Interview: Kerry O’Quinn and the World of Fandom

Kerry O'Quinn and Friends. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Kerry O’Quinn and Friends. Illustration by Henry Chamberlain.

Kerry O’Quinn is the co-creator and publisher of STARLOG, FANGORIA, CINEMAGIC, FUTURE LIFE, COMICS SCENE and more than a dozen other monthly newsstand magazines. Mr. O’Quinn is featured in an upcoming documentary on fandom, FROM THE BRIDGE, written and directed by Spencer F. Lee and hosted by George Takei. It was my pleasure to get a chance to interview Kerry. Here is someone who tapped into the world of fandom as if he were born to do so. O’Quinn and his partner Norman Jacobs got their start by creating and publishing a soap opera magazine in 1972. By 1976, they were ready to pursue publications aligned with their passions for genre cinema, television, and related pop culture.

Kerry O'Quinn, co-creator and publisher of STARLOG  and  FANGORIA

Kerry O’Quinn, co-creator and publisher of STARLOG and FANGORIA

Starlog and Fangoria are the flagship publications from that golden era. Starlog was launched in 1976. Fangoria was launched in 1979 and continues in its great tradition of covering the horror scene. These are the prime publications, along with Cinemagic, that would go on to influence thousands of creative people including many of the most celebrated talents working today like J.J. Abrams and Quentin Tarantino. Before the internet, you got your in depth information on the entertainment industry from magazines. One cannot stress enough how significant Starlog and Fangoria were in their heyday.

Fangoria, Issue One, August 1979

Fangoria, Issue One, August 1979

Kerry O’Quinn would go on to celebrate the worlds of science fiction, horror, comic books, and fandom in various ways. Some of the most notable are his conventions that paid tribute to the 10th anniversary of Star Wars, the 20th anniversary of Star Trek, and the 20th anniversary of Starlog. It was during the 10th anniversary celebration of Star Wars that Gene Roddenberry and George Lucas would share a stage for the first and only time together. How was such a marvelous feat accomplished? Well, Kerry O’Quinn was friends with both of these legends. It was Kerry O’Quinn who landed an exclusive in depth interview with George Lucas that was so comprehensive that it spanned three issues of Starlog.

Gene Roddenberry meets George Lucas, 1987, the 10th anniversary of Star Wars

Gene Roddenberry meets George Lucas, 1987, the 10th anniversary of Star Wars

Over the years, Kerry O’Quinn has proven himself to be a man of many talents consistently exploring and creating new work. He has become an accomplished screenwriter with a number of projects including “Dragworms,” his unique take on zombies which is actually more character-driven than just blood and guts. What strikes me about Kerry O’Quinn is his energy and determination to pursue his dreams. I can relate to him on many levels. We’re both from Texas. We both love New York. We both juggle a number of passions: writing, drawing, acting, filmmaking. I think some people are just wired to need to do many things and will find ways to realize each goal over the course of a lifetime. That’s what is special about Kerry O’Quinn. That said, he’d be the first to say it is well within reach for everyone to follow their dreams. For more details on his remarkable life and his observations, check out his website here.

HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Kerry, I want to chat with you about fandom, and the upcoming documentary that you are featured in, “From the Bridge,” and cover as much as we can about your remarkable career. I want to begin by giving a shout out to your friend, Kurt Edward Larson. He conducted such a beautiful and heartfelt interview with you.

KERRY O’QUINN: Kurt and I have known each other for a long time and have a lot of fun things in common. Kurt is such a Star Wars fan–and, when he got married several years ago, I wondered about what to get him–a toaster? a blender? No, what he would want was a day at Skywalker Ranch. I arranged that. He and his wife had lunch there and got a tour of the ranch. So, he was in heaven!

I was talking to a buddy of mine about doing this interview and we got to speculating over the long lines for Star Wars on the very first day of release. We were just kids when it came out. I started to think about how Jaws had attracted long lines too a couple of years prior. From your special vantage point, Starlog was already on the scene having come out in 1976, would you share with us your take on the explosion of excitement over Star Wars in 1977?

