model kits or collect action figures, being a horror fan who builds and collects arguably seeds the kind of subjectivities later associated, if only through self-identification, with being a boy/man.

 

Natasha, you turn the lens in the other direction, identifying the ways women were included or excluded from this fan culture which had historically been male-dominated. What roles do you think Ackerman and his magazine played in this process? What kinds of evidence did you find that helped you to reconstruct the history of female participation in monster fandom?

 

Natasha: Ackerman was extremely influential in creating an inclusive fan culture around his magazine.  As Matt’s interview with Ackerman reaffirms, he had total control over the content of F.M.  Not only did Ackerman strategically print captions such as “Guys and Gals Behind the Ghouls’ and ‘Girls will be Ghouls’ on the covers of the earliest issues of F. M., but he also insured that women held a variety of key roles in the magazine’s production.  Ackerman was highly aware of the way horror and science fiction fan cultures historically structured themselves as exclusive boyzones.  In 1946, Ackerman proposed an all-female guest-of-honour list for the Fourth World Science Fiction Convention, the Pacificon. This proposition was immediately shot down by his colleagues.  Ackerman used his agency at FM as a way to showcase that monster fandom wasn’t just for boys.  Pictures and letters by female fans were incorporated into the magazine’s regular features such as ‘Fiendom’s Finest’ or ‘Fan Mail.” With a circulation of 2.4 million in the 1970s, FM made a significant impact on American culture.  Ackerman’s influence on female monster/horror fans is still evident today.  Jovanka Vuckovic, director of The Captured Bird (2012) and editor-in-chief of Rue Morgue counts Ackerman as one of her key inspirations for pursuing her career path.

There’s a strong focus throughout these essays on the ways fandom translated into material cultural practices. What are some of the practices Famous Monsters inspired and supported? And what might the study of such practices contribute to a fuller understanding of the nature of participatory culture?

Matt: I’m intrigued by the notion of curatorial consumption.  I recently came across a fan’s posting of his FM collection that was quite detailed in terms of how he catalogued and stored his issues.  It was a museum level of archival care that provoked some counter-responses from other FM readers about denying the pleasure of simply reading your old FMs.   Further along these lines, a lot of these middle-aged ‘monster kids’ have transformed their homes into modest facsimiles of the Ackermansion.  Again, the notion of being a curator for a museum of one’s childhood passions is fascinating.  Such spaces are interesting because they typically remain these abstractions presented visually on the web and in competition with each other.

Mark: It’s a blast to look at the copious advertisements in those old issues, with all the “Scare your parents! Amaze your friends!” hype, for what turned out to be tawdry cardboard bats or “ghosts” made of vinyl sheeting (I know, for I was a victim of the come-on). Matt and Bob both have done really interesting work on fan consumption as a form of identity work, and as a form of archiving. I think it’s worth re-emphasizing that a lot of the material cultural practices prompted by the magazine were of a DIY nature–putting together and painting models, making films, using creating monster makeups, etc., and of consuming supplies in the interest of making a finished product.

Bob: I have little to add to Matt and Mark’s excellent thoughts, except to say that I’m increasingly dubious that fandom exists except in material cultural practices — that is, fandom manifests in activities, objects, and spaces — and that fan studies has traditionally been a bit narrow in approaching fandom primarily through what we might call its textual technologies and traces, such as reading, writing, rereading and rewriting, poaching, etc. While these are material practices as well, the temptation is to elevate them over the more bluntly material “things” of fan culture, since those things are so often damned through ties to commercialism or their positioning as amateurish, crude, or flawed. In future projects I hope to focus on the object forms of fandom as dynamically expressive practices, simultaneously social and private, that intersect with the commercial and the mass-produced in messy but significant ways.

 

Mark Hain is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, and is currently working on his dissertation, which is a historical reception study looking at star image and how audiences interpret and find use for these images, with a specific focus on Theda Bara.

Bob Rehak is an Assistant Professor in the Film and Media Studies Program at Swarthmore College. His research interests include special effects and the material practices of fandom.

Natashia Ritsma is a PhD candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. Her research interests focus on documentary, experimental and educational film and television.

Matt Yockey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theater and Film at the University of Toledo. His research interest is on the reception of Hollywood genre films.