The Making of “The Earliest Bradbury”

The Earliest Bradbury is the result of a year-long effort to celebrate the centennial of Bradbury’s birth with a deep exploration of his earliest writings as a science fiction fan. We sought to bring these stories and articles to life by presenting them in full facsimile form, as they originally appeared in amateur publications from 1937 through 1941. The book owes its existence to the dedicated work of the core FFE team — and to the contributions of a remarkable group of writers, scholars and Bradbury associates whose support has been invaluable.

Two threads of research came together to inform the book’s content:

  • Understanding Bradbury’s introduction to early fandom and how these associations laid the foundation for his later career
  • Sourcing the 1930s and 1940s fanzines in which Bradbury’s first stories and articles appeared, and in which his fellows fans wrote about him
The History

For the story of Bradbury’s life as a teenager in Los Angeles, we leaned heavily on three core biographies:

Also essential were interviews and photos with Bradbury and his associates captured by John L. Coker III. John collaborated with Bradbury and others to produce Surround Yourself With Your Loves and Live Forever (Days of Wonder, 2008), a collection of Bradbury’s memories, stories and appreciations from prominent contemporaries. John’s curation of the First Fandom community has played a vital role in preserving and honoring the people who founded organized fandom and launched the science fiction and fantasy industry we know today.

Ray Bradbury selling newspapers at the corner of Olympic and Norton,
Los Angeles, c1940.

From the collection of
John L. Coker III

Additional details describing Bradbury and his activities were drawn from amateur publications of the period. In particular, Bradbury’s friend and fellow fan T. Bruce Yerke’s 1944 essay “Memoirs of a Superfluous Fan – Volume One, The Old L.A.S.F.S.” provided valuable insight.

The Artifacts

Uncovering the original artifacts containing Bradbury’s early work is a quest that’s spanned almost twenty years. The background research for The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom – Volume One: The 1930s established a base archive from which many of the items could be reproduced. However, developing a comprehensive list of Bradbury’s fanzine contributions required intensive effort by the FFE team and others.

Fortunately, there was a clear starting point: the first and most numerous of Bradbury’s fanzine appearances are found in the club organ of the Los Angeles Science Fiction League (LASFL), Imagination! This title ran for thirteen issues from October 1937 — the same month that Bradbury joined the group — to October 1938. The FFE archive includes a full set of these rare issues, and we read them exhaustively to find anything written by or referring to Bradbury.

This seemingly straightforward task soon revealed a key challenge: Bradbury and other members of the LASFL frequently published under a variety of pseudonyms. We puzzled over a number of articles that might have been penned by Bradbury, but sported whimsical bylines like “D. Lerium Tremaine” and “Kno Knuth Ing.” (A previous blog post discusses our early attempts to sort this out.)

To the rescue came Jonathan R. Eller, leading Bradbury scholar and Director of the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University. The Center curates and preserves Bradbury’s legacy, and has access to a comprehensive collection of his papers. Jon worked extensively with Ray during his life, and his 2010 volume (with William F. Touponce) The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, A Critical Edition, Volume I: 1938 – 1943 provides a remarkable tour of Bradbury’s early work — including a partial bibliography of fanzine appearances. The Center’s archive includes photocopies of the extensive Bradbury-related fanzine publications collected by Bradbury’s long-time friend Donn Albright.

Albright began corresponding with Ray Bradbury in 1952 at the age of 15, and became Bradbury’s friend, bibliographer, curator and editor of many special editions of the author’s work. Bradbury would later prompt Jon Eller, “If you want to learn about my life and work, you must learn from Donn Albright. He knows me better than I know myself.”

Drawing on Donn’s knowledge and his own, Jon gave us clear direction on Bradbury’s known pseudonyms and suggested a rule we observed throughout the project: if it’s not certain that something was written by Bradbury, don’t speculate. This prompted us to keep a separate file of material whose authorship was unclear. The most interesting of these items were included in Appendix Three of The Earliest Bradbury.