It was phenomenal timing. My partner, Norm Jacobs, and I had launched Starlog magazine in 1976, the Bicentennial year. At that time, there was no science fiction that was alive and happening. It was all stuff from the past that was being consumed. You know, stuff from the 1950s, the movies made by George Pal. Those movies were popular with nerds like me. But they weren’t going to win any Academy Awards or get any mainstream cheers of any kind. It was considered trash, like daytime soap operas. Horror movies, stuff like that, was not taken seriously.

Starlog, Issue Seven, August 1977

Starlog, Issue Seven, August 1977

When we started the magazine, there wasn’t anything like it like there is today. And we had great difficulty starting the magazine for that reason. But, lo and behold, the very next year Star Wars came out. All of a sudden, it made the cover of Time magazine, with exactly the same X-wing cover that we had for Starlog. So, suddenly science fiction was at least getting noticed by a mainstream audience all over the world. It has gone on to become an important part of the culture in the same way that Star Trek has. And in the same way that horror and superheroes have. It’s very trendy today to be a nerd. It wasn’t 40 years ago.

I remember when I first met George Lucas. He was telling me about having lunch one day at Hamburger Hamlet on Hollywood Boulevard. And it was right across the street from Mann’s Chinese Theatre. He said that he looked across and he saw lines of people. He asked what was going on. And a friend told him that it was his movie that was playing. It didn’t occur to George that huge lines were gathering along the sidewalk for his movie. He was delightfully surprised by the enormous fan reaction to his movie as all the rest of us were.

It was when Star Wars lit up the sky like it did that Starlog went from a quarterly to a monthly magazine. Indeed, we were already there. Starlog was the voice of science fiction. And George launched the science fiction that is very much alive and booming today.

That scene with the long lines, that’s in your interview with George Lucas.

For our Star Wars fifth anniversary issue, I had called to arrange an interview with George Lucas. He had turned down all the big magazines. I was told that he wasn’t doing any interviews but I begged and pleaded. George agreed. I flew out from New York to visit him. This was before he had build Skywalker Ranch. I did an lengthy interview with him in which he told me all kinds of wonderful tales. We were very comfortable talking with each other. We had many of the same values and things that excited us. We talked about everything from space to technology to classic cars. We talked for hours at that first interview. In fact, it turned out to be too much for one issue so I turned into three consecutive parts spanning three issues of Starlog. I believe it is the longest interview anyone has ever done with George Lucas.

Starlog, Issue One, August 1976

Starlog, Issue One, August 1976

Share with us your insights on how Star Trek became a phenomena, after having struggled in the ratings when it was originally broadcast.

It did indeed struggle. In fact, after the first two years, NBC had cancelled the series. And an amazing lady by the name of Bjo Trimble and her husband, John, did something that, at the time, was phenomenal. This was back in the mid-’60s. They organized a letter writing campaign to NBC by fans that generated more than a million letters. A TV network had never received that kind of reaction to the cancellation of a show–and they were stunned by it. Don’t forget that this is before the internet. Fans contacted each other back then with mimeographed newsletters mailed to each other. And then, ten years after the first broadcast of Star Trek, there was Starlog maganzine and fans could communicate with each other through our letters forum–as well as at conventions.

Bjo had gotten a television network to renew a cancelled series. That had never happened before. What Bjo did was allow for a third season of Star Trek. However, NBC scheduled it on Friday nights, which is a dead zone for shows. So, NBC cancelled it for the second time. Everybody seemed to think science fiction was dead. But it was very much alive within this hidden fan culture. And the documentary that my friend, Spencer, is putting together covers how this fan base has grown in the last 40 years. It went from this invisible, almost ashamed, audience to what it has become today when you have 150,000 people show up at Comic-Con in San Diego each year in July. And the biggest movies today are superhero, science fiction, and horror, everything that our magazines were all about.

