All Our Yesterdays 8
by Harry Warner Jr.
Occasionally an archaeologist digs up a handful of pottery fragments or a few weapons, in a place where no civilisation was known to have existed. The tribe or race that produced the artefacts reached a fine cultural level, then died out or moved away, leaving only these enigmatic fragments of its existence for the future.
I get that kind, of a feeling when I glance over the half-dozen copies of Pluto in my collection. Far out on the windy prairies of Indiana, near the little town of Decker, there used to stand in lonely splendour a clubhouse. Around the beginning of 1940, they suddenly became interested in science fiction fan activities, and startled the fan world with Pluto, the first fanzine to exploit colour mimeographing in a big way. A year later they had vanished from fandom as rapidly as they had appeared, the whole kit and caboodle of them.
I don’t think fandom has ever known anything quite like it — so many active fans springing up simultaneously in a tiny town, and being so active for so short a period of time. The only thing in the world’s history that can compare with it is the sudden appearance of prominent thinkers in Athens around the time of Plato. But Athena was a much bigger city than Decker, and besides, the Greek thinkers never succeeded in publishing fanzines, probably due to the lack of mimeographs in Athens at the time.
The first issue of Pluto isn’t particularly remarkable, except for the fact it was written and published by a bunch of people who had been completely unknown a few months earlier — Marvis Manning, Vincent Manning, Claude Davis, Jr., Maurice Paul, and William Sisson. It was a thin, hectographed publication with no apparent policy except to treat everything with a light touch. That was apparent in the choice of fillers at the end of columns, like: “Do you read Pluto? We do. — The staff.” The editorial said that Pluto was “inaugurated mainly to add to the confusion already existing in the science and fantastic fiction fan world.”
But by the time the second issue appeared, the Decker Dillies, as Tucker promptly named them, had acquired a mimeograph. They dazzled 1940’s fandom by turning out a three-colour cover for this second issue. This one isn’t too difficult, because it consisted of a blue picture, topped by the magazine’s title in red above, followed by a few lines in green at the bottom. The real feats of colour mimeography showed up a bit later. The fourth issue had a double cover, each part of it mimeographed in four colours. Now, you may have noticed that the Sunday comic sections in your newspaper frequently have the colours out of register, the red bleeding over into the blue. This happens, despite the use of colour press equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the precision methods made possible by the rigidity of metal plates. Consider, then, the achievement of a half-dozen amateurs in a little Mid-western town who achieved perfect four-colour register on an amateur publication using mimeograph stencils, which are not manufactured with attention to this type of accuracy, and which stretch and slither around on the drum in the course of a run. The later issues of Pluto had its distinctive illustrations or heading of articles and departments in at least two colours. They solved the most complicated type of multi-colour mimeographing problems, including the use of one colour against a background provided by another colour, and a green, red and blue spaceship plowing into a black meteor. Use of different colours for the main body of the text added to the Christmas-tree effects. The effect on other fanzines showed up like lightning. Within a few months it was hard to find a fanzine mimeoed in only one colour. The lazier souls simply printed one page in red ink, and the next page in blue ink, changing ink pads from time to time. Some semi-lazy people experimented with smearing one colour of ink over part of a stencil, and another colour for the rest of it, producing two colours on a single page without too much work. But a surprisingly large number of fans were willing to go to the trouble of cutting two or three stencils for each page, and running each page through the mimeograph two or three times, to achieve the complicated, multi-colour effects.
The contents of Pluto were more notable for their colour than for what they said. The editors never adopted a specific policy, except to keep a light touch on everything. They had no first-rate humorists or deep thinkers in Decker, and it was only occasionally that an outstanding article appeared. One of the genuinely interesting ones was contributed by Forest J Ackerman, a description of his meeting with H. G. Wells. Wells spoke in Los Angeles. A few excerpts:
Pluto, I presume, finally died under the sheer momentum of its progress. It was a case of making every issue better than the last – more colourful, fatter, more ingenious in makeup methods that were then new to fandom. The sixth issue was prophetic without realising it, because the editorial writers didn’t intend at the time to quit, merely wanted to paint an amusing picture:
The Decker Dillies went to the Chicon, had a wonderful time, taking along the skeleton which the club had somehow acquired, and ending the blasphemous suspicion held by some that only one person was doing all the work under pen names. But the Chicon was the climax of the part that Decker, Ind., played in fandom’s history. The draft got a couple of the members of the Literature, Science, and Hobbies Club. A few more members found their interest declining or their time running short. Pluto stopped appearing. Bereft of its shining example, fandom within a year or two was back to the black ink for fanzines as a normal thing. By now, only a few of us Methuselahs can recall the days of Pluto, so one fine day soon, an obscure fanzine will suddenly discover that it can make a sensation with multi-colour mimeographing, and the same fad will hit fandom again. (Note to interested editors: Pluto’s circulation hit better than one hundred paid at one time, a figure which was almost miraculous for the smaller fandom of a decade ago, indicating that colours pay off.)
If anyone should ever be driving through Indiana, and come close to Decker, it might be a good idea to look up the club. It would be nice to know whether the winds of the prairie still beat around that little building, whether the files of exchange fanzines have mouldered into dust, and whether in a corner of the building dozens of stiff, dusty inkpads still retain a suggestion of the colours that delighted fandom.
Last revised: 3 March, 2006
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