John B. Michel
(February 7, 1917 – December 1, 1968)
John Blythe Michel (pronounced "Mish-el" — "Mitchell" without the "t") was one of the most important early fans, a fanzine editor and publisher, who also contributed art, articles, poetry, and fiction to most of the prominent fanzines of the 1930s and early '40s. He wrote for prozines as well, usually as Hugh Raymond.
But his most important influence was undoubtedly as the ideological leader of the young communist faction in ’30s fandom.
When he was 14, Michel entered a plot contest through Wonder Stories. Raymond Z. Gallun penned a story based on Michel's entry and the result, "The Menace from Mercury," was published in Wonder Stories Quarterly in Summer 1932 as by Michel and Gallun.
As a child, Michel was temporarily paralyzed by diphtheria, and as a teenager and young adult suffered terribly from chronic osteomyelitis. In The Futurians, Damon Knight describes 18-year-old Michel as "slender and slight, well proportioned except for his bandy legs. His dimpled cheeks were pitted with acne scars. He had lost several molars on the upper left side, and his grin was gap-toothed."
His interest in art likely came from his father, who was an actor and the head of the art department at a Woolworth's in Brooklyn (where Michel silk-screened many fanzine covers). In the early thirties Michel joined the Young Communist League, and later became a Party member, until being asked to leave in 1949.
In 1936, he was the originator of the idea that members of the New York-based International Scientific Association club visit the fans of the Philadelphia chapter of the old SFL. The resulting event, which took place on October 22, 1936, was the very first science fiction convention.
Michel was also one of the 12 charter members of The Futurian Science Literary Society (later the Futurian Society of New York), which held its first open meeting on September 18, 1938. (The other charter members were Donald Wollheim, Rudolph Castown, Robert A. W. Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, Jack Rubinson, Walter Kubilius, Jack Gillespie, Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, and Herbert Levantman.) In 1941, Michel was elected Director of the Futurians.
More than anything, though, as Earl Singleton put it, Michel was "widely known for his revolutionary ideas" which came to be known within fandom as "Michelism." It was announced to fandom at the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention, Philadelphia, October 1937, when Donald A. Wollheim delivered the speech "Mutation or Death!" for him.
Michelism held that "science-fiction should by nature stand for all forces working for a more unified world, a more Utopian existence, the application of science to human happiness, and a saner outlook on life." In short, Michelism saw science fiction as a form of civic engagement and social criticism, and not merely a means of entertainment. In it, he petitioned fandom to work toward a unified world utopia state. Many fans took this as a synonym for communism, while many others opposed the interjection of politics into fandom.
Michel was not alone in wanting fandom to act politically to save the world. The same period also saw the Technocracy movement in fandom. But most of fandom rejected these ideas and this rejection was one of the causes of the great wars which divided New York fandom with the most prominent antagonists of the Futurians — the "Triumvirs" Taurasi, Moskowitz and Sykora — all opposed to politicization. This led directly to Michel being one of the fans who were not allowed to attend the First Worldcon in the Exclusion Act.
Of all the Futurians, Michel seems to have been the furthest Left, participating actively in the Young Communist League (which meant significantly less in pre-War New York than it would have been after the War), forming CPASF, the Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction, (and writing its song, the Science Fiction Internationale).
Judith Merril, with whom Michel was romantically involved in the early 1940s, said that "Johnny was potentially one of the most interesting and talented [of the Futurians], but there was some real lack of confidence, or self-direction, or something, that just kept him from going anywhere." Robert Lowndes also describes Michel as "loaded with talent."
Michel was actively involved in the early years of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association. In summer 1938 he ran for the organization's Presidency. He co-edited the second and third issues of FAPA's newsletter, The Fantasy Amateur, and solo edited the fourth issue. And in 1940 he was honored with FAPA's Laureate Award for best fanzine artist. He published the fanzines The International Observer of Science and Science Fiction, Science Fiction Progress, Mentator, Futurian News, and Flabbergasting Stories.
Michel went on to enjoy some success publishing in the prozines, usually under the pseudonym "Hugh Raymond". In the 1940s his fiction appeared in such pulps as Avon Fantasy Reader, Comet, Cosmic Tales, Future Science Fiction, Science Fiction Quarterly, Stirring Science Stories, Super Science Stories, Uncanny Tales, Vantage Point, and Unknown.
In the last two decades of his life, Michel left fandom and fanzines, but continued writing for various newspapers, published books for children, penned at least four erotic novels, and attempted to write a fictionalized account of his time as a Futurian.
He died by drowning in a foot and a half of water at a summer resort in New York State where he was off-season caretaker. It was classified as a probable suicide, though it may have been the result of progressive mental illness or a drunken accident; his wife Joan knew something was wrong because "he would go through the bank account, to drink—when he got to the bottom of that, he’d keep writing checks. He had cashed a check at a bar on Route 29, and bought a bottle of wine, and that was the last anybody had seen of him", and his body was later identified in a frozen stream. In the 1950s and 1960s, he had had several instances of suicidal tendencies and had undergone a series of shock treatments.
Knight's epitaph for Michel, which appeared in The Futurians, seems to nicely sum up the life of John Michel: "It seems to me now that he really deeply felt certain rather shallow things. And maybe that was the tragedy of Michel, that all his depth was in shallow places."
- Entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
- Founding Members profile in the May, 2016 (Volume 75, Number 5) issue of The National Fantasy Fan.
- Early short (but apparently inaccurate) biography in Who's Who in Fandom 1940, page 10.
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