In the days before the internet, fans often got their news and communicated with each other via fanzines. It was cost-prohibitive to try to earn any money in any sort of mass market approach, so there were no readily available outlets for learning about Commando Cody serials or Captain Marvel comics, much less anything about personalities like Buster Crabbe or Kirk Alyn. Some enterprising fans took it upon themselves to produce fanzines to share what little they were able to scrounge. Typically, these were printed on a borrowed mimeograph machine and had circulations that rarely got to three digits.
As technologies improved, production capabilities got higher and costs got lower. So by the 1970s, it was possible to produce a professional-looking fan magazine and distribute it to thousands of people. Many of the veteran fanzine producers improved the look of their existing ‘zines, and long-time professional magazine publishers began to see the potential in catering to more niche audiences.
Many of these magazines have since fallen by the wayside. Their value propositions were largely undermined by the internet, as fans could get the same things faster and cheaper online. Why read about convention coverage a month or two after the fact, when you could see unfold in real time online?
But with the increasing attention that fans and fandom have been getting in the past several years, fanzines have also become worthy of more historical study.
In 2011, long-time science fiction fan James L. “Rusty” Hevelin died. Having collected sci-fi materials since the 1930s, he had amassed a collection of roughly 10,000 fanzines that he donated to The University of Iowa Libraries. Given the age of many of the materials, and that archiving them was scarcely a consideration in their original production, many are in less than ideal condition. But the Library has taken upon the project of scanning the entire collection and transcribing the contents into an online searchable database. Fan historians will be able to read the histories of both science fiction and fandom unfold in a way that the typically small print runs of fanzines had made nearly impossible before. (It’s worth noting, somewhat ironically, that many of these fanzine scans will, just in their casual perusal online, have significantly larger reading audiences than they ever had when they were first printed.)
Also of note is that the Internet Archive has posted scans of every issue of Starlog, one of the first professional science fiction fanzines that ran from 1976 until 2009. Many sci-fi fans considered it the definitive source of science fiction news for many, many years. Some sci-fi websites today have expressly noted how Starlog influenced their current work.
While some may find browsing these old records entertaining for nostalgic value, that’s not why they’re being scanned and made available. The scope of these projects is much larger than what would be necessary for that. These fanzines are now seen as valuable sources of first-hand information about the growth of both the genres they cover as well as the fandoms they catered to. While the study of fans and fandoms is still relatively new, these projects point to the increased sense of significance that it has, and they are willing to put forth some very real efforts to ensure that fanthropologists have as much access to as many materials as possible.