On Blueprint Culture

As promised in my last post, I am undertaking a new essay project, one whose first draft I will write in public on this blog. I haven’t yet committed to a deadline, but my hope is to pull this together rather quickly, writing in small daily chunks — let’s say as a ballpark estimate the end of the month. I face some challenges here: with classes ending in two weeks, it’s the height of a busy semester (and I’m at my most burned out), and revisions on our essays for the BFI special effects anthology need to go out by April 15. But as JFK said of going to the moon, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The essay in question is a long-simmering project involving blueprint culture, something I’ve only recent started to blog about but which has been on my mind since summer 2005, when I wrote the earliest version of my Star Trek chapter for the dissertation at Indiana University. Since then, my conception of the project has broadened past Roddenberry’s franchise to embrace a larger set of fan and professional practices devoted to mapping, drafting, indexing, and historicizing the storyworlds of fantastic media, from film and television franchises to literary and video game universes. In tomorrow’s post, I will condense my current thinking about blueprint culture and sketch out the argument I plan to make, before moving on to identify subtopics and amass resources.

Franz Joseph and Star Trek’s Blueprint Culture

As part of a larger project I’m preparing on “blueprint culture” — fan subcultures devoted to drawing, drafting, charting, mapping, and playing the worlds of science-fiction media — here is a brief history, excerpted from my book manuscript on special effects and transmedia, of Franz Joseph and the Starfleet Technical Manual he created in 1975.

One man in particular would dominate Star Trek’s design-oriented fandom in the 1970s. Though not a fan himself, Franz Joseph Schnaubelt was the first to awaken a broad base of fans to the pleasures of charting and extending Star Trek’s diegetic backdrop. By the same token, Schnaubelt brought to the attention of the show’s license holders the enormous profit potential of Trek manufacturing: first through supplementary materials expanding on the Trek universe, then through relaunching Trek as a storytelling franchise.

Schnaubelt, who in his professional life went by the name Franz Joseph, was born in Chicago in 1914. A designer and draftsman, Joseph began working at the aeronautical and military research firm General Dynamics in 1941, drawing up plans of seaplanes and fighter planes. “For being a man who was vehemently opposed to war,” Joseph’s daughter Karen Dick writes, he “certainly worked on some of the most formidable war machinery of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s.”[i] Laid off in 1969, Joseph entered an early retirement that ended when his attention turned to Trek – not as entertainment, but as intellectual exercise. During the original series’ run, Joseph and Karen had watched the show together, but her passion outstripped his (he considered Star Trek only slightly superior to Lost in Space). In April 1973, Karen took her father to the inaugural meeting of the San Diego branch of the Star Trek Association for Revival (S.T.A.R.).[ii] The fans gathered there brought with them homemade models of Trek equipment such as communicators and phasers. According to Joseph, the ersatz props “were made out of cardboard, balsa wood, tape, wiring, glue, and paint and, for college kids … the workmanship was pretty bad any way you looked at it.”[iii] A former Cub Scout director, Joseph told the amateur craftsmen he thought “they could do better.”[iv] When they asked for assistance, Joseph agreed to bring his own professional training to bear.

Working from more than 800 film clips Karen had amassed, Joseph began to draft blueprints of the props, basing his work on a principle of architectural draftsmanship in which schematic drawings are projected into 3D views. Joseph reversed this, moving “from picture to plan” rather than from plan to picture.[v] In this sense, he inverted the process by which Matt Jefferies, a decade earlier, designed Trek’s sets and spacecraft: Jefferies would prepare both top-down plans and elevations – 3D views, some in color – showing how the finished object would look from camera viewpoint. According to Joseph,

I could take a picture of an enemy airplane and, as long as there was something on the airplane, or in the picture, that permitted me to determine the scale or make a fairly good judgment of the scale, then I would simply reverse the procedure and draw the plans of the airplane in that picture. This is what I was doing with the Star Trek slides. I drew the plans of the communicator, and then plans of the hand phaser and the pistol phaser.[vi]

