Sunday, October 24, 2010

Starlog Days: Interview with Carr D‘Angelo

Above: Starlog Managing Editor Carr D'Angelo in the Starlog offices in 1986. Photo courtesy Carr D'Angelo.

A quarter century ago, magazines had not yet been knocked off their business models. Large mass-market magazines still counted many millions of copies sold and many millions more readers each issue. Smaller publishers filled up the remaining space on newsstands with niche publications and one-shots as they chased trends.

There were many of these smaller, entrepreneurial publishers, but one of the most successful and visible was the New York-based Starlog family of periodicals. Known for much of the 1980s as O’Quinn Studios (after co-publisher Kerry O’Quinn), and later as Starlog Communications International and eventually Starlog Group, its products included dozens of magazines in nearly every genre. Science fiction. Comics. Horror. Women‘s lifestyle. Professional wrestling. Baseball. Country music. And on and on. 

Like many independent publishers, Starlog kept costs down – and profits up – by having its staff work on multiple titles. To learn more about life in the center of the storm, we interviewed Carr D’Angelo, a mid-1980s editorial staffer for science-fiction film magazine Starlog, when he wasn’t busy writing captions for wrestling magazines or putting together rock one-shot specials. 

Arguably, the 1980s were the last great decade of the magazine industry. But it was also a time of big changes. By the latter part of the decade, desktop publishing was pushing into the publisher’s offices, resulting in changing processes (good-bye, typesetters) and new page design fads (hello, bright pastel colors and over-designed text treatments). 

From starvation salaries to interviewing muscled actor Dolph Lundgren to chaperoning Freddy Krueger, D’Angelo explains what it was like in the Starlog offices.

JOHN ZIPPERER: How (and when and why) did you get involved with Starlog? Had you had a journalism background before you joined the company?

CARR D‘ANGELO: It was the fall of 1984, the year I graduated from college. My journalism background was the high school newspaper and fanzines. In college and post-college, I was working for a public relations firm, where I discovered my talent for proofreading – via press-releases – and copy-editing – via transcribing conferences and turning them into a readable dialogue.  

In terms of job-hunting, I would go through the ads for editorial assistants in The New York Times. Mostly I was looking for publications where I was interested in the subject matter. I think the Starlog ad said something like movie, TV, wrestling magazines. It might have mentioned science fiction or horror specifically, but I don't remember. It also mentioned the low salary. The ironic part is that Dave McDonnell had also placed a notice via an article in the Comics Buyer's Guide, of which I was essentially a lifetime subscriber going back to the TBG days when Dave was doing his Media column.  
The notice in CBG emphasized working for Starlog and to a lesser extent Fangoria. I sent in a resume and letter with a full-court push. When I was called for the interview, Dave mentioned that I was the only person who applied twice. I guess that fit their profile: someone who read both The New York Times and the Comics Buyer's Guide. When I heard that, I really hoped they were not the ad that listed the absurdly low salary. They were.

ZIPPERER: A question you might not want to answer, but if you do: Starlog’s former staffers have occasionally noted online that they were paid ... terribly. Care to tell me what your salary was as managing editor?

D‘ANGELO: As editorial assistant in 1984, the salary was $9,000 a year. That was less than $175 a week. It was crazy, but it was the only job I was offered at that time, and I really wanted to work for a magazine that covered science-fiction movies. The PR gig was part-time and didn't really lead to what I was interested in, which was the entertainment industry. I think when I got the promotion to managing editor in 1985, I got bumped up to $11,000; by the time I left, I think my total annual salary was closer to $14,000, but that also included a few freelance payments here and there for some of the spin-off magazines. But I was also supplementing my income with other freelancing and even teaching SAT prep courses. 

Dave McDonnell knew the staff was overworked and underpaid, so when extra magazines like the Aliens movie magazines or Star Trek IV books were added to the schedule, he would include additional editorial payments into the budget, since those projects would result in us working overtime. 

ZIPPERER: What were your duties at Starlog?

D‘ANGELO: When I first started as editorial assistant, the main job was proofreading, proofreading, proofreading. And that was for every magazine the Starlog Group was publishing. In addition to the main magazines Starlog and Fangoria, there were teen magazines, wrestling magazines, soap opera magazines. There was additional copywriting/editing for the wrestling magazines, since it was mostly about the photos and the text pieces that came in needed a lot of punching up.