Star Trek is right at the root of that response, at the heart of it. Gene Roddenberry created a concept of the future that was positive and inspiring: rationality, science, and the better values of human nature would prevail. Star Trek not only inspired the original audience that tuned in for its three-year run. In syndication, Star Trek reached around the world with its universal concept that the human race can be better. Gene deserves everybody’s praise as Star Trek is one of the most inspiring things to be created in any genre. Sometimes science fiction warns us of things that we need to be careful about. And sometimes science fiction shows us that things are within our control, we can make it better, and gives us hope for the future.

I’m thinking of how Star Trek was ahead of its time and so it made sense that it would struggle in the ratings. The same is true for The Twilight Zone. Both of these shows have a lot in common. The primary thing is that they both have subtext. There was social commentary in the guise of fantasy and science fiction, very much ahead of its time–now, we take that for granted, don’t we?

We do but we still need it since we don’t have a lot of it. Even with the science fiction that we have today, with all the dazzling special effects that we didn’t have back in the ’60s. Visually, science fiction today is dazzling, uncontrollable, and amazing. Back then, the effects were kind of clunky, rubber monsters and the like, but nobody cared because–and this is certainly true about The Twilight Zone–the story talked about the issues, important values, and principles.

Science fiction does not show us the day-to-day reality but something that may exist in the future, something that could and that ought to exist. That is the noblest undertaking of art and science fiction is the best at doing that. Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry are hugely important and we featured them in the early issues of Starlog. At that time, there wasn’t any science fiction, like we know today, so for the first few years most of the content in Starlog was looking at things from the past in terms of movies and television.

Cinemagic, Issue 20, June 1983

Cinemagic, Issue 20, June 1983

You were commenting on the past but then, at some point, you were not only commenting but you were part of the industry. There’s the whole how-to aspect from Cinemagic. There was quite the evolution as you became part of the scene.

Exactly. When we began Starlog, we included everything even those things that were very loosely considered science fiction. And that included horror, and articles on special effects, and Hollywood technology workshops, all the way to NASA and the space program. As we evolved, we discovered that we had many different audiences reading our magazine. Some of these people wanted to be filmmakers. They wanted to make these movies that they loved. Therefore, we branched off and created the magazine, Cinemagic which taught young filmmakers the techniques of production and special effects. We had a short film contest each year. We gave out prizes and trophies at a big theater in New York with celebrities to present awards. Some of these award winners are working in Hollywood today.

A lot of folks, like J.J. Abrams and Robert Rodriguez were inspired by Cinemagic. Steven Spielberg, at one time, said that Cinemagic was his favorite magazine, the only magazine promoting the future of the film industry to young people who were unsure if they could recreate the amazing things that they adored on the screen.

Director/Writer Wes Craven, from "Fangoria's Weekend of Horrors" (1986)

Director/Writer Wes Craven, from “Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors” (1986)

I was curious about the overlap between Fangoria and Famous Monsters of Filmland. There does not seem to have been a rivalry between you and Forry Ackerman. Famous Monsters began in 1958. Fangoria began in 1979. You have Forrest J Ackerman, the founder and editor of Famous Monsters, in your film, “Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors,” which I must say is an outstanding documentary on fandom in its own right.

Thank you.

What can you tell us about Forrest J Ackerman? What did you learn from him?

He was obviously the precursor to all of our magazines. He did something very daring in his day: to do a magazine about monsters! What kind of freaks are interested in something like that? Well, it turned out that there was quite a few. Again, these people were all in the closet, so to speak. They bought the magazine but they didn’t have any social status whatsoever. They were outcasts. They were unusual. That was me. That was a lot of people. Our magazine brought people out of the closet. I met Forry many years ago, at a convention, and immediately we had a lot in common. We became friends and we remained friends, it makes me sad to talk about it…I was with him just a few days before he died. He was still in good spirits and still telling me jokes.

