Who are we and why are we doing this?

My name is David Ritter and I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

First Fandom Experience is my second adventure in publishing related to science fiction in the 1930s. The first was The Cosmos Project. You can read more about my background there.

I encountered the somewhat legendary and quite peculiar round-robin novel Cosmos in my quest to find all of the original material written by E.E. “Doc” Smith. I blame Smith’s Lensman series as a primary instigator of my own fandom when I discovered it at (of course) age 12. Cosmos was orchestrated and published by a small cadre of science fiction fans who convinced an impressive set of professional writers to contribute. Smith wrote a chapter of the serial that was later re-published as a stand-alone story.

As my interest in fan history grew, I was fortunate to meet Dave Kurzman. Dave is a leading collector and dealer in science fiction ephemera. I’ll always thank him for many things, including his willingness to part with his copy of Weird Tales #2. I think he regrets it to this day. Through Dave I came into possession of a complete run of Science Fiction Digest and Fantasy Magazine, including all of the chapters of Cosmos.

The way Cosmos came together in the early 1930s is a microcosm of the overall phenomenon of organized fandom during that decade. The ambitious youngsters behind this grab-bag of a novel went on to found and largely dominate the science fiction genre for the next several decades. Their energy and optimism was infectious even as it reached across the intervening ninety years. My exploration of this era has been something of an obsession ever since. I submit re-typing all seventeen chapters of Cosmos as evidence.

Once The Cosmos Project was largely complete, I continued to explore the broader arc of fan history. This led me to what’s considered the canonical narrative of early fandom: The Immortal Storm by Sam Moskowitz. Moskowitz captured the stories of many of the key people and events of the early years from his own first-person experience and with his own distinctive perspective.

It was all well and good to read about all of the clubs, publications and gatherings that bootstrapped the science fiction industry. But it was also unsatisfying. I felt like I was reading a biography of Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who discovered the ruins of the ancient city of Troy. I wanted to dig in the dirt myself, touch the very walls, walk the very sands where Achilles spilt the blood of Hector. Hence I started to seek out more of the original material created by folks who have come to be known as the “First Fans.”

Among many other places, this quest led me to the basement of Robert A. Madle in Virginia. Bob was a prominent fan in the Philadelphia area beginning in the early 1930s and has since become a legendary collector and dealer in the field. I’m honored that he entrusted me to give a good home to his original copies of The Planet and The Time Traveller, seminal early fan publications without which any coverage of this era would be sorely incomplete.

Part of my commitment to Bob was the idea that I’d find ways to preserve and make these rare artifacts more widely available. At the time, there were only vague notions of how this might come about.

I’d been toying with the idea of creating a facsimile edition of Cosmos, patterned after the chapter inserts from its original publication. At the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention in 2017, I kicked this idea around with Doug Ellis, the founder and organizer of the show. Doug is a prominent collector and publisher of several volumes of science fiction and pulp art. I also spoke with John L. Coker III, President and Archivist of the First Fandom organization. John has done more to preserve and honor the memories of the First Fans than anyone through his various writing and publishing projects. He had been a contributor to The Cosmos Project, educating me and providing great material highlighting the key role of Conrad Rupert and his printing press. It was John who suggested that perhaps more of the original fanzines from the early days could be brought out as facsimiles. This was the inception of First Fandom Experience.

Initially, I imagined that full facsimile runs of the key fan publications from the 1930s might be produced. Thanks to Doug for convincing me that this was impractical, if not entirely insane. Over the next few months and through many discussions, the alternate concept of a “visual history” of the period gradually formed.

At about this same time, I began to understand that anything approaching a robust visual treatment of early fandom would be a pretty massive job, and that trying to do it as a part-time hobby would likely take many years. So, for better or worse I suggested to my middle son Daniel that he quit his job and join the project on a full-time basis. When we look back on this in the future, I hope he thanks me for this. Time will tell.

Nepotism aside, Daniel represents a core component of the intended audience for our work: younger science fiction fans who so far have no notion that organized fandom existed in the dark past, that many of the masters of the genre started as fans way back then, and that their generation did not, in fact, invent cosplay. Kids these days should be interested in this history, darn it!

Nepotism further aside, Daniel brings a terrific base of relevant experience to this work. After graduating from Champlain College with a degree in writing, he served for five years as a writer, editor, staff lead and operations manager for a web content company. I’m delighted that he’s embraced the role of Managing Editor.

John L. Coker III has continued to be a committed member of the FFE team. His personal knowledge and interactions with the First Fans offer our most direct connection to these remarkable people. I’m sad that my interest came only after most of these pioneers had passed. John knew them, chronicled their lives and captured their memories. The interviews, notes and photographs he’s contributed are the most vital part of bringing this story to life. With his kind permission, the artifacts his contributions will feature prominently in FFE material.

Through John, we reached out to the First Fandom community to let them know about FFE. One of the immediate respondents was Sam McDonald. Sam brings deep knowledge and intense enthusiasm regarding early fanzines to the project. His own massive collection fanzine will play an important role in our publications. But Sam’s most remarkable contribution to FFE is the work he’s done and continues to identify sources for fan material, perform archaeology on a wide range of library and private collections, and catalog and index the content. His first blog post here reflects the richness and detail of his work, for which we are deeply grateful. He is the most extraordinary maker of lists that I have ever encountered.

In addition to his valuable advice, Doug Ellis has made available his extensive archive of correspondence and other material related to early fandom in Chicago. The active community there spawned such prominent fans as Raymond A. Palmer, Jack Darrow, Walter Dennis and Erle M. Korshak.

Also representing the younger generation of fans on the FFE team is Kate Baxter. Kate is an accomplished technical professional whose perspective helps to connect our work to the interests of today’s attendees at Comic Con, and burns in the woods, and other gatherings where old folks like me would possibly be welcome but would always feel a little awkward. Kate drives sourcing of material from a variety of library archives, helps to manage our finances and will run our “shipping department” should such a thing become needed. We can hope!

To Daniel, John, Sam, Doug and Kate — tremendous thanks for getting this ambitious project started and underway. It would not be possible without an exceptional team and I can’t imagine a better one. To others, please let us know if you’d like to contribute as well. The FAQ provides an overview of the project. This site will hopefully grow over time to reflect the fascinating experiences of the early fans who gave first breath to the vast networks of science fiction communities that we know today.