There's a New Uncle in Town
Harry Knowles wants to reinvent 'Famous Monsters of Filmland' for the digital generation
"Crazy, am I? We'll see whether I'm crazy or not!"
– Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein in James Whale's Frankenstein
Picture this: It's 1958, and you're a red-blooded, adolescent American male with time on your hands and change in your pocket. In the adult world, Bertrand Russell has just launched the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the dreaded Soviet spy-in-the-sky Sputnik has recently plummeted back to Earth, and the Cold War is beginning to go incandescent. Keeping up with the Joneses suddenly means Dad's digging up the backyard and building a better bomb shelter. The overall mood is one of slowly mounting atomic dread.
But you're a kid. You've got better things to do than bug out about the imminent Commie threat. True, the EC horror comics you and your pals devoured and swapped and loved have been denuded of their ghastly charm thanks to parents' paranoiac campaigns to ban them, aided and abetted by some goofy pop psychologist, Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose hated treatise Seduction of the Innocent sketchily linked your beloved Tales From the Crypt to rampant juvenile delinquency. For sure, that sucked. What a dope.
On the other hand, you just peeped the preview for a cool new movie – The 7th Voyage of Sinbad in something called Dynamation! And in color! – and it looks like it'll be even better than last year's 20 Million Miles to Earth, which everyone in your tree fort agreed was the coolest thing ever. Most promising of all, a syndicated package of classic, black-and-white horror movies has just been made available to television stations across the country under the terrific title of Shock! Theater. Suddenly, Mom and Dad's boxy new Zenith is cathode ray-beaming you Karloff and Lugosi, Frankenstein and Dracula, The Wolf Man and The Mad Doctor of Market Street. So, hey, things are looking up.
And then, in February 1958, a crazy new magazine turns up at your local soda fountain-cum-candy stand/pharmacy, something called Famous Monsters of Filmland. It's all monsters, all the time – pulp-paper pictures of movies you've never ever heard of (dig that crazy robot chick from something called Metropolis!) – and even more amazing, it's seemingly written just for you, the kid with the slingshot in your back pocket, the kid who lives and breathes for Saturdays spent in the balcony at the Bijou, the Majestic, the Paramount, the State. It's edited by some guy named Forrest J. Ackerman, or "Forry" for short, and his pun-filled articles on all things monsterific are a gas – laugh-out-loud funny but really informative, and always, always on the side of those ultimate misbegotten, misunderstood misfits, the monsters. Kinda like you.
And suddenly, your life is nothing but monsters, spaceships (cool Ray Harryhausen ones, not the Commie kind), and "Klaatu barada nikto." At a time in American history when nothing seemed certain, or even very sane, one thing was for sure: Famous Monsters of Filmland was the coolest magazine you'd ever seen, even cooler than Mad magazine, which was cool, for sure, but more attuned to your older brother's sensibility than your own. So you stuck with FM, hovering around the newsstand every month, waiting for the next ish to hit the racks. And the years flew by, the nukes never came (thank God), and you grew up. But the monsters didn't, and neither did FM or good old Uncle Forry, who, as you later learned, coined the term "sci-fi" and regularly palled around with two real-life Ray blasters, the writer Bradbury and the animator Harryhausen.
Famous Monsters of Filmland survived the tumultuous '60s and '70s, and on into the '80s when the most influential magazine of its generation – alongside Mad, that is – was eventually done in by the triple threat of the aging of its core readership, the emergence of VHS, and competition from periodical newcomers like Fangoria, Starlog, and Cinefantastique.
FM ceased publication with issue 191 in 1983, and for a generation of "monster kids," it was a dark day, indeed. But during its lengthy run, FM changed the course of American pop culture. Many of its earliest readers went on to change the course of American pop culture, too: Peter Jackson, Stephen King, Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Rick Baker (who won the very first Academy Award for Best Makeup for his FM-influenced work on Landis' An American Werewolf in London), and, yes, even honorary Austinite Billy Bob Thornton were all weaned on the pulp-paper pages and "imagi-movies" of Famous Monsters. It was a revolution – a mad monster party – while it lasted, but nothing lasts forever and everything dies, including Forrest J. Ackerman, who passed away two years ago, surrounded by friends and fans at his home in Hollyweird, Karloffornia.
But if Ackerman's grainy black-and-white brainchild taught us anything, it was that you can't keep a dead thing down – not these days. Kids, and their boomer or Gen X parents, will always love monsters.