When Karen’s friends saw the drawings, Joseph said, they “went wild over them. They wanted a lot more. They wanted everything. They made a whole list of stuff they wanted to see and I decided, well, I would do it if there was an interest in it.”[vii] When Joseph examined the lists, he realized that the fans were asking for “a ‘technical’ manual,” and set to work drawing up a comprehensive mechanical anatomy of Trek’s diegetic contents (Figure 3).[viii] From Lincoln Enterprises, the memorabilia vendor run by Roddenberry and Majel Barrett, Karen obtained a set of Matt Jefferies’s drawings of the Enterprise, the Galileo shuttlecraft, and the shuttledeck. “From those sketches and those in Whitfield’s book [The Making of Star Trek],” Joseph “laid the drawing out, scaled and sized it, and made a drawing of the Enterprise.”[ix] He then departed for the first time from canon, extrapolating a new type of Starfleet vessel – a massive warship called the Dreadnaught, which rearranged elements of the Enterprise configuration. Joseph topped off this initial set of drawings with a pattern for the standard Starfleet uniform, again demonstrating the seamless slippage among visual effects and more concrete elements such as sets, costumes, and props.

In the course of preparing the technical manual, Joseph decided it would be necessary to map the Enterprise’s internal layout. This was because the fan community

wanted bridge stations and other things concerned with the interior of the Enterprise, which did not exist except in a book or in somebody’s mind as a throwaway line. So it became rather obvious that I would have to lay out the Enterprise far enough to get to those areas – to see whether I could make drawings. This is how the Enterprise blueprints came about – in the middle of making the technical manual – they were primarily an afterthought.[x]

In “lofting” the ship, however, he discovered several errors in scale and perspective, most stemming from the change from 203 to 430 personnel (and a corresponding change in length from 180 to 947 feet) made by Roddenberry and Jefferies during preproduction on the original series. He also noticed that the bridge was 36 degrees out of alignment with the rest of the saucer – throughout the series, Captain Kirk had been facing slightly to the left of the ship’s angle of travel, a mistake that had to do with the producers’ need to create dramatic visual compositions by placing the “turbolift” elevator so it was not directly behind the captain’s chair. Drafting the technical manual and ship blueprints was, then, largely a matter of reconciling the “imaginary” object of the Enterprise miniature with the “real” object of sets such as the bridge, sickbay, and engineering, explaining in graphic form how exterior and interior aspects of the Enterprise fit together into a coherent whole. In this sense, Joseph’s work might be described as operationalizing the Kuleshov effect, tying down and standardizing relationships created through editing. The technical materials upon which design-oriented fandom thrives – blueprints, models, hand-crafted props – thus serve an essentially conservative function, knitting together loose seams of an imperfectly-manufactured diegetic reality, as opposed to the exploding/perverting of officially preferred meanings that occurs in fan fiction (particularly slash).

Nevertheless, his technical productions did ultimately bring him into conflict with Trek’s legal authors. Interviews with Joseph demonstrate the care he took not to step on the toes of Trek’s copyright holders; from the start, he corresponded with Roddenberry and Paramount executives, sending them samples of his work. At the same time, Joseph’s encounters with the fan community convinced him there was substantial interest in his technical drawings, a site of imaginative investment as well as potential profit. By May 14, 1973 – only a month after the S.T.A.R. meeting that inspired the project – Joseph, having completed a dozen drawings, contacted Roddenberry and received a go-ahead. Roddenberry hinted that Lincoln Enterprises would market the drawings once Joseph completed them. For a brief time, Roddenberry even employed Joseph as technical consultant and designer on a new science-fiction series he was then developing, Planet Earth.

But months later, with a major Trek convention approaching, Joseph had still not received official permission to sell his work. Bypassing Roddenberry, he made a one-time deal with Paramount to sell the “General Plans” (the Enterprise blueprints) at the upcoming convention. Equicon 1974 took place in Los Angeles from April 12-14. Of the 500 copies of the General Plans Joseph had prepared, 410 sold immediately; 450 requests for additional copies were taken on postcards. Paramount, which received Joseph’s royalty check shortly thereafter, sensed it was on to something, and began negotiating for a mass-market release of both the General Plans and the still-growing Technical Manual. The results exceeded all expectations. The blueprints went on sale across the nation on May 24, 1975, selling out within two hours. By May 28, 50,000 additional copies had sold, prompting Ballantine to print 100,000 more. In July the New York Times marveled,