In parallel, FFE core team historian Sam McDonald embarked on an extensive search of other period fan material for anything related to Bradbury. Sam has developed a research process that taps his own extensive collection and a wide range of online resources related to early fandom. His exploration of these repositories — and others — supplied vital insight into the full range of Bradbury’s early work:

The team’s work generated an initial list of about 60 Bradbury stories, articles and items written by others that referred to Ray. These spanned most of the publications of LASFL members (Mikros, The Damn Thing, Sweetness and Light, Voice of the Imagi-Nation, Shangri-LA) and other fanzines to which Bradbury contributed (Le Zombie, D’Journal, Spaceways…).

We thought we’d done a pretty through canvas of likely sources. Again, Jon Eller set us straight. “You missed some things,” he noted in response to our inventory. With his help, we filled a number of gaps and redoubled our own digging. In the end, the combined search yielded over 150 relevant pieces and an additional 20 candidate items.

Building the list was one thing; actually securing these elusive artifacts from 1937 – 1941 was another matter. Fanzines of this period were already scarce when they were originally issued — most had print runs of 50 copies or less. Quality of reproduction varied from decent to illegible. Fortunately, many early fans were also fanatical collectors. We owe the survival of these fragile pages to the hording instincts of their first owners and the dedication of the next generation of obsessive archivists.

Some early fans later achieved success as professionals and eventually donated their papers to universities. For example, Syracuse University holds the manuscripts of both Frederik Pohl and Damon Knight. Some institutions have undertaken the daunting and generally thankless task of cataloging or digitizing the fanzines in these collections. In other cases, the donated material appears to have been crated and wheeled into some dark corner of the warehouse seen in the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The FFE archive includes copies of many of the Bradbury-related fanzines, but others hadn’t been seen in the wild for decades. Beginning in February, we began to reach out to the curators of both public and private collections that might be able to help.

Key contributors in this “last mile” of research were:

  • Alistair Durie, holder of one of the most extensive fanzine collections, many of which were acquired from the estate of Sam Moskowitz
  • Peter Balestrieri at the University of Iowa
  • The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, hosts of the Coslet-Sapienza Fantasy and Science Fiction Fanzine Collection
  • Joe Siclari and Edie Stern of Fanac
  • Doug Ellis, whose exhaustive collection of early pulps provided access to Bradbury’s letters to professional magazines
Bradbury self-parody in STF-ETTE, Number 1, August 1940. Image courtesy of Hevelin Fanzines, Special Collections, The University of Iowa Libraries (restored)

This work was complicated by the onset of the corona virus pandemic, which closed all of the university libraries. Our sincere thanks to the members of the collection staffs for their vital assistance.

Not all of the fanzine issues we procured were of sufficient quality for high-resolution reproduction. To address this, we turned to the gig economy — specifically — to find folks who could digitally retouch the least-presentable artifacts. We kept the changes light to preserve the original appearance as much as possible. Each restored image is tagged in the book with a small icon.

The Art

To further bring Bradbury’s early work to life, we enlisted award-winning illustrator Mark Wheatley. His striking cover art was extrapolated from Bradbury’s own 1938 illustrations for covers of Imagination! A narrative comic rendering of Bradbury’s roller skating adventures in Hollywood and a professional pulp-style interior illustration for Bradbury’s 1940 tale “Luana the Living” are highlights of the book’s visual impact.

Mark Wheatley’s pulp-style masthead for Bradbury’s 1940 story “Luana the Living”

Our research on fan history has also led us to dig up early work of artists who contributed to amateur science fiction publications. Prominent among these was Bradbury’s close friend, Hannes Bok. During the development of the book, we acquired a copy of Emil Petaja’s illustrated 1968 Bok biography, and flights of angels: The Life and Legend of Hannes Bok. This volume is rife with small accent drawings by Bok that we felt would be perfect additions to The Earliest Bradbury. With the kind permission of the Petaja estate we were able to thread Bok images throughout.

The Production

With the artifacts assembled, we just had to write the book. Without proper context, we’d simply have a scrapbook, a paste-up of pictures of fanzine pages. Perhaps interesting to some, but not accessible to most modern readers. We drafted the supporting narrative and iterated intensively within the FFE team and collaborating Bradbury scholars through March, April and May. Essential guidance and corrections were contributed by all reviewers.

In parallel, our outstanding design team took our crude Powerpoint prototype pages and transformed them into compelling visual form, extending and adapting the text in the process. Jeff DiPerna and Wendy Gonick of tabula rasa graphic design are ideal collaborators who have informed and shaped our work profoundly.