Famous Monsters of Filmland is back. And Harry Knowles, Austin's King Geek and the mastermind behind Ain't It Cool News and the Alamo Drafthouse's Fantastic Fest, is casting himself as both Henry Frankenstein ("It's alive! It's online!") and Forrest J. Ackerman 2.0.
But in this age of the death of print, how can Knowles ever hope to lasso a magazine demographic that no longer even exists? Kids don't want to read stodgy (or, worse, pun-filled) magazines about Claude Rains in The Invisible Man. They want to watch The Walking Dead or play Left 4 Dead or dress up like a dead thing and flash-mob Whole Foods. Print? It's so over. (Although it should be noted here that Knowles' business partner, filmmaker-cum-publisher Philip Kim, purchased the title and all ancillary rights to Famous Monsters of Filmland several years ago and has since launched a new, slick, print version of the magazine.)
"When you read the new print version of FM," Knowles says, "it's pretty drily written. If you hand it to a kid like my nephew Giovanni, who's predisposed to like monsters, all that gray print will simply zone him out. It's not built for a kid to pick up or learn from.
"My plan for the online version of Famous Monsters is to become an online 'uncle' to an entire group of people who have never read or heard of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The site will not be written in a scholarly fashion. It will be written in a playful, 'Hey, check this out!' kind of way. One of the things that we'll be building is, essentially, character background charts on all the classic monsters in an easy-to-understand, kid-friendly manner."
At first glance, the notion of hooking kids into this new, online version of Famous Monsters sounds like an impossible task. As any parent can attest, kids are already overwhelmed, happily so, with roughly 10,000 other electronic distractions. How to cut through the maelstrom of already-existing Internet content aimed at 10- to 15-year-olds seems not only a valid concern but a fool's errand. It'll have to be something spectacular, something huge, something that no one's ever attempted before. Which is exactly what Knowles has in mind.
"The thing is," Knowles continues, "it's going to be more than just the website. To get the audience that I really want – and to create a new, cultural shift for classic monsters, like FM did originally – you have to begin plotting and planning everything from animated TV shows, initiate working with top creators of that sort of media. I've contacted folks like Peter Jackson and [Weta Workshop special-effects head] Richard Taylor to ask them if they'd be interested in creating special products for FM, just like the Captain Company did in the back pages of the old FM. They said, 'Absolutely.'"
Ah, yes, the Captain Company: 20-plus pages of ads for cool, monster-related toys, comics, books, and, famously, the Don Post Studios rubber masks of Tor Johnson, the creature from the Black Lagoon, and other such kidhood gotta-haves. It was, often, the funnest part of reading a new issue of the old Famous Monsters.
"One of the reasons so many kids bought Famous Monsters was that it gave them ability to order 8mm and Super-8 versions of their favorite monster movies. We're going to be doing that too, only with whole films available for download or streaming."
To that end, Knowles is currently in the process of bringing in major film studios – Universal and its back-catalog of classic horror movies is a must – and aligning himself with all manner of monster-related brands, properties, and, as he puts it, "cool stuff."
But still, how does he plan to attract the kids when they're already overamped on all things online?
"The trick," explains Knowles, "is to make something that appeals to those 40-year-olds who grew up on Famous Monsters that they can then introduce to their children and their grandkids. Something that will help them raise their kids in the proper manner while being the good geeks that they ought to be.
"It's all about the tone of the writing. We're not going to be talking down to kids, or be too much like the old Famous Monsters, because kids today are obviously much more sophisticated than that. I want to create a kind of new monster language for kids to play with, pick up, and incorporate into their own vocabularies. Beyond that, we want to create a new Famous Monsters brand that's bigger and more recognizable than anything previously attempted. We're looking to create a real cultural shift here, online, by introducing kids to monsters and, just like Forry did, showing them that monsters aren't something to be scared of, but something to embrace, something to make a part of their childhood and, eventually, their lives."
Ambitious? Absolutely. Feasible? Probably. Successful? Wait and see.
"What I want is a way to put Universal monster toys back in the aisles alongside Star Wars and all the other stuff and introduce today's kids to the classic monsters. I'm not going to be writing for the original Famous Monsters readers. I'm not going to be writing for me. I've already swallowed the pill, you know? I learned how to read, literally, through Famous Monsters of Filmland. It's bound up in my DNA and a huge part of what makes me Harry Knowles. What I'm planning now for Famous Monsters of Filmland online? This is for the kids."