What Was the First Fanzine?
There are several candidates for the title of "First Fanzine." We discuss each of them below, starting with the earliest (which may or may not have existed or may or may not have been a fanzine) and ending with the earliest things that must be called a fanzine. (TL;DR: The Planet.)
What Is a Fanzine?
But what is a fanzine? It's not enough to say that a fanzine is like porn: I know it when I see it. (Or “Science fiction means what we point to when we say it.”) We need to be able to decide when something is a fanzine. It's also important to understand that this is not a black-and-white affair, we are drawing a line across a continuum. It's not X is or isn't a fanzine, it's more matter of "How much like a fanzine is X?" There seem to be two main criteria:
(1) A fanzine is created primarily for fandom and is a part of the nearly century-old conversation amongst fans. It is more than simply a publication's form: There are things which look physically a lot like a fanzines but which are not contenders for the title of First Fanzine because they were not intended as part of the conversation amongst fans.
Specifically, we distinguish paleo-fanzines (like the ones that Lewis Carroll wrote, which even included some fantastica) from eo-fanzines like The Planet. The dividing line between paleo- and eo-fanzines not what they are but their purpose: Eo-fanzines were produced by fans for a fannish audience, where "fan" is defined as people in the rootstock of the active, vibrant, self-defined fandom of the 1930s. If a fanzine-like-thing was done primarily for other members of fandom, it's a fanzine; if not, it's a paleo-fanzine or perhaps a separate invention in another fandom. (The latter probably needs a name of its own.)
There is an interesting discussion of this problem here, where novelist Wred Fight says
However, if we're going to credit Siegel for [the first fanzine] then we've ripped open the floodgates because dating back at least to Victorian times, writers such as Lewis Carroll liked putting together private compilations in magazine form of their own writing. Most of these only exist in editions of one and were passed around Samizdat style but if we're going to base criteria on a print run more than one, then we have to note, as Harry Warner Jr. does in his "A History of Fanzines" (in Science Fiction Fandom, edited by Joe Sanders) that amateur publications devoted to fantasy fiction had appeared earlier such as W. Paul Cook's Recluse from 1927, most renowned for including an essay by H. P. Lovecraft called "Supernatural Horror in Literature".
Our goal here is not to demonstrate that fanzines are millennia old with the earliest example having been found in Egypt with an excited article by Mentuhotep I responding to a dismissive LoC by Gilgamesh on the Book of the Dead. Nor are we interested in spotting things like Lewis Carroll's booklets which, in an alternate world, might have started fandom decades earlier. History is full of such sporadic publications. We are interested in locating the start of a continuous, connected fannish tradition.
(2) A fanzine is not a prozine -- it's done as part of the fannish gift economy and not with money as a significant motive. (This is not to say that money is never involved; just that it's secondary, at most, to the zine's purpose.) Not being a prozine also means that an amateur magazine whose purpose is to publish sf that can't get into the prozines is not very fanzine-like. Fanzines in their truest incarnations sometimes include fiction, but also include commentary, letters and articles. Having more of these things makes the publication more like a fanzine; having fewer makes it less.
Finally, there's one more issue to keep in mind: quality of evidence. When dealing with the very beginnings of fandom, we are frequently dealing with later reports and fallible memories, and this is as decidedly true of the contenders for the title of First Fanzine as it is for First Club. Not all of the “facts” which have come down to us are true, and we must never forget that.
The Recluse was a one-shot magazine published in 1927 by W. Paul Cook, an ajay enthusiast. It appears to have been a one-off, semi-professional, semi-scholarly magazine focused on the H. P. Lovecraft/weird fiction genre. The most telling evidence of its unconnectedness with fandom is that no one afterwards considered it to have been an early fanzine. It seems, rather, to have been in the mundane Amateur Journalism tradition.
Moreover, science fiction fandom, per se, didn’t really exist at this point. Amazing Stories, the first sf magazine, had just started in 1926; the first fan letter with an address (enabling Contact) wasn’t printed until August 1927. Fanhistorians have generally considered Weird Tales and the Lovecraft Circle as something separate from the foundations of fandom.
Pros: Early date and definitely real.
Cons: Seems to have been a one-shot that might have started fanzines, but didn't.
This seems to have been a carbonzine which had two issues published by a 14-year-old Jerry Siegel while in high school. All of the sources seem to agree that it was entirely fiction written by Siegel, although Comic Vine calls it “a comic booklet.” From what we can tell, Cosmic Stories was more of a wannabe prozine (or wannabe comic) than a fanzine.
