How it all began… Being responsible for House of Hammer and MAD with its film spoofs, plus whatever film-related oneshots I could dream up, an awareness of forthcoming blockbuster films was a key part of my role at Williams (see prior section for Starburst‘s sister title). So naturally I scoured the trade press, Variety and Screen International. for hot properties every week.
I’d always been as big a fan of screen science fiction as I was of horror, so I was ecstatic when I saw the Variety June 1, 1977 cover headline: “Star Wars Best Start Since Jaws”. Jaws had, of course, been the biggest-ever box office hit at that time… but suddenly it had been beaten!
So as I’d longed to produce an SF sister title to House of Hammer, this headline looked like giving me my best chance ever! What made it even better was that I realised Star Wars wasn’t due to open in the UK until Christmas, six months after its US premiere, so I’d plenty of time to get together what I anticipated would be a sure-fire hit!
Magazine titles are always a pain though. They really are crucial to make the whole shebang work properly. Not too long a word, or it won’t stand out, and not too clever or your potential audience won’t instantly know what they are looking at in an overcrowded magazine shelf.
With the perennial popularity of Star Trek on the small screen and the forthcoming Star Wars, the first part of a title was obvious. But what to put with it? Starfall was the popular choice for about a week, but I didn’t really like the connotations of “fall”. Then I hit on “burst”. Positive and exciting, so Starburst it was.
Above is our first stab at a cover, with a somewhat uninspired colour scheme added to Fiji-born Grahame Corbett’s wonderful title logo. Grahame was, of course, one of my old IPC colleagues. Outside of basic training, it had been a great pool for future contacts!
Next we progressed on to producing a first issue mock-up, all Letraset and cutouts. Think I pinched the cover visual (above, right) from an issue of Sci-Fi Monthly! The price box looks messy, but it was a nightmare trying to find the right size Letraset to rub down that would actually fit. They were tough times, those pre-computer days.
The contents of the mock-up were a mix of Time Magazine, Warren’s The Rook, House of Hammer and Comics USA, a French title produced by old friend Fershid Bharucha… in other words, anything we could lay our hands on!
Shown left and right are the first 24 pages of the dummy issue. All in black and white, despite the end product having colour pages, I used yellow paper to stick notes on key pages, explaining the intended content.
Outside of the hours of graft involved, it was incredibly inexpensive to produce – a necessity when you leave the comfort zone of working for other people!
In fact, outside of the title logo, the only speculative spend was on commissioning Brian Lewis to produce a wrap-around cover painting (below).
But there were two major hurdles to overcome before it could see print. The first, totally unexpected, came when 20th Century Fox put an embargo on releasing any visuals from the film.
They had realised how valuable this new film was to them and refused to hand out any photos to cash-in new titles. When we asked, we were told we had to have an interview with Fox, to show them the dummy magazine and see if it was approved. An absolute first for an industry reliant on publicity to attract an audience, but a clue as to what a potential goldmine Star Wars was considered!
When the day for such came, there was a bunch of us waiting to be heard, outside the MD’s office, with titles like Starfall, Space Wars, Star Sci-Fi and so on. Peter Beale, the man who had given George Lucas the green light when all the others had turned him down, was holding the interviews at Fox’s Soho Square offices.
I could tell by their faces that everybody before me had been turned down. When my turn came, I found myself being grilled by a very heavy lawyer, with Peter just sitting there silently. Then Peter touched the lawyer’s shoulder in the middle of my grilling and said “This guy’s OK. He’s covered a lot of our poorer efforts in another magazine he does and given them good write-ups.”
He then turned to me and said, “Just put something else on the cover as well as Star Wars or we’ll have official licensee Marvel Comics breathing down our necks!” Amazing. The man who had actually made the film become a reality had just made my little magazine happen too!
Here are just a few of the other titles he had to content with…
At the start of June 2011, I actually got the following lovely email from Peter (great to see he’s still out there) about his part in everything back then.Dear Dez, I am glad to see that the magazine has survived so long. While I can take credit for helping the film happen it was the genius and enthusiasm of George Lucas that created it and the courage and foresight of 20th Century Fox’s Alan Ladd Junior who sent it to me to work out how to make it and who actually took the financial risk to make it. Peter Beale
Alongside Felix Dennis’s Kung Fu Monthly, Moore-Harness was the distributor for Starburst. A fiercely independent outfit, run by Brian Moore and good drinking chum Charlie Harness, they not only supplied federated trade wholesalers WH Smiths, Surridge Dawson, John Menzies and the rest, but their own van wholesale people were great at placing sale-or-return new titles directly into newsagents (said vans resembling mobile libraries where the newsagent could step aboard for a quick pick and mix – an inspired and greatly-missed idea).