It lives! There’s one publication that’s been selling so furiously in book stores during recent weeks that it would be included on the list [of bestsellers] above except for one fact. It’s not a book. “Star Trek Blueprints” is a set of 12 reproductions by Franz Joseph Schnaubelt showing “every foot of every level of the fabulous starship Enterprise.” Since mid-May Ballantine Books has sold 150,000 sets, enclosed in a plastic and leatherette portfolio, at $5. This week it goes back to press for 100,000 more.[xi]

The blueprints continued to sell strongly throughout the summer, reaching 10th on the paperback bestseller list and receiving a fourth printing in October. Meanwhile, interest in Franz Joseph’s other creation, the Technical Manual, was growing: at a time when a typical first printing of a Trek-related publications might run 20,000, Ballantine Books planned an initial run of 450,000. Both the General Plans and the Technical Manual ended up as bestsellers.

Although he found the widest audience, Joseph was by no means the first or only producer of design-oriented Trek material. In addition to the substantial body of such work that went on unremarked in bedrooms and basement workshops, many fans printed blueprints and manuals and sold them at conventions and through mail order. Geoffrey Mandel’s Starfleet Handbook, for example, came out in September 1974 and featured “schematics of the phaser, communicator, tricorder, and shuttlecraft.”[xii] Nevertheless, Franz Joseph’s creations inspired numerous others throughout the mid- and late 1970s to map the fantasy world of Trek in exacting detail through blueprints of the bridge, K-7 Space Station, and Klingon and Romulan cruisers. The success of the General Plans and Technical Manual led to a string of similar publications at the mass-market level, and constituted an access point for fans wishing to join the ranks of professionals: The Star Fleet Medical Reference Manual, published in 1977, featured the work of Geoffrey Mandel and Doug Drexler (who would later go on to create Christopher Pike, Commanding and other imagery for the “Ships of the Line” calendars). The popularity of Joseph’s technical materials arguably influenced the development of the “Star Trek Poster Magazine,” whose first issue came out in September 1976, and the Trek “Fotonovel” series, both of which showcased Trek’s spectacular visuals through color reproductions of film frames.[xiii] This trend would eventually lead to a series of official Trek publications such as Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise, as well as technical manuals for spinoff series The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.[xiv] With the growth of the personal-computer industry, software products such as the Interactive Guide to the Enterprise and Starship Creator joined the lineup.

Franz Joseph himself, however, did not go on to do more Trek projects. In part this was due to a series of illnesses affecting both him and his wife; but the larger obstacle seems to have been caused by Gene Roddenberry and Paramount themselves, who, during Trek’s pop-culture renaissance, were hard at work on relaunching the Star Trek franchise. In the early 1970s, Roddenberry assured Joseph that development of the General Plans and Technical Manual could continue unimpeded because Trek was, to all intents and purposes, a dead property. “Before I started seriously on the Manual,” Joseph said, “I had talked to Gene, Paramount, NBC, and Ballantine Books, and they all assured me that the Star Trek TV series was dead, it would not go back into production.”[xv] But the show had left a uniquely profitable corpse in the form of “the seventy-nine jewels,” as industry insiders called the original series, which continued to earn revenue through constant rebroadcast. The syndicated series was profitable in a secondary, subcultural sense, as Joseph himself acknowledged: “the reruns were maintaining continued fan interest, and gaining new fans every year. So I felt it was all right if I made the manual. It was something the original series never had, Gene wanted me to go ahead and finish it, and Ballantine was interested in publishing it.”[xvi]

[i] Greg Tyler, “Karen Dick” (June-July 1999 interview), <http:www.trekplace.com/fj-kdint01.html>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[ii] Paul Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph” (June 1984), <http:www.trekplace.com/fj-fjnewitt01.html>, accessed 18 June 2005.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think” (October 1976 interview with Franz Joseph Schnaubelt), <http:www.trekplace.com/fj-fjwilliamsint01.html>, accessed 17 June 2005.

[viii] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Gerry Williams and Penny Durrans, “These Will Be A Reality Sooner than You Think.”

[xi] “Paper Back Talk,” New York Times (13 July 1975), 210.

