|By Brett Weiss
During the late 1950s, monster mania swept the nation. Kids across America sat spellbound before their television sets, watching such classic creature features as Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolfman (1941), along with such lesser regarded (though still memorable) pictures as Man Made Monster (1941), The Mad Ghoul (1943), and She-Wolf of London (1946).
Those legendary horror movies, along with many others from Universal Studios, were released to television as part of Shock Theater (marketed as Shock!), in which Screen Gems licensed the films for syndication. In many markets, humorous, character-based horror hosts, including Philadelphia’s Zacherley, Cleveland’s Ghoulardi, and Indianapolis’ Sammy Terry would introduce the films.
The first Shock Theater package debuted in the fall of 1957, helping set the stage for the 1958 debut of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the world’s first monster magazine.
As any Monster Kid worth his or her 8mm film collection knows, Famous Monsters (originally conceived as “Wonderama”) was the brainchild of publisher James Warren and the late, great editor Forrest J. Ackerman. The first issue, published in February of 1958, was intended as a one-shot, but it sold out and went into a second printing, for a total press run of 267,350 copies. Issue number two followed shortly thereafter, and an ongoing monster magazine was born.
Prior to co-founding Famous Monsters, Warren, an artist who specialized in advertising and design, published a Playboy-inspired magazine called After Hours, which only lasted four issues. One of the features in a special science fiction issue of After Hours was “Scream-O-Scope is Here!,” a fun-filled (not to mention pun-filled) photo feature produced by Ackerman, a literary agent and fantasy fan with a vast collection of movie stills, books, posters, props, and other such items. In addition, Ackerman sold several of his client’s short stories to After Hours.
Widely regarded as horror and science fiction fandom’s greatest ambassador, Ackerman’s resume is equaled by few others in the field, from winning the first Hugo Award in 1953 (No.1 Fan Personality) to coining the term “sci-fi” to creating Vampirella to nurturing the careers of such legendary authors as Ray Bradbury, L. Ron Hubbard, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. For decades Ackerman, who often went by such nicknames as 4E, Dr. Acula, and The Ackermonster, would open his “Ackermansion” (in its various forms) to his adoring fans, letting them drool over his massive menagerie of monster memorabilia.
One occurrence that helped spark the creation of Famous Monsters was Ackerman stumbling across issue no. 24 of the French magazine Cinema 57, which was an all-monster issue. Ever the enthusiast, Ackerman showed that issue to Warren, who was suitably impressed. Also key in getting Famous Monsters off the ground was an eight-page spread on teenage monster movies published in LIFE magazine, which helped literary duo find a distributor for their magazine.
Beginning with the first issue, each installment of Famous Monsters was filled with fantastic photos of fantastic films, many of which were accompanied by such goofy captions as “If this is what Saucermen look like, we’d hate to see a couple of cupmen or kettlemen” (referring to the creatures in Invasion of the Saucer-Men). Ackerman peppered his text pieces with puns and jokes, coining such terms as “bucks-office” (box office), Karloffornia (Boris Karloff with California), and Mars-mallows (marshmallows).
Clearly, Famous Monsters was written with a juvenile audience in mind, a point Ackerman readily concedes. In an interview published in Bizarre Magazine in 2007, he said “The publisher sent across a sign, saying ’I am 11-and-a-half years old and I am your reader. Forrest Ackerman, make me laugh.’”
Despite (or because) of its lighthearted (though ultimately respectful) attitude toward the movies it covered, Famous Monsters is a beloved magazine that influenced a generation of filmmakers, writers, and other creators, including such luminaries as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Sam Raimi, Rick Baker, and John Landis. Master of the macabre Stephen King once said, “Forry was the first; he was best and he is the best. He stood up for a generation of kids who realized that if it [Famous Monsters] was junk, it was magic junk.”
Famous Monsters has also influenced countless fans, including Vincent J. Bossone, who owns an entire run of the magazine, though he didn’t start buying it right away. “I remember seeing Famous Monsters number one on a newsstand in my hometown in the winter of 1958,” Bossone said. “I was nine years old. I didn’t buy it, partly because it featured a woman in a low-cut dress on the cover, which I knew would not be acceptable to my mom. In addition, it cost 35 cents, which was a lot of money at the time!”
Flash forward a couple of years, and Bossone could no longer resist the lurid allure of Famous Monsters. “Although I had browsed through previous issues I came across in stores, the first issue I bought was number 16,” he said. “FM had a communal feel to it, largely due to editor Forry Ackerman. The stills, many reproduced from his collection, were amazing. No monster movie fan had ever seen photos like this, available in one magazine. It felt like it was published just for me.”
Like many collectors who started at an early age, Bossone got rid of his collection at one point, only to regret it. “I started selling off my collection in the late 1970s,” he said. “My interest in collecting Famous Monsters renewed sometime later, and over the years I managed to acquire the complete set. I made one substantial purchase of FMs some 20 to 25 years ago from a private collector. I remember paying a few hundred dollars for a score of issues, which included number one.”
Those early issues of Famous Monsters are indeed quite valuable, the demand far outweighing the supply. They’ve gone up in price considerably since Bossone re-acquired his collection, with the first 30 or so issues oftentimes commanding hundreds of dollars each in nice condition. Lucky for casual collectors and monster fans of more limited means, later issues are readily available for around $10-$30 each.
In its original incarnation, Famous Monsters of Filmland ran from 1957 through 1983, comprising issues 1-69 and 80-191. According to an editorial in issue 80, Warren skipped ahead in order to get closer to the magic number 100. To justify this, Warren cited Monster World (a companion title) numbers 1-10 as fill-in issues that took the place of Famous Monsters 70-79.
In addition to the 181 standard issues of FM and the 10 issues of Monster World, there were 10 Famous Monsters yearbooks (comprised of reprints), three mass market paperbacks (The Best from Famous Monsters of Filmland, Son of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Famous Monsters of Filmland Strike Back!), a Famous Monsters Game Book (crossword puzzles and the like), and two souvenir convention books (from 1974 and 1975).
In 1993, New Jersey portrait photographer Ray Ferry resurrected Famous Monsters from the dead, giving Ackerman the job of editor-in-chief. For a clean, even-numbered start, Ferry began “FM 2.0” (as many fans call it) with issue 200, meaning numbers 192-199 do not exist.
For reasons way too involved to go into here, Ferry and Forry had a falling out, resulting in years of litigation. Many fans then and now side with Ackerman, saying that Ferry treated Forry unfairly, failing to pay him, and often rejecting his contributions. Ackerman resigned after 10 issues, but Ferry continued mimicking Forry’s writing style and using many of his trademark puns.