Every now and then, we the assistants would be tossed a special project. A guy named Max Rottersman and I co-edited a magazine called Rock Stars Scrapbook, which was simply a collection of publicity photos and edited bios of 50 or 60 pop acts. Maybe it also had posters? But it was just about creating another product for the publishers to sell to newsstands. Since Max and I were on salary, there were virtually no production costs to that magazine outside of printing. 

Also, we wrote captions. Dave McDonnell had a photo piece for an issue that was the "Women of Science Fiction," basically an excuse to run another photo of Carrie Fisher in the Slave Leia gold bikini. It got expanded another page or two and he gave me a bunch of photos to write captions for. Since there was no article, the captions were clever little paragraphs about each actress. Dave had written the first batch, and I figured my assignment was to match his style. Apparently, he liked the job I did on that, and I was given a lot more of that kind of work. 

As managing editor, the job was really support for what Dave was doing as editor. The magazine at that point was his vision. He assigned writers and articles. He laid out the issue, picked the photos. Mostly, I did the first pass at copyediting all the manuscripts as they came in. That included titling the article and also writing the copy block/summary of the article along with the sub-heads that would break up the copy. Those tasks were fun and were the opportunity to be creative and clever and maybe even funny. 

At one point, Eddie Berganza – now an editor at DC Comics – and I were given responsibility for a section called Fan Network, which I think you mention in your overviews. Kerry O'Quinn really wanted that section to be a big part of the magazine, but it was a bitch to put together, as we did not have the massive amount of fan submissions coming in. Digging up fan news that could also be presented visually was not easy. I remember Kerry was not happy with the first couple of pages. He thought there were these great fan stories out there and I just wasn't finding them. We ran one story about a guy who built a life-size replica of the Galileo 7 from Star Trek and I thought that was cool, but Kerry burst my bubble by telling me that Starlog had already run that story.

And of course, proofreading. I would say I read every Starlog article about 5 times, from the first pass, to the copyediting, to the proofreading of the galleys, to the proofreading of the actual paste-up boards – to make sure the art department did not re-arrange the text – and then maybe again when the issue came out. 

At the time, Starlog was also involved with doing conventions with Creation Conventions, and we would serve as hosts and moderators at those shows. We did a show in Boston once, and one of my jobs was to escort Robert Englund around. He is an extremely nice guy, and that led to me doing a really cool interview with him for Fangoria

I also tended to be responsible for comic-book coverage. Starlog had published a magazine called Comics Scene before I got there, and we made that an occasional section in the magazine, but in Starlog, we focused on science-fiction comics only. We wouldn’t run a story on Batman. Eventually, we revived Comics Scene while I was there, and I wrote a bit for Comics Scene as a freelancer over the years. 

ZIPPERER: Tell me a bit about what it was like to work there. How much control did editor David McDonnell have over the magazine – i.e., did he have a lot of freedom to plan it the way he wanted, or were the publishers heavily involved? How much influence did you have?

D‘ANGELO: The magazine was definitely working according to Dave's plan at that point editorially. Generally, working with the possible movies and TV shows that were coming out that would fall under our domain, Dave would assign a writer to do an article or usually a series of articles on the upcoming project. In my opinion, I think we generated too much inventory on certain projects. Since we were always working months ahead, it would sometimes happen that a movie came out, flopped and we still had two or three articles coming out. That sometimes made the magazine feel behind the curve. 

The magazine was designed to be a mix of the new and the old, and that was its strength and weakness. There was pretty much a commitment to running interviews with anyone and everyone who had anything to do with the original 1960s Star Trek series. Dave loved old character actors, and we would run a lot of interviews with them. There were also things that were not science fiction per se, like James Bond and old pulps, but would find their way into the magazine. 

The main editorial note from our bosses was to be more visual, and the magazine evolved design-wise in that era. But the magazine was always copy-heavy, including the cover lines, which tried to list everything in the magazine. One of the big changes was to drop the copy over an enlarged photo to jazz up the layout. 

One thing I’m proud of was an article called "The Other Marty McFly." It was very unusual for Starlog, as it was an analysis of the time travel plot in Back to the Future. The article was brought to us by David Hutchison, who was the in-house special effects expert and editor of the beloved Cinemagic publications. David was friends with Bruce Gordon, who was a Disney Imagineer. It did not fit the typical Starlog format, which was virtually all one-on-one interviews, with the occasional historical overview thrown in. 