[xii] Joan Marie Verba, Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967-1987, 2nd Ed. (Minnesota: FTL Publications, 2003), 17.

[xiii] Lynn Simross, “Fotonovel: The Movie-Picture Book,” Los Angeles Times (18 September 1978), OC_B1.

[xiv] Shane Johnson, Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989); Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda, Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991); Herman Zimmerman, Rick Sternbach, and Michael Okuda, The Deep Space Nine Technical Manual (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998).

[xv] Newitt, “An Interview with Franz Joseph.”

[xvi] Ibid.

SCMS 2012: We Have Never Been Digital

March is here — in fact, it arrived three days ago, and I’m only just now noticing it like a UPS box left on my doorstep — and the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference is only three weeks away. Depending on where the dial is set on your own personal Procrastinometer®, you will find the following sentence either (A) shockingly lax, (B) remarkably foresighted, or (C) just about right: time to start writing the paper.

It’s even more important that I compose my essay in advance, because this year my wife and son are coming with me to Boston. My days, er, nights of sitting in a hotel bathtub with a pad of legal paper, pulling together presentations at the last minute, are done. And while I would like to believe there is a certain Keith-Richards-style glamour to such decadent showboating — beneath the surface of this mild academic beats the heart of a Lizard King — I do not miss those days. Empirical testing verifies that it is much, much, much less stressful to work from a script, even a script that contains such stage directions as “MAKE JOKE HERE.”

So by way of jumpstarting my process, here is the abstract I submitted as part of a panel on “Archaeologies of the Future: Popular Cinema and Film History in the Age of Digital Technologies,” organized and chaired by my former IU colleague Jason Sperb (whose highly recommended blog can be found here).

We Have Never Been Digital: CGI and the New “Clumsy Sublime”

Digital visual effects have been hailed as a breakthrough in the engineering of screen illusion, generating new forms of filmic phenomenology and spectatorial engagement while fueling a crisis discourse in which the very indexical foundations of the medium are said to be dissolving into their uncanny, computer-generated replacement. Both as an assessment of current aesthetic trends and the larger narrative of technological and stylistic change in which they are embedded, such accounts fall prey to the historical amnesia implied by the term “state of the art” – accepting, as a kind of discursive special effect, the alleged superiority and perfection of digital imaging while neglecting the way in which all special effects age and become obsolete (which is to say, visible precisely as compromised attempts at simulation). Exploring the temporality of special effects, this essay presents a brake and counternarrative to the emerging consensus of alterity dividing digital and analog eras of special effects, by drawing on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the “clumsy sublime,” which suggests that the passing of time lends classical Hollywood special-effects methods such as rear projection their own particular charisma as ambitious but failed visual machinations. Scrutinizing key “breakthrough” moments in the recent evolution of digital visual effects films and the critical discourses that both celebrate and condemn them as decisive breaks with a flawed analog past, I argue that today’s special effects are as susceptible to dating as those of the past – that, in fact, we are always witnessing the production of a future generation’s clumsy sublime.

Borrowing its title from a subheading in my lengthy post on Tron: Legacy, this project is intended as a polemic and antidote to a cinema studies that too often accepts as transparent given the idea that digital image creation, and the larger colonization of film production, distribution, and exhibition by digital technologies, marks the arrival of perfect photorealistic simulation and undetectable manipulation on the one hand, and the extinction of the index on the other. Digital special effects are a linchpin of arguments for a fundamental shift in the ontology and phenomenology of cinema, hence a menacing metonym for an epochal, irreversible transit across a historical dividing line between analog and digital. It’s much like the singularity, a supposed event horizon we can’t see past. Yet we continue to fantasize ourselves on the other side of the terminator, describing what-will-never-arrive in the verb tense of it-already-happened.

Much like the month of March.

Notes on Spacewar

What is it about Spacewar that so completely captures my imagination? Teaching my Theory and History of Video Games class, I once again crack open Steven Levy’s great book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, which I have read at least a dozen times since it was published in 1984. A time now further away than the period of which Levy was then writing — the late 1950s and early 60s, when a motley assortment of brilliantly talented social misfits at MIT repurposed a PDP-1 to create, if not the world’s first computer game, then the first digital artifact to capture the spirit and culture of gaming that would explode over subsequent decades. Below, a bulletin board of sorts, collecting resources on this seminal software object and the matrix from which it was spawned.

