Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2008-09


those good old days of liquid fuel

Guy H. Lillian, III

Illos by Charlie Williams and Kayla Callahan

It was one of the great liberations of my life: mimeography, the printing process invented by Thomas Edison: stencils, correction fluid (or corflu), ink, hand-cranking, slipsheeting, the works. With it, you could create. You could communicate. A thought that began in your mind flowed through your fingers onto a stencil, from there to a mimeograph, through that machine to paper, and thence to an awed and appreciative audience. And all from home. You could do it all – you could create flyers, mass mailings … zines. You could say to the world: here I am!

And mimeography allowed you to do it. So do I miss mimeography – those good old days of liquid fuel? Gawd no!

Charlie Williams’ illustration above is from 1980, and is based on an even earlier cartoon by the late, brilliant New York comics fan, Neal Pozner. Both depict an event from 1974, when I lived in the Big Apple and did all of my printed fanac through the mimeograph. Finding inexpensive stencils, or “staincils” as Neal claimed I pronounced it, was a challenge in Manhattan and the illo shows a frustrating expedition to that purpose. In Neal’s original version of the scene, our noble friend Charles E. “Rick” Spanier is trying to restrain me before I popped a gasket.

This moment must have preceded our discovery of Gem Paper Co. in the Bowery, which made my Hulk-out unnecessary. At Gem Paper a weird old guy – in a beret – stocked all kinds of dusty paper and office goods at ridiculously low prices – among them, light-blue stencils made in India which he sold for a buck a box, or quire. Rick published an illo, by Neal, of the proprietor leading the two of them back into the store, their eyes glowing with the wonders about them. Ah, we say to ourselves, from the comfort of temporal distance – now that was fanac!

I got into publishing fandom in 1969, when members of the New Orleans Science Fiction Association got me involved in doing mimeo’ed oneshots for the magnificent apa Southern Fandom Press Alliance, SFPA. I was 20, a student at the University of California at Berkeley. When I returned thither from my summer of Southern fannish debauchery, I touted my publishing experience to snare a cushy job: editing my co-op dorm’s newsletter. It sounded better than washing pots.

The Barrington Bull had a distinguished fannish past. Terry Carr and Ron Ellik had produced it some years before me, and had won a Hugo with FANAC while living at the co-op. I didn’t know this when I began my career as Bull editor, which is perhaps fortunate, because while their Bulls were minor masterpieces, my early efforts were little short of unreadable. My typewriter more kissed the stencils I wound over its platen than penetrated them. (Yes, I’m aware of what I just wrote.)

Barrington Hall had no mimeo of its own, so I printed my Bulls at the co-ops’ central office. Plastering my stencils to the drum of the A.B. Dick machine and printing my own words brought me a peculiar sense of power, and I wasn’t about to waste it forever on my fellow hippy-dippy Barringtonians. My New Orleans mates had been after me to join SFPA. At the co-op were free stencils, free paper, free printing – here was my chance. So I, uhh, stole the stencils and the printing and the paper for my SFPAzines from the co-op. (It is a shame I have yet to live down – or pay back.)

You should have seen my first self-published fanzine, Spiritus Mundi 1. (In fact, you can. Check out the next page.) I was doing perfectly legible Bulls by then so can only ascribe SM’s crudditude to guilt over my thievery. Cruddy it was. The typewriter I used ripped at the stencils like a puma and my efforts to trace a cover, using an empty Bic pen as a stylus … well, when my first wife saw it, she pawed at it pityingly. “Ooh, you poor thing …”

Then there came the night when I had finished typing the stencils for the second Spiritus. I began the long walk through campus to the co-op office. It was a clear, chilly evening, and beneath my jacket I carried the six stencils in the most efficient manner possible: I wrapped them around my arm.

As I was walking across the campus, a young lady approached me. “Pardon me,” said she sotto voce. “Could you pretend to know me? There’s a guy following me and …” Gallant then and now, I assented. The young lady took my arm. The stencils within crinkled audibly. “Wait a minute,” the girl said. “What’s that?”

“It’s a paper arm,” I replied.

Really?!?” she squawked in horror, squeezing and squeezing Spiritus Mundi 2, and through it, me. And that is the 3,451st time that I have told “The Paper Arm Story”.

The co-ops weren’t the last place I cadged printing. I filched mimeography from a Presbyterian student house when I was in graduate school in North Carolina, and Rick Spanier was my victim all through my year in New York. I became infamous and practically persona non grata for monopolizing the student government mimeo at the University of New Orleans – where I wasn’t a student. It wasn’t until I’d been in SFPA for six years that I obtained my own machine – a used Gestetner a friend found in a Goodwill store in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I took a bus ride from New Orleans to fetch it. Getting used to a screen mimeo, instead of a drum model, took some time and, since the ink was applied to a roller instead of expelled into a closed vessel, made some mess ... but I learned. Years later, after I’d destroyed two screens, worn my Gestetner’s gears down to nothing, and ruined a rug and many towels with spilled ink, I drove into North Carolina’s exquisite Smoky Mountains to fetch two A.B. Dick drum machines from a state surplus sale. I also bought an electrostenciller, thinking it would give me the status of a publishing “jiant.” It gave me nightmares. The electrostenciller only worked sporadically, and when it did, it toxified my house with the acrid stench of burning rubber, and drove my then-wife choking and weeping into the street.

One of my drum mimeos had a dent and produced no usable copies, but the other survived for some time. I did my last mimeo zine on it some 25 years ago. Xerox publishing became available around then at such venues as Kinko’s, and I succumbed to its (expensive) ease. But recently laser printing has brought my fanzining home again. My zines – like Spiritus Mundi 229, the latest issue – flow once again from concept to completion within one set of walls. That’s the way I like it. Handing masters to a clerk to print is easy, no doubt about it – but t’ain’t the same.

Recently an enthused newcomer to fanzines expressed to me the desire to experience old-time fandom first hand – and buy a mimeo. Don’t do it, I advised. However one might romanticize mimeography’s appeal, factual memory primes the romance.

Imagine mimeography as it really was, I told him. Imagine the hours of brain-deadening labor – typing, corfluing, printing, slipsheeting. Imagine polluting yourself and your environs with permanent goo that nested beneath your fingernails and in the folds of your skin, all but impossible to scrub completely away. (I found shampoo to be the best cleanser for oil-based ink.) No, I said, laser printing satisfies the soul as much as mimeo ever did. Mimeo was like puberty – much better to remember with nostalgia than wash off your hands. Yes, I’m still aware of what I just wrote.


This is spilled ink.


NOTE: The article above was composed for a special fanzine to be published at Denvention 3 in celebration of mimeography. For various reasons it never appeared … but I refuse to let my brilliant writing *kof* disappear without a trace.

[ HOME ]     [ Current Issue ]     [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2009 by Guy H. Lillian III.
All rights revert to contributors upon initial print and website publication.

Last Modified: