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SFX XX


Let me just clarify that title, in case the spacing is ambiguous. This month’s blog celebrates twenty (XX) years of SFX magazine. It’s not about science fiction porn, which would be SF XXX (although I have not discounted writing on that subject in some future month). Anyway, the first issue of SFX was cover-dated May 1995, which means it’s twenty years old this month. And even though I left the mag 17 years ago, haven’t freelanced for it for about 14 years and in fact haven’t even read an issue in the past decade, nevertheless I still find myself more often than not cited as 'MJ Simpson from SFX magazine'.

      It was certainly a big part of my life and professional career, and I was there at the start, spending three years ‘before the masthead’ until eventually leaving in 1998 to get married and move back to the Midlands. How I actually landed a job as Staff Writer on a brand new, big, glossy mag all about sci-fi, fantasy and horror is almost a science fiction story in itself. One of those diverging timeline stories, like that Doctor Who episode where Donna’s decision to turn left or right at a road junction leads to an alternative reality where the Doctor is dead and Britain becomes a totalitarian state.

      I was, at the time, a (mature) student in the third year of a degree in Film, TV and Radio Studies at Staffordshire University. I was finishing off my dissertation on Frankenstein films and was scanning the job ads in the Guardian, expecting to end up on one of those bizarre specialist trade mags which, in future years, would become a fixture of the Missing Words round on Have I Got News For You. In March 1995, I found myself forced to make a decision: should I travel from Stoke-on-Trent down to London for Picocon, the annual one-day SF convention at Imperial College, or should I go instead to Sheffield for a party? They were on consecutive weekends, but my meagre student finances would only stretch to one train ticket. If I had chosen the party, my entire life would have turned out different and I almost certainly wouldn’t be writing these words now. (Of course, that doesn’t mean my life would have been worse. In that universe I might have become a stinking rich Hollywood screenwriter by 2015.)

      But I turned right instead of left and headed down to That London for Picocon, where I drank cheap cider from the Students’ Union bar and talked toot with my friends. Before I got too ratted (fortunately) my mate John Philpott collared me. John had for many years been a leading light of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society, on whose Committee I was at the time serving as Newsletter Editor. 'Simo,' said John, 'have you met Mary? She works for a magazine company and they’re looking for a Staff Writer for their new mag about SF.' 'That’s handy,' says I, not immediately recognising the portent of the situation, 'because I’m looking for a job.'

      Mary Branscombe worked on one of Future Publishing’s numerous computer titles. She told me about the company’s plans for a brand new mag all about films and books and comics and TV and such like. Mary gave me the editor’s details, I gave her a copy of the latest ZZ9 newsletter to take back with her to the Future offices in Bath and promised that a CV and portfolio would be in the post on Monday. I had sold a few freelance articles at that stage to Book and Magazine Collector, Record Collector, New Scientist and Marvel UK’s short-lived but fondly-recalled Hammer Horror magazine, plus some fanzine stuff. I photocopied them at the local newsagent and consigned them to the Royal Mail.

      I assume that I must have gone down to Bath for a job interview. At two decades’ remove, I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of that event. But I do recall getting the phone call shortly after from SFX Editor Matt Bielby telling me that I had got the job. I packed my bags, located some digs in Bath, left my wife-to-be (on the same degree course as me) in Stoke and moved down to the southwest, returning to Staffordshire just briefly to sit my finals which had, miraculously, become something of a formality.

      The original SFX office was a tiny, tiny room in a Victorian Mews on the edge of Bath town centre. It was just about big enough for two, maybe three desks. So they put five in there. The rest of the team were all Future regulars who had been working on various computer and games magazines; I was the last to join. Several dummy covers had been produced: one showed the Shat in classic Trek, one showed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Street Fighter. In the end, the first issue launched with Tank Girl on the cover.

      What? you say. And I don’t blame you. Fact of the matter is, there really wasn’t very much else. The nature of magazine publishing is that you want to be topical, but you have to get everything signed off and down to the printer about a month beforehand. So there’s a certain amount of precognition required about what will be popular and successful. In 1995, there was a feature film version of Tank Girl, a popular comic from a 2000AD spin-off. It starred – I forget who it starred, but the supporting cast included an unknown actress called Naomi Watts as Jet Girl and rapper Ice T as a mutant kangaroo. It was a bomb. No-one went to see it.