Steve “Slug” Russell, posing with a PDP-1.

A bibliography on hacker/computer culture.

An article on Spacewar from WebBox’s CGI Timeline.

From the MIT Museum.

Origin story from Creative Computing magazine, August 1981. I remember reading this when it first came out, at the age of sixteen!

News snippet from Decuscope, April 1962. I was not alive to read this one at the time of its publication. Decuscope, one finds, is a newsletter for DEC (Digital Equipment Computer) Users; PDFs from 1961-1972 here.

About that PDP-1 and its capabilities. It’s always vertigo-inducing to consider how computing power and resources have changed. The TX-0 on which MIT’s hackers cut their teeth had something like 4K of storage, while its successor, the PDP-1, had the equivalent of 9K. By contrast, the Google Doodle below, at 48K, is more than five times as large:

Some tools for finding one’s bearings amid the rushing rapids of Moore’s Law: Wikipedia pages for the TX-0 and PDP-1; a byte metrics table; a more general-purpose data unit converter.

Modeling Monsters, Part Three

This is the third in a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity. [Previous posts can be found here.]

The line of monster models put out by Aurora starting in 1962 were not, of course, the first figure kits; neither were they the first scale plastic models. As Thomas Graham notes in his collectors’ guide Aurora Model Kits, the company’s first foray into the world of scale model kits was in 1952, with a line of airplanes. Other kits released by Aurora in its first decade of operation included automobiles, boats, submarines, tanks, and missiles. These subjects shared a set of qualities: they were based not on fictional, licensed properties but on existing real-world referents; not on organic, living beings (with the exception of figure kits, which I will discuss below) but on mechanical vessels; and, though they comprised a range of historical periods from antique cars (the WWI-era Stutz Bearcat) to the latest in mid-century aerospace experimentation (the Ryan X-13 Vertijet), favored transport technology and armaments from the two major global military conflicts.

This focus was unsurprising, given the circumstances of plastic kits’ emergence as a popular pastime in the U.S. after the end of World War II. The enormous social and economic changes following 1945 included a radical expansion of products geared to recreation, as factories and workforces were repurposed to drive an affluent North American economy (and a culture of advertising emerged in parallel to foment the necessary appetites). This prosperity played out simultaneously on two levels, one for parents and one for children; as Graham describes it, “Veterans from World War II and Korea resumed their lives, moving to the suburban world of ranch style homes with new Chevies, Fords and Studebakers parked in the car ports. Their kids rode bicycles, shot Daisy air rifles, watched Sky King on TV, listened to 45 rpm records, and read comic books. And they made model airplanes.” (5) As goods proliferated across the spheres of youth and adulthood, the toys of the former scaled down to cheaper, playable size the luxury items of the latter: cars in the garage were mirrored by model autos inside the house. Yet the objects of childhood supplied by mass culture also distorted and amplified the world of adults, condensing primal drives and half-repressed memories in material form: science-fiction serials, air-rifle weapons, and most of all the replication of wartime air- and seacraft in miniature suggest that children of the Baby Boom were awash not just in the detritus of overproductive industry but the solidified, visualized dreams — and nightmares — of the preceding generation.

In Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America, Steven M. Gelber situates the postwar explosion of plastic kits against a longer history of crafting and collecting that dates from the late nineteenth century, when social and economic changes in the workplace led to a colonization of domestic space and time by the recognized and hence legitimized world of handicrafts. “Before about 1880 a hobby was a dangerous obsession,” he writes. “After that date it became a productive use of free time.” (3) For Gelber, the paradox of such activities is that they reproduce the attributes of labor, such as regimented time and the creation of commodities, in a domain that should ideally be distinct from, and uncorrupted by, such labor.