To round out the book, FFE core team historian Sam McDonald compiled the comprehensive index that enables the content to be discovered and navigated.

But… is it okay?

As we completed work on The Earliest Bradbury, we were anxious to understand how the book would be viewed by the people who were closest to Ray during his life. Would they deem it a worthwhile contribution to the author’s legacy? Were we unearthing youthful scribblings that Bradbury would have preferred remain buried in the musty archives of the past?

Much of the work included in the book can properly be described as juvenilia—literally, and in the sense that it’s not representative of Bradbury’s later prowess as a writer. Still, in the arc of his material from ages 17 through 20, we saw insight into his future development. We chose to present the material in chronological order of its appearance in various publications to allow the reader to sample Bradbury’s experiences and evolution over this period—capturing “four years in the life of the author.”

Why did we feel we were on solid ground in exposing the origins of Bradbury’s life in science fiction? In his biographies and interviews, Bradbury reflected fondly on his experience as a science fiction fan in 1930s Los Angeles — but he also expressed a dim view of his earliest work in fanzines, saying at one time: “I did some terrible covers for [Imagination!] and I wrote some awful articles.” One prominent author and Bradbury contemporary suggested to us that Ray wouldn’t have wanted this early work re-issued.

Still, Bradbury re-published his most visible amateur work from his LASFL days: the fanzine he personally edited. Futuria Fantasia (FuFa) spanned four issues from Summer 1939 through Spring 1940 and included Bradbury material not unlike his contributions to other publications at the time. The 2007 facsimile edition of Futuria Fantasia issued by Bradbury (with Michael and Craig Graham) demonstrates the author’s willingness to share his teenage musing with his modern readers. The existence of this lovely volume led us to focus The Earliest Bradbury on works that were not included in FuFa.

When we posed the question to John Coker, he shared his thoughts:

The material that Ray wrote / illustrated / published during 1937-1941 was specifically created by him for publication and for circulation. He was proud of it when he wrote it and proud when it appeared in publication.
These were not just snippets or first drafts. And, many of the stories built upon each other in succession. He (and his collaborators) took them all seriously (with a wry smile) and defended them.
There is purpose in collecting and publishing this rare material for the first time. Many fans (and collectors) have not seen all of these stories before, and it can be especially appealing to be able to comparatively read an entire thread of stories in one sitting. The contents of ‘The Earliest Bradbury’ are presented in such a way as to show the evolution of Ray as an author, artist, humorist and playwright. The editor’s underlying narrative ties everything together, revealing themes among different stories that were passionately important to Ray, both at that time and throughout his life.

Other feedback emphasized the importance of the contextual and historical narrative that’s integral to the book. From Robert Silverberg:

“I thought [The Earliest Bradbury] was going to be simply a collection of his fanzine writings, which were mostly pretty naive and juvenile.  But now the book is here and I see that what you have really done is create an important historical document portraying an entire era in Los Angeles fandom, with the young Bradbury as the focal point.  It’s a beautiful job and I’m very glad you sent it to me.”

We’re also very grateful for the support expressed by some of Bradbury’s closest associates:

“The Earliest Bradbury is a wonderful volume. Beautiful reproduction and complete coverage of Ray’s early years! An almost impossible feat. Congratulations.”
— Donn Albright, principal Ray Bradbury bibliographer and special edition editor

“The Earliest Bradbury represents the first comprehensive effort to bring together the full visual spectrum of Ray Bradbury’s interactions with the many fanzine editors who constituted the First Fandom universe across America  in the late 1930s and early 1940s. These archival images from original publications breathe life into the elusive record of the young Ray Bradbury satirizing, imitating, and experimenting with the craft of writing on the eve of beginning  his seven-decade professional career.”
— Jonathan Eller, Chancellor’s Professor and director of The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at Indiana University

Finally and importantly, we sought and received permission from the Bradbury family to publish the specific material that makes up The Earliest Bradbury. Although we believe that the fanzine sources are not formally restricted by copyright, we would not have proceeded had the heirs of Bradbury’s legacy expressed objections.

We hope that today’s readers enjoy exploring Bradbury’s origin and emergence as a science fiction master as much as we enjoyed bringing the story to life.