But when was it published? There are plenty of references to Cosmic Tales as the First Fanzine, but they all seem to be traceable back to two sources: Sam Moskowitz in The Immortal Storm (1945) and the Pavlat-Evans index (1955). Unfortunately, both of these sources are from a decade or two later and both say that they never saw the publication and did not believe any copies still existed. We have, so far, found no evidence of anyone (other than Siegel himself many years later) saying they personally saw a copy. Given that SaM and Bob Pavlat or Bill Evans believed it existed, it probably did, but on the other hand, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1974), Donald Tuck says the first fanzine was published in 1932 and hence did not consider Cosmic Stories to be a contender.
Prior to Science Fiction, Siegel edited two typewritten magazines, Cosmic Stories and Cosmic Stories Quarterly. Apparently all copies of these last have been lost or destroyed.
A Comic Vine entry says:
Jerome Siegel's writing career began early in his life. When he was 14, he created his first comic booklet called Cosmic Stories, which was advertised in the classified section of Science Wonder Stories. It was later known as the first sci-fi fanzine and he continued to publish several other booklets over the next few years.
(If we could find this ad, this would be strong evidence Cosmic Stories existed. We need to remember the tenuous nature of the evidence.)
If it existed, was it first? Most of the sources say it was published in 1929, but in a 1945 article in Fantasy Commentator #8 p169, Sam Moskowitz says in the original, mimeo version of The Immortal Storm:
Enthused by Amazing Stories they presently produced Cosmic Tales and Cosmic Tales Quarterly, amateur, carbon-copied publications; these are the earliest -- and rarest -- fan published "magazines." [emphasis added]
Besides being described in the context of early prozines, the problem here is that Moskowitz is crediting Cosmic Stories to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster -- who did not meet until 1931 or 32. This raises a another doubt about the actual date.
It is entirely possible that the tale grew in the telling and Siegel inadvertently backdated his by-then-lost fanzine by a couple of years.
Pros: Certainly very early.
Cons: Seems to have been a wannabe prozine, date is somewhat dubious, unclear what audience it was aimed at.
The Comet was definitely published starting in May 1930 and edited by Ray Palmer. Copies still exist and you can see The Comet online at fanac.org. (The zine had multiple titles, including Cosmology and Science Correspondence Club Organ.)
The only issue with giving the title of First Fanzine to The Comet (well, other than Cosmic Stories' possible senior claim) is that the fanzine was more about science and astronomy than about science fiction. The Comet has the same problem as Cosmic Stories of being nearly indistinguishable from earlier, unequivocally mundane publications.
Pros: Early date and definitely real.
Cons: seems to have been a science club zine rather than an sf fanzine.
This was the clubzine of The Scienceers, generally acknowledged as the first sf club. As you can see in The Planet online at fanac.org, from the very first issue in July 1930, it included a mix of material about science fiction, science and club news. It’s a real fanzine -- all that keeps it from being the First Fanzine is these other, more nebulous publications’ earlier claims.
Pros: Meets all criteria.
Cons: None, really.
Forry Ackerman says he pubbed his first ish with The Meteor dated "before The Time Traveller". According to Pavlat-Evans, this was published for the Boys' Science Club starting at an unknown date prior to April 1931. But they also say that it was "apparently also [edited] by Forrest J Ackerman on the first issue or two" -- which they did not see. This has to be considered a contender, but a weak one.
Pros: May have been a fanzine.
Cons: It may not have been, also. Dating is vague.
Pros: Yup. A fanzine.
Cons: Later than The Planet, so not first.
- (1932) The Time Traveller was unquestionably a fanzine and is earlier than anything else not a clubzine. But it probably wasn't first.
- (<April 1931?) The Meteor was earlier, but may or may not have been a fanzine which may or may not have had Ackerman as an editor.
- (July 1930) The Planet, published even earlier, has a very strong claim.
- (May 1930) The Comet was earlier by a couple of months, but may have been a mundane science club publication which happened to be edited by later SF notable Ray Palmer.
- (1929?) Cosmic Stories was probably earlier still, but suffers from the question of whether it was a fanzine in any but the widest sense. Arguably, if it was a fanzine, then so were even earlier publications, so, regardless, it wasn't the first fanzine. Nevertheless, its claim is good enough that it must be mentioned in any history of the beginning of fanzines.
- (1927) The Recluse. A one-time publication that might have been the First Fanzine had it been connected with fandom.