Hobbies are a contradiction; they take work and turn it into leisure, and take leisure and turn it into work. Like work, hobbies require specialized knowledge and skills to produce a product that has marketplace value (even if there is no thought of selling it). … Hobbies occupy the borderland that is beyond play but not yet employment. More than any other form of recreational activity, hobbies challenge the easy bifurcation of life’s activities into work and leisure. (23)

Hobbies, in this view, have the ideological effect of industrializing the home, and reconfiguring domestic subjects as subjects of domestic labor — bringing what might otherwise be an unruly and disobedient space into line with the values and beliefs of modern capitalist society. This essentially disciplinary function did not preclude the very real pleasures that could be obtained from, for example, sewing, stamp collecting, or needlepoint. In addition, hobbies could represent complex negotations with the economy, as when items of furniture built at home replaced those that would otherwise have been purchased at stores, or when, during the Great Depression of the 1930s, hobbies took on new ameliorative significance as an inexpensive way to fill the working hours denied to the unemployed. Finally, hobbies remixed gendered identities and skill sets in unusual ways, as women explored newly authorized forms of creative expression and men adapted to more domestic roles.

For Gelber, however, the rising popularity of kits in the postwar period was a less positive development. Citing a 1949 catalog for the hobby supplier American Handicrafts, Gelber notes the way in which kits — prepackaged sets of items for assembly into everything from pot holders and pottery to woven stools and Indian beads — “severely limited hobbyists’ creativity but greatly facilitated their productivity.” (262) Because one could only build a kit into its intended object, and because this process required nothing more than the following of instructions, kits represented a more blunt and dire industrialization of home spaces and subjects, turning hobbies — sometimes literally — into paint-by-numbers activities, “no more art than gluing together a plastic model was a craft.” (263)

The kit was the ultimate victory of the assembly line. Whereas craft amateurs had previously sought to preserve an appreciation for hand craftsmanship in the face of industrialization, kit hobbyists conceded production to the machine. They became the leisure-time equivalent of the apocryphal Ford worker who, as his last wish before retiring, requested permission to finish tightening the bolt he had been starting for the last thirty years. Kit assemblers did not dream of designing the product or forming its parts. It was enough that they could surpass the Ford worker’s wish and actually assemble the whole thing. Forty years of assembly line mentality had transformed the public’s understanding of personal agency from that of the artisan to that of a glorified factory worker. (262-263)

The worst thing about kits, in Gelber’s view, was that “the hobbyist did not have to engage the hobby at a higher level of abstraction.” DIY projects or handicrafts built from the ground up required a hobbyist to solve many problems ahead of time, exerting his or her individuality through the choice of object and materials, along with the tools and skills required. With kits, on the other hand, “There were no preliminary steps, no planning or organizing, no thinking about the process. In other words, the hobbyists did not have to engage the craft intellectually.” (262)

Gelber’s history of hobbies in America stops around 1950, at the dawn of the plastic-kit craze — a time that saw sales of plastic models grow from $44 million in 1945 to $300 million by 1953. His critical reading of the kit phenomenon brings up valid points: this transition to a new era both of industry and recreation marked a profound reconfiguration of longstanding, and much cherished, traditions. The same period saw the diminishment of certain knowledges and skills shared by a public base increasingly dependent on the prefabricated products of mass culture: manufacturing and distribution technologies that Bruno Latour, by way of Marx, has called “congealed labor.” And while, as we shall see, his derision of model-kit building as limited and artless pastime requiring no creative input from the assembler ignores the kinds of transformation, circulation, and sharing that would come to define object practices in 1960s horror fandom, it is easy to imagine the more generous readings that contemporary hobby culture, outside the scope of his book, might engender.

In the next installment, I will turn to the heyday of Aurora, from 1962-1977, and the line of monster kits that made it a success.

Works Cited

Gelber, Steven M. Hobbies: Leisure and the Culture of Work in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

Graham, Thomas. Aurora Model Kits. 2nd Ed. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2006.

Modeling Monsters, Part Two

This is the second of a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity. [Previous posts can be found here.]

Although Famous Monsters of Filmland launched its first issue in 1958, the figure that grounds this study — the Aurora line of plastic model kits based on classic movie monsters — did not appear there until the middle of 1962. Up to that point, the magazine’s “Monster Mail Order” pages featured a collection of materials sharing a vaguely horrific theme: shrunken heads, monster hands and feet, talking skulls, dangling skeletons, and — usually set off on a page of its own, bordered in black — a line of rubber masks that included Screaming Skull; Witch; Vampire; Igor; and Werewolf. By Issue 3 (April 1959), “monster stationery” and 3D comics had been added; by Issue 5 (November 1959), horror movies themselves joined the lineup, with full-length and abridged versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1925), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) available for home viewing in 8mm and 16mm versions.