I was always pushing for more fun kind of articles that could keep popular projects covered in the magazine. One of my favorite articles I ever read was a Filmfax article that came out after Empire Strikes Back and speculated about what might happen in the next Star Wars movie. It was full of all sorts of crazy theories about what the Clone Wars were about and who the "other" might be. I wanted to get more ideas like that in the magazine.

The Marty McFly proposal blew me away, and ultimately the article proves that, parallel to the movie we watched, there is another Marty McFly who is the son of the cool McFly parents, gets Doc Brown killed and finds himself returning to a 1985 where his parents are losers. Basically, the two Martys switch timelines. It was a fight to get that kind of article approved for the magazine. From the fan mail, we got, it turned out to be incredibly popular. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale even wrote in and said that the article touched on things they were planning for the sequel (which turned out to be the idea of two time-traveling Martys visiting the same period). 

After that, there were more articles like that, [such as] one about the Aliens in the Cameron movie, as well as sequels to the Marty McFly article about the next two BTTF movies.

ZIPPERER: During your time at Starlog, what was the interview or article you wrote that you enjoyed the most (and why)? 

D‘ANGELO: While on staff? I think the dream come true was talking to Christopher Reeve on the phone for Superman IV. That was actually for Comics Scene magazine, and it was one of those cases where we needed more quotes than we had in the original interview. Superman the Movie is and was my favorite superhero movie, Reeve was a hero of mine, so that was a memorable moment. It was not a great article, as it was a patchwork piece, but I still can remember the sound of his voice on the phone. I think he was calling from Canada and started the conversation with a mention of how he was tired from flying. I don't recall if I used that in the article. He said it very off-handedly, and I was never sure if it was a joke he deliberately used to break the ice. 

The Star Trek Cruise article was also a lot of fun. That's an article I like, because I really had to recreate an experience and tell the story of this weekend cruise with the cast of the original 1960s Star Trek. Again, it stood out from the usual interview format of the magazine. 

And I will always be fond of the first interview I did: actor Peter Coyote, who was a fascinating interview. He was doing publicity for the thriller Jagged Edge. But because he was "Keys" in E.T., we made a point to interview him. He said a couple of things that always stuck with me and taught me how to get a good interview.

One was that, for him, E.T. was the story of a dedicated scientist trying to save the world from a biological threat that had invaded the planet. The second was how spiritually lifting it was to see one of the disabled actors who operated E.T. greet the world with such joy each day. 

ZIPPERER: And what did you enjoy the least?

D‘ANGELO: Can I admit I was never a fan of the 1960s Star Trek TV show, though I loved the movies starting with Wrath of Khan? So all that material was a struggle, because it was in a foreign language to me. I was more of a Twilight Zone guy, but I think we avoided The Twilight Zone because they had their own magazine at the time. 

The Fan Network section as I said earlier was always a struggle. And the one time I got a pic I was excited about, a cos-player in a really cool Robin the Boy Wonder costume, the art director ran it in black and white on a color page. That kind of disconnect between editorial and the art department was always frustrating. 

ZIPPERER: In his web sites, former Fangoria editor Bob Martin has noted the politics of dealing with movie studios and how he avoided the worst of their politicking because in his time, Fango was ignored or derided, so they didn’t push him too much. You’ve worked with studios as a journalist and you worked inside Hollywood as a producer. Could you say anything about the challenges of genre journalists working with studios, and how to do it well? 

D‘ANGELO: Not really. Dave had good relationships with the publicists he primarily dealt with, a couple of whom were the primary genre publicists in the field. When there were projects not covered by those guys, it was sometimes a harder battle to make a studio realize that it was important to play to the fan base. Of course, it is hard to imagine that now, when Comic-Con is ground-zero for most studios' PR efforts for everything!

ZIPPERER: In a comment on my blog, you explained the “Starlog Process” of assembling a story, in which the editors sometimes had to set up follow-up phone calls with interview subjects to get additional material for an article. That leads to the obvious, juicy question, if you care to answer it: Did you have any interview subject horror stories, someone who was terribly difficult or otherwise a problem to deal with? If so, who and what happened?

D‘ANGELO: I actually like the way the article came out, but I remember interviewing Dolph Lundgren was a difficult task. The explanation was that he had tooth surgery or something, so he was kind of out of it. I also found it hard to interview and write about people I was not that interested in. And as little as I had to say about [Lundgren‘s movie] He-Man, I think Dolph had less to say. There just wasn't a lot to talk about. 

