15 Aug 2020 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

In 1962, Poet and provocateur Ed Sanders purchased his first used, hand-operated mimeograph machine and Fuck You Press was born. Pre-digital office duplicators like the mimeograph, “Ditto” machine, and small offset presses freed Sanders and other 60’s radical artists and writers from the publishing industry’s constraints and led to the creation of the underground press. 

Sanders was not the first to use cheap copying technology to transgress against the aesthetic mainstream. Earlier producers of what would later be labeled “Democratic Multiples” may have found inspiration in an unlikely source… science fiction (SF) fandom. These young, mostly blue-collar fans of far-fetched adventure stories utilized cheap copying technology and created an international network of amateur “fanzines” well before World War II.

There is an oscillation between the tandem sine waves of the Avant-Garde and SF fandom throughout the 20th century. One can find many fascinating cultural commonalities in the development of both that beg for more in-depth scholarship. In the period between the world wars, artists’ publications and SF fanzines utilized a similar visual language to reflect on the debates surrounding socialism and fascism. The inclusion of non-white/hetero/male artists and the depiction of “others” in these genres is simultaneously far ahead of the mainstream and sometimes frustratingly puerile. Unfortunately, taking a deep-dive into these topics is beyond the scope of this blog post, but hopefully, it can provide a stepping-off point for further discussion. 

During WWI, Dada artists began to use copying technology to produce handbills and pamphlets. Russian Futurists embraced the hectograph as an ideal way to print the crude, dynamic graphics that became a trademark of their publications. A few years later, in the US, young SF fans discovered self-publishing using the hectograph and mimeograph. Two parallel underground print cultures began to develop; on the one hand, avant-garde artists, revered by intellectuals and misunderstood by the masses, and on the other, “fandom,” the street-level popular movement that was reviled by the academy. The cultural thread that stretches from Dada through Futurism, Fluxus, Situationism, concrete poetry and artist books runs alongside the thread that connects science fiction fandom to punk rock graphics, Riot Grrrl zines and the “Maker” movement.

1943 was a critical point on the literary front of the mimeograph revolution. It was when “William Everson … helped run the mimeograph machine to produce his own X War Elegies, among other small volumes” in the conscientious objectors’ camp at Waldport, Oregon. [1] After the war, Everson and other “beatniks” laid the groundwork for further development.

During the 1960s, SF finally co-mingled with experimental poetry, avant-garde art, performance, and film. Shannon Davies Mancus describes it well in her essay “New Wave Science Fiction and the Counterculture”: [C]ounterculture figures such as Abby Hoffman and the Diggers in San Francisco and New Wave (SF) writers such as Judith Merril and J. G. Ballard looked to other artistic movements that had rejected canonical methodologies in search of new realities which might prove less violent than the 'real world. ' . . Merril, Pamela Zoline, and Giles Gordon sampled methodologies such as textual collaging: the surrealists believed that odd juxtapositions and rearrangements of symbols reveal more about the original subject of inquiry than the narratively unified whole, and that exploring the subconscious creates a kind of cognitive estrangement that allows for a break with old, violent forms of thinking and creates new realities.” [2]

In the introduction to An Author Index to Little Magazines of the Mimeograph Revolution, 1958-1980, Michael Basinki wrote that: “The Mimeo Revolution did not instantaneously precipitate. Throughout the 1950s, there were little magazines publishing innovative poetry. They existed in the shadows of Eisenhower and McCarthyism. . . . The university system was expanding and was both inspirational and an easy target for those craving a frank poetic engagement. It was a heady time…. Their publishing was meant to be rebellious and, therefore, a romantic aura surrounds the Mimeo Revolution. Its legitimate parameters have yet to be fully established. Its full impact has yet to be considered. The context, materiality, and the history of the Mimeo Revolution await documentation. The stories of the editors, poets, and their mimeo magazines need to be written.” [3]

Were the teenage cover artists of 1930s fanzines aware of Russian Futurist art books? Were any of the poets and artists of the 1960s mimeograph revolution directly involved in SF fandom in their youth? More research is needed. Nevertheless, we can clearly see that there is a shared zeitgeist at work, a common revolutionary aesthetic, and a love of “cheap copies.”

[1] Clay, Steven, and Rodney Phillips. A Secret Location on the Lower East Side: Adventures in Writing, 1960-1980: a Sourcebook of Information. New York: Granary Books, 1998.

[2] Mancus, Shannon Davies. “New Wave Science Fiction and the Counterculture.” Chapter. In The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, edited by Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link, 338–52. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 

[3] Harter, Christopher. An Author Index to Little Magazines of the Mimeograph Revolution: 1958-1980. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2008.

Rich Dana is master’s candidate in the University of Iowa MLIS/Book Arts MFA program. He is a Robert A. Olson Graduate Assistant at UI Special Collections working with the Sackner Archive of Concrete and Visual Poetry and is the former Curatorial Assistant to the Hevelin Science Fiction Collection. 


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