I will return to the range of products featured in FM’s advertising pages later, as part of a larger consideration of the magazine’s content and evolution. But for now I want to focus on an ad that appeared in Issue 18 (July 1962) for the first of what would become a long line of monster kits from Aurora:

Selling for a dollar (plus 35 cents postage and handling) from the newly-formed Captain Company, which operated out of FM’s original home base in Philadelphia, this figure differed from the other products advertised in the magazine in that it wore its DIY nature on its tattered, graveyard-smelling sleeve. A finished and painted version of the kit appears beside an exploded view of its parts, emphasizing rather than eliding the act of construction required to make it whole. Reflecting this, the ad copy trumpets:

YOU ASKED FOR IT — AND HERE IT IS: A COMPLETE KIT of molded styrene plastic to assemble the world’s most FAMOUS MONSTER — Frankenstein! A total of 25 separate pieces go into the making of this exciting, perfectly-scaled model kit by Aurora, quality manufacturer of scale model hobby sets. The FRANKENSTEIN MONSTER stands over 12-inches when assembled. You paint it yourself with quick-dry enamel, and when finished the menacing figure of the great monster appears to walk right off the GRAVESTONE base that is part of this kit.

Taken with the insistent second-person you, the conscious avowal of the kit’s “kit-ness” suggests that, from the start, the appeal of modeling monsters stemmed from its inherently involved and interactive quality: not just activity, but your activity was needed to bring this monster to life. The advertisement hailed readers of FM in a textual foreshadowing of the later “objectual” interpellation promised by the plastic kit itself. In addition, the agency of the reader-cum-builder blurs into that of the creature, which, though a static and nonarticulated figure in its final form, “appears to walk right off” its base. In all, this first appearance of an Aurora kit in FM embodies a nested series of felicitous symmetries, down to the choice of its subject: the Frankenstein Monster, which, in both the Mary Shelley novel that originated it and the 1931 film adaptation that supplied its most iconic rendering, was built from dead parts — an act of promethean “assembly” whose fulcrum is precisely the animate/inanimate divide.

The same principle, of course, could be said to underlie any plastic model kit, whose essence is that it comes in pieces requiring assembly by its owner. Model kits thus metaphorize the object practices of 1960s monster fandom, which similarly took the “pieces” offered by mass culture — in this case, the archive of Universal Studios’ classic horror-film output of the 1930s and 1940s — and transmuted them through a variety of activities into a variety of forms. Significantly, these activities and the forms to which they gave rise often involved movement along what I will call the dimensional axis of media fictions: from printed texts and two-dimensional imagery (both still and moving) into three-dimensional shapes and artifacts. The rubber masks, motorized banks, desktop dioramas, and clay figurines that replicated in the bedrooms and basements of FM readers manifested in material form the texts and images of horror movies and TV shows, enabling fans not just to buy and build, but handle and share, horror culture in tactile form. In turn, these objects often fed back into the production of new texts and images, for example the filming of amateur 8mm monster movies. All of these aspects of horror-media culture came together in Famous Monsters‘ readers, writers, editors, and vendors, and the play of texts and objects that bound and defined them.

In the next installment, I will look more closely at the history of model-kit building as it emerged from hobby, crafting, and collecting cultures in the first half of the twentieth century and, with the introduction of injection-molded plastic kits after World War II, became big business.

Modeling Monsters, Part One

This is the first of a series of posts on a new project of mine exploring movie-monster fandom and “kid culture” in the U.S. from the early 1960s onward. My focus will be less on monster movies themselves than on the objects that circulated around and constituted the films’ public — and personal — presence: model kits, toys, games, and other paraphernalia. Approaching media culture through its object practices, I argue, reveals a dynamic space of production in which texts, images, and objects translate and transform one another in flows of commodities, collectibles, and creativity.