From "Fangoria's Weekend  of Horrors" (1986) segment with Forrest J. Ackerman

From “Fangoria’s Weekend of Horrors” (1986) segment with Forrest J Ackerman

Forry was such an important person in my world and he became a very dear friend. I actually went over to his old home out here in L.A. years ago, which was called the Ackermansion. And it was a museum of props and artwork and all kinds of things that he collected from these strange movies that no one gave enough credit to but that he knew that it was an important part of the culture that should be saved and preserved. And there still is no permanent museum for that sort of thing. And I’m hoping that, in the near future, there will finally be a museum that recognizes and preserves science fiction, horror, superheroes, fantasy, all of the films that are now way out of the closet–and a part of mainstream culture, not just in the U.S. but world-wide.

Kerry, there are so many things we can talk about. Ayn Rand. Cannabis. More about Star Wars. There’s your book on how to chase stars, chase your dreams.

Yes, “Reach For The Stars.” It’s a book that has a lot of practical advice on how to make your distant dreams come true.

I also have to touch on your project with HBO which may still find its way back to them. It’s a Twilight Zone type of show called, “Future Tales.” Boy, that would be some show!

I agree, it would be. And it’s still a good idea. I haven’t been able to sell it to the Syfy channel even though that ought to be just the sort of show they would be interested in. I enlisted 45 of the world’s greatest science fiction writers (including Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and Harlan Ellison), we signed agreements, that they would create a story or that we could use an existing story as the basis for one of our episodes. It was an anthology series all about the world of tomorrow. When HBO had me develop it, we were calling it “Future Tales.” Now, I’m calling it, “Exploring Tomorrow.”

I love that.

Me too. Who isn’t interested in tomorrow?

Exactly! You know, Kerry, I’m over the moon. We share so many connections. I’m a cartoonist.

Oh, really?

Yes, and I love New York.

Oh, yeah.

And I can see your early interest in cartooning probably having to do with being able to control the whole production and allowing your vision to run free.

That also carried over into animation. In New York, years ago, I was so impressed with Disney and his multiplane animation that created three-dimensional pictures. I got a bunch of plumbing pipes and I built my own multiplane animation stand in my apartment in New York. At the time, my dream was to create a little film that was so damn good that I’d send it out to Disney and he’d have me come out to work for him. That was my dream: to work for Walt Disney! Now, it never did happen and I clearly changed my mind since then but I did produce a few short films on that animation stand. I still love animation, and illustration–that was my original career. I’ve done so many things since then that I have a resume that looks like I’m schizophrenic.

Well, I wish you and Spencer the very best with “From the Bridge.” I’m excited about it and I’m sure it will find a wide audience.

It’s going to be very popular with the fan community–because it’s all about them. And the power that they have grown to hold in the last few decades.

I interviewed George Clayton Johnson a number of times–a science fiction writer and big supporter of fans–and he always brought up people power. In the end, it is the fans who matter the most.

Absolutely. I’m going to do a panel at Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo (newly renamed Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con) here in L.A. next month with Bjo and John Trimble and my friend, Tom DeSanto, who produced X-Men and Transformers, and we’re going to talk about fandom. That’s what it’s all about.

Well, very beautiful. Thank you so much, Kerry.

You’re very welcome, Henry. I always enjoy talking about what I enjoy most of all.

Here is the podcast interview to listen to. Just click below and enjoy:

Check in with Kerry O’Quinn at his website here. If you are in Los Angeles on October 28-30, come see Kerry and enjoy some pop culture fun at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con. You can find details on that right here.

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2 Comments

Filed under Comic-Con, Comics, Fandom, Forrest J Ackerman, Geeks, Horror, Kerry O'Quinn, movies, pop culture, Sci-Fi, science fiction, Star Trek, Star Wars, Starlog

2 responses to “Interview: Kerry O’Quinn and the World of Fandom

  1. I remember Starlog.
    That mag rocked!

    Liked by 1 person

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