When I interviewed Mandy Patinkin for Alien Nation, he was in his alien make-up and very uncomfortable, because it covered his whole head. He was also unhappy that for legal reasons, his character couldn’t be called “George Jetson,” which was the name in the script when he accepted the part. So he expressed a lot of anger during the interview, which made it a great interview but also made me a little uneasy sitting there. 

I also interviewed James Caan for Alien Nation, and that was a tough conversation. This is a legend who was in The Godfather, and we have to find a couple thousand words about this science fiction movie he signed on for. He liked telling long, wandering stories about his experiences in Hollywood, but at the end of the day, it didn’t leave me a lot of material for a James Caan profile. He kind of argued with the premise of every question, so it was real cut-and-paste job for me at the end of the day. 

ZIPPERER: Former Starlog Art Director Howard Cruse told me that he saw changing technology over the years, from when he was pasting up boards as art director to when he would visit in later years to drop off art work; typesetters, then no typesetters, then different computers, then desktop publishing. What changes to you remember from your time there? Starlog was a small magazine publisher; was it behind the times, current, or ahead of the times in terms of its internal technology?

D‘ANGELO: When I was there, we were getting typewritten manuscripts or, in some cases, printed on dot-matrix printers, which were hard to read. We would handwrite our editing notes and a typesetter retyped the articles, and that led to human error. After I left, I do recall that articles were being sent in electronically and copy-edited on computer, which gives the editor much more control, obviously.
The big technological advancement while I was there was fax. When writers relied on the mail, they had to be a few days in advance of their deadline. Then they started using Fedex to overnight, and then they started faxing articles at the last possible minute.

Graphically, there were design improvements, as I mentioned; more color in the magazine. And I think that was due to new graphic tools that were available.

Word-processing did affect the articles, because it made putting together articles easier. With a computer, you could transcribe your interview, edit the quotes, group them, find themes and then write an article around them. That was a best-case scenario. I had a few writer friends who were a bit lazy and would literally just type up the transcript and add as little additional text as possible.

That kind of article would read something like: Directing on Star Trek is fun, but also hard work, according to Nimoy. “It was fun,” Nimoy says. “But also hard work. We would start at 5 a.m., but by night time we’d be laughing from exhaustion.” And that would be followed by a dozen paragraphs of quotes with no further elaboration. 

If there was time, I would kick it back to the writer, but occasionally I would just rework the story. By the way, I just used Nimoy as an easy example — I am not citing a particular story.

ZIPPERER: You left Starlog after the January 1988 issue – in which you penned a good-bye column on the last page. You have been involved in the movie business, and you currently have two comics stores in the LA area. How did that come about?

D‘ANGELO: In a nutshell, I moved to LA knowing I could generate some income as a Starlog freelancer. Ironically, my editorial skills led me to fill out an application at Universal Studios for the script department. I figured there was a division that proofread and published scripts. I was wrong, but that flagged my app for the Story Department, which is the script library and the department where submissions get read by story analysts who write up reports (called coverage) on each script. I began as a file clerk but started reading scripts on the side and got a job as a script reader. My magazine background trained me for churning out synopses quickly. That led to becoming a development and production executive, which led to the relationships that led to me being offered the opportunity to produce a couple movies several years ago. 

Eventually, I did cross paths with people I knew from the Starlog era. I developed an early version of the Incredible Hulk with Gale Anne Hurd. I had met and interviewed her on the Alien Nation set – that was one of those movies Starlog ran about eight stories on – and there I was working with her as the studio executive. 

Because the movie business is so mercurial and as a producer you can have lots of time between projects, my wife suggested I find a second business. She noticed I was fascinated with trends in the comic book industry and suggested opening a store. I partnered with Jud Meyers, and we opened Earth-2 Comics Sherman Oaks in 2003. In 2007, we won the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing Award, which is given out at San Diego Comic-Con each year. In 2009, we acquired a second location in Northridge. I am also active as a member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, a trade association for comic book retailers. 

ZIPPERER: I jokingly call my fellow former colleagues from Internet World magazine the “Internet World diaspora,” because we keep in touch even though we’re now dispersed far and wide. Do you keep in touch with your former colleagues from your Starlog days?

D‘ANGELO: Facebook has been good for that, and I see DC Comics Editor Eddie Berganza when I get to New York or when he comes out for Comic-Con. I occasionally see Lee Goldberg, who has been writing TV shows and novels and has a great blog about writing. I follow Brian Lowry’s column and reviews in Variety. I would see some of the gang at conventions, but mostly it’s watching what everyone is up to on Facebook. 

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