Moore-Harness also had a simple pre-launch marketing strategy: print 1,000 copies of the cover. That was it.
They circulated the trade with an order sheet and the cover proofs (because 1,000 sheets are best run on flatsheet proofing presses) and we all waited for the orders. When they came in they totalled a staggering 72,000 copies. Wow.
Then came the second problem. I knew the guys at Liverpool Web Offset, we’d worked together before – but always in the past with me as an employee of an established company. Suddenly I was out on my own and presenting them with a potential risk . Or as they put it about giving me credit, “We’re not in for a share of any profit, so we don’t want a share of any losses!” They wanted 50% up front, so I suddenly had to come up with about £3,000 out of the blue (that’s got to be around £18,000/$25,000 today, thanks to inflation).
Maybe a bit audacious, but I actually asked the contributors to lend me money to print their work! So between them Dave Gibbons, Alan McKenzie, John Brosnan and Tony Crawley helped me get it all together. With so many pre-orders it goes without saying that it sold well, hence they got their money back in less than a month. But I seriously owe them for their faith, whether it was in me or Star Wars, because I’d never have got started without them. Cheers guys.
As to the content, while House of Hammer had worked a treat with its features and comic strips, they were segregated into chunks. With Starburst I wanted to truly integrate them, in part to fulfill the magazine’s early subtitle brief of the rather clunky “The magazine of Science Fantasy in Cinema, TV and Comix” (I think I considered the word “Comix” more cool and grown-up than “Comics”!).
And it was quite an impressive line-up of contributors. From the art side, there was the ever-reliable Dave Gibbons (strip shown below) and House of Hammer mainstay Brian Lewis, plus the master of wry anecdotes Sydney Jordan, with his classic newspaper SF strip Jeff Hawke.
Editorially, SF author and wagmeister Harry Harrison (who had the annoying habit of often visiting my office when I was at lunch and leaving rude notes!) contributed a short story – accompanied by an old style Brian Lewis splash page illo, while Hammer’s Chris Wicking joined my HoH regular scribes of Tise Vahimagi and John Brosnan to provide the words on Star Trek and Star Wars and Tony Crawley provided the obligatory news pages, Things to Come.
I didn’t quite manage the integration the mock-up had promised, as you can see from the comparison between the two below. But in hindsight, perhaps the simpler look of the end product – with Syd’s Jeff Hawke running along the bottom of Harry’s story – worked better.
With the formula in place and terrific sales, issues two and three followed accordingly, covering a wider range of film and TV, but never forgetting Star Wars – thanks to Tony Crawley’s interviews with Tony (C-3PO) Daniels and Harrison Ford.
Talking of Tony Daniels (the most considerate of people who, despite being a non-smoker himself, always had some cigarettes in the fridge, to keep them fresh in case a smoker came around) he was so pleased with the interview we ran with him that when a typical The Sun newspaper piece of fluff masquerading as an interview appeared there, he got on to them brandishing a copy of Starburst #2 and told them “This is how you do an interview”. Nice one, Tony!
The magazine was only produced on a bi-monthly schedule though, as I wouldn’t of course dream of working on them in the daytime, while I was still gainfully employed producing House of Hammer, MAD and the rest.
But then tragedy struck! My daytime work suddenly ceased when the company dropped all of its magazine production and I used the entire print and editorial budget for Starburst #4 to buy the rights to House of Hammer and the 100,000 or so physical sales returns they had stored in Leicester. (But if you’d like copies of those first three issues, see here.)
Suddenly I had ownership of both of the country’s only existing fantasy film magazines, but no money left to produce either! Enter Marvel Comics and Stan Lee…
Jumping ahead again (sorry, will fill in the gaps eventually!) May 2014 saw a landmark issue of Starburst, from its new publisher Jordan Royce… NUMBER 400. The event was marked with a lovely tribute cover, a 21st century reimagining of the cover of the very first issue…
…including a far better Mark Hamill likeness than we managed back in 1978 when Brian Lewis obviously didn’t have a photo to work from!
Next section: Marvel UK