In July 2010, a glossy publication appeared on newsstands, its cover adorned with a colorful Basil Gogos painting of Bela Lugosi in his iconic role of Count Dracula. Under Lugosi’s leering portrait run the words The Return of the World’s First Monster Fan Magazine! Inside, Publisher Philip Kim and Editor in Chief Michael Heisler’s introduction (titled, in punning fashion, “Opening Wounds”) frames the new magazine both as tribute to and continuation of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the long-running brainchild of professional horror fan and collector Forrest J. Ackerman. Ackerman, who died in 2008 at the age of 92, published Famous Monsters with James Warren from 1958 to 1983, after which the title passed controversially among several different hands before its official relaunch by Kim and Heisler.

After asserting Famous Monsters‘ role as “a conduit for undiscovered talent and future giants” that will “again touch fandom through treasures, events, and partnerships,” the introduction goes on to promise returning readers a few surprises. “We’ve got a Captain Company section that’s not quite like anything you’ve seen in FM before,” Heisler writes. The nearly audible wink in his words evidently refers to the fact that the closing pages of the magazine are dominated by a photo spread of sexily fanged, Goth-complexioned models, like something out of True Blood, along with a list of their apparel for sale: “Night of the Living Dead Fitted Women’s Tee,” “Famous Monsters Embroidered Fleece Full Zip Hoodie,” “Nosferatu Collage Fitted Tee.” The following page adds a few more items to the mix, from reproductions of 60s-era FM issues to commemorative coins, silk prints of Ackerman, and statues of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.

These are not, of course, the only advertisements appearing in the relaunched FM: other ads sell DVDs of cult films, movie posters, lunch boxes, and license plates, promote tattoo parlors, and announce various upcoming film festivals and conventions, suggesting something of the rich commercial and subcultural networks that have always intersected in FM’s pages. But the tensions — as well as the similarities — between the “classical” and “rebooted” Famous Monsters of Filmland are particularly evident in the Captain Company display, for it was this mail-order business that launched with FM and dominated its advertising pages from its earliest days. Indeed, Captain Company’s content was so plentiful that it came to seem an equal partner in the magazine’s editorial content; articles celebrating the stop-motion artistry of Ray Harryhausen and the torturous makeup feats of Lon Chaney, Sr. blended osmotically with ads for model kits, buttons, posters, books, records, 8mm and 16mm films, and a variety of other commodities, so that the process of learning about and appreciating horror films, directors, actors, and special-effects stars was difficult to distinguish from the acquisition of horror-themed paraphernalia. And while the new Captain Company and its related partners in sales are perhaps “not quite like” their classical predecessors, both are predicated on the idea that, in fact, fandom of horror media has for several decades depended profoundly on the creation and circulation of objects as much as texts.

Film and television studies have tended to overlook or sideline the material life of media fictions, consigning such objects to the blighted category of the commercial tie-in: the cheap plastic toy designed to cash in on the Star Wars craze, the t-shirt emblazoned with Bella and Edward of the Twilight saga. Too often, the implication is that the owners of such objects are cultural dupes. Fan studies have made important interventions in the transformative texts that writers and vidders spark from the raw material of TV shows and movies, but pay less attention to the crafts and collectibles that frequently accompany this culture of creativity. An examination of Famous Monsters in its heyday — the early 1960s through the mid-1970s — offers an expanded picture of how that publication served as a central site for the distribution of material wares, while providing visual templates and discursive forums for the activities of construction, collection, and display that defined horror-film fandom during this period. Viewed longitudinally, the Baby Boom generation that came of age with Famous Monsters and other publications devoted to horror, science fiction, and fantasy helped to feed both the audience pool and the professional base responsible for the boom in blockbuster SF that dominated late-70s and early-80s cinema. Finally, the current market for collectible and constructible items, epitomized by statues of movie, TV, and comic-book characters, springs from generational roots in Famous Monsters‘ prime decades of operation.

This concludes my opening thoughts on the Modeling Monsters project. In the next installment, I will turn to the grounding figure of my study: the plastic model kit, in particular the Aurora line of classic movie monsters.

Works Cited

Kim, Philip and Michael Heisler. “Opening Wounds.” Famous Monsters of Filmland 251 (July 2010). 4.