When Roger Ebert was a teenager, he was not just a science fiction fan but a member of science fiction fandom. In the 1950s that meant subscribing to mimeographed fanzines and participating in debates in the letters columns.
Ebert's role in the early days of science fiction fandom was a focus of a panel discussion at Wizard World Chicago Comic Con held over the weekend in Rosemont, IL. Panelist Maggie Thompson, former editor of Comic Buyer's Guide, was another avid participant in fanzine culture in the late 1950s and early 1960s and remembers Ebert from the days when he signed himself as Rog Ebert. She never met Ebert, but she felt she knew him well from his writing. "We had the fanzines," she said. "It didn't matter if you never met anyone. It was like the Internet today."
When he wrote about that part of his youth, Ebert also saw fanzine culture as a precursor to the way people connected on Internet. The founder of the Science Fiction Club at Urbana High School would start a fanzine of his own, Stymie.
The panel at Comic Con was moderated by Danny Fingeroth, a former writer and editor at Marvel Comics and now the vice president of education at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art in New York. The other panelists were three native Chicagoans, George Hagenauer, author of Men's Adventure Magazines in Postwar America; Ron Massengill, a pioneering Chicago comics retailer; and Larry Charet, owner of Larry's Comics and cofounder of the Chicago Comic Con.
The panel's full title was "Roger Ebert, Comics and Chicago," and the speakers tended to pursue two threads: Roger Ebert's years in science fiction fandom and the development of Chicago comic book culture from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. The two threads didn't often tie together.
At times they did. While researching his book The Stan Lee Universe, Fingeroth was going through Lee's archives and found a 1964 article that Ebert wrote about Marvel and the comic book resurgence. The article, which appeared in Midwest Magazine, a publication of the Chicago Sun-Times, talked about several of the Chicago second-hand bookstores that were oases for the city's comics collectors in the 1960s.
Three of the most important stores—ACME Book Store, ABC Magazine Service and William Osfeld, Bookseller—were located on a single block of North Clark Street in what was a seedy neighborhood at the time. Massengill recalled stepping over drunks at age 10 on his way to Osfeld's or ABC, where he hoped to find a rare Golden Age comic book. The stores did not display the "used comics" in the front. "If you wanted something," Massengill said, "they had it in the back room in boxes and you had to ask for it, and they'd dig around for it for you."
One day in the mid-1960s, during his weekly visit to Osfeld's, Massengill spotted a newcomer, a bespectacled young man, leaving the store carrying a science fiction book. Massengill asked Osfeld, "Who is he and what's he buying?" In his thick Austrian accent, the shopkeeper replied, "That's some new reporter kid from the Sun-Times. His name is Ebert. Roger Ebert."
"Well," Massengill told the panel's audience, "I knew Roger Ebert because I was into science fiction fandom, and Roger drew down the wrath of comic fandom at that time because he had written a love letter to the lovely lady to my right"—Massengill indicated Thompson—"and every boy in the country was ready to hang him from the rafters. How dare he be so impertinent?"
That left Thompson with some explaining to do.
She noted that like Roger Ebert, she was a prolific fanzine letter writer, or "letter hacker" as they called themselves, and that she and Ebert favored the fanzine Yandro. At the time Thompson was Maggie Curtis, and she later learned that Ebert wrote the fanzine's editors asking who was this Maggie Curtis whose name appeared so often. They replied that Maggie was a teenage girl dating another well-known fan, and the man she would marry, Don Thompson.
"What was my surprise one day," Thompson said, "to open an issue of Yandro and discover in the middle of it 'A Love Poem to Maggie Curtis.'" The panel audience erupted into laughter at this point. When the laughter subsided Thompson said, "What it boiled down to was, 'How could you be going out with this Don Thompson guy when you've never met me?'"
"Which was the sentiment of all of us male fans," Massengill cut in.
Thompson said when she read Ebert's movie reviews, she recognized terms from science fiction fandom. "For example," she said, "with full credit to [science fiction author] James Blish, he adopted the term of 'Idiot Plot,' which I think he popularized in his movie reviews." As Ebert often explained to his readers, an Idiot Plot is one that could not progress unless every character in the movie was an idiot.
Concluding the panel, Thompson read from the introduction Ebert wrote for The Best of Xero, a 1994 book collecting stories, articles and "letters of comment" from the Hugo Award-winning fanzine. In the excerpt, Ebert revealed what fandom meant to him:
"These connections and conversations were important because they existed in an alternative world to the one I inhabited. Fandom grew out of and fed a worldview that was dubious of received opinion, sarcastic, anarchic, geeky before that was fashionable. In those years it was heretical to take comic books or 'Captain Video' seriously. Pop culture was not yet an academic subject. From Lenny Bruce, Stan Freberg, Harvey Kurtzman, Mort Sahl and Bob and Ray, we found an angle on America that cut through the orthodoxy of the '50s and was an early version of what came to be known as the '60s."