      But let me put this in context. This was the mid-1990s. There simply weren’t the guaranteed smash hit sci-fi movies around. Not every month. No Star Wars, no Lord of the Rings, no Marvel Cinematic Universe, no Harry Potter. Nor were there the massively popular TV shows - (Lori Petty! That was it! Lori Petty played Tank Girl!) - that would later appear multiple times on the cover. Doctor Who was dead and gone and never coming back. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was just an old movie. After a bit, The X-Files turned up and that was a blessing. There were some good shows on TV during my time on the mag - Xena, American Gothic – but there was some dross too. And our criteria included not only ‘is it really popular and successful?’ but also ‘can we get a decent image that would look good on the cover?’ Jesus, we ran a Bugs cover once. Remember Bugs? It was like a piss-poor, half-hearted '90s version of Department S with some guy out of Neighbours. It was dire. How about Highlander: The Raven, a sort of immortal Girl from U.N.C.L.E. that ran for about five episodes?

      Imagery was always a problem, because those were pre-digital days. Photos of films and TV shows came in two formats: black and white glossy 8x10 prints or colour transparencies. We had to physically get our hands on them, and then we had to send them down to another bit of Future Publishing for them to be scanned. This meant that when laying out the pages, we generally had to leave grey rectangles to represent the photos, which very nearly brought us low one month. Our Art Editor, though a dab hand with Quark Express, didn’t have any particularly detailed knowledge of science fiction (she once laid out a photo of the Liberator from Blake’s 7 pointing downwards because she assumed those three bits were the legs it landed on).

      'What’s this grey box here on the news page?' we asked. 'Oh, that’s an old, bald guy holding like a little doll.' 'And what’s this grey box over here.' 'That’s also an old, bald guy holding a doll. But I think it’s a different man.' The deadline was looming. We raced to check. In the nick of time, we managed to get the photos switched over, matched with the correct captions and news story. Otherwise we would have become the laughing stock of the science fiction world for not knowing the difference between Ray Harryhausen and Gerry Anderson…

      As recounted in blogs passim, I got to meet Ray Harryhausen when attending a preview screening of Independence Day for the mag. And I really can’t knock that side of being a full-time, salaried, jobbing, sci-fi/fantasy journalist. I got to meet some amazing people. We all had our specialism on the mag: one guy liked comics, one liked anime, one was a Doctor Who fan etc. I was the horror specialist. Anything with a monster or zombie or whatever, that usually fell to me. So when someone put out a VHS documentary called The Many Faces of Christopher Lee, I got the gig to go to a London hotel and interview a living legend. A somewhat pompous living legend, but legend nonetheless. I built up a stack of great interviews during my time on SFX, some of which are now on my own website in their full, unedited versions. Roger Corman, John Landis, George Romero, Terry Gilliam, so many great memories. I recall that I had an hour with Jack Hill, director of cult classic Spider Baby. Then, because the guy from Total Film never turned up, I had another hour with him after that!

      In between hanging out on film sets and schmoozing with A-list genre celebs, there was work to do. Interviews to be transcribed and reviews to be written. Endless, endless reviews. Stacks of books, piles of VHS tapes, and regular journeys on Great Western into London for film previews. Tedious though those journeys could be, at least it gave me time to plough through some chapters of whatever novel I had been given from the pile that week.

      It took SFX a while to become established, for publicists to understand who we were (and that, for example, we weren’t specifically a special effects magazine). In those early days, we were pretty much begging for stuff. Please send us some tapes to review. Please can we interview someone? But gradually, the mag became a brand. Within our own little pool, we were a very big fish. I recall the first thing we received out of the blue. Matt opened an envelope and handed me a photo: 'Some guy making a werewolf movie. That sounds like your type of thing.' I read the accompanying press release, which had clearly been translated from some non-English tongue, and realised that what we had there was the first still from a brand new Paul Naschy film. I got very excited.

      And that’s why they employed me, I guess. I knew who Paul Naschy was. And lots of other things and people and stuff too. And the really great thing was that I got to write about that stuff. Because there weren’t the big movies and TV shows, and because what there was we had limited access to, in those early days, I could write multi-page features about really, really obscure stuff, or just whatever fun stuff caught my fancy. Two pages on a stage play adapted from The Fly? Sure. Five pages on a radio production of Judge Dredd? No problem – we’ll even get a 2000AD artist to do some exclusive artwork. Review some tiny DTV B-movie no-one’s heard of? Absolutely. That’s what’s different with the mag nowadays: it has the blockbusters and it doesn’t need the esoterica. Some time after leaving, I realised that SFX would never again devote several pages to something that most of its readers had never heard of. And that’s when I knew it was truly over between us.

      Hey, magazine publishing is a commercial activity. The circulation and ad sales are evidently still strong. Good luck to SFX magazine: congrats on 20 years and here’s to many more. But as for me, I like writing about things people have never heard of. Because I like reading about things I’ve never heard of. So I’m happy with my own website and these blogs and some quite extraordinary memories of three crazy, wild years in Bath. Happy birthday, SFX!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.