Remembering the glory days of the most ephemeral publications on the market.
The origins of the poster magazine would seem to be lost in time, but for most of the 1970s and well into the 1980s, they were a staple part of the publishing world. Rarely lasting for more than one or two issues, they would appear to either cash in on the latest pop trend or be officially licensed film and TV merchandise, though a few titles existed as ‘proper’ magazines that ran for years.
The pleasures of the poster magazine are obvious. It’s a two-for-one bargain for teens on a limited budget, giving you both a magazine – albeit a rather basic eight-page effort – and a poster that you could hang on your bedroom wall. The magazine was generally cheaper than the rolled posters that were sold in shops, so was a great way of decorating your walls at a low cost.
The two big-name poster magazines – at least in the UK market – were Monster Mag and Kung Fu Monthly. The former was printing gory images long before Fangoria– so gory, in fact, that UK Customs seized the whole run of issue 2 as it returned from its overseas printer. But while the actual writing content often left a little to be desired – some features were just collections of bloody stills, usually unidentified – the posters were spectacular. Often images from Hammer films, they were initially pretty huge, though the fluctuating costs of paper in the 1970s meant that the magazine would vary wildly in size from issue to issue. The posters were certain to leave parents aghast, and the hastily-added ‘adults only’ warning on the front cover from issue 3 on meant that the magazine was highly sought after by grubby-fingered schoolboys. A copy of Monster Mag was like gold dust in my school.
The magazine initially bit the dust in the mid-1970s, before having a three issue revival under the control of Dez Skinn. The writing improved considerably, and one issue featured the original poster for Hammer’s 1958 Dracula as the fold-out, making it ahead of its time (but we’ll come back to that…). In recent years, Skinn has cashed in on horror nostalgia with reprints that include the elusive second issue and new issues that pretend to be from the 1970s (but which cost rather more than 30p). You can buy them here.
Kung Fu Monthly began life as a quick cash-in on Bruce Lee fever in 1974 and was probably not expected to last very long. In fact, it lasted for 79 issues, well into the 1980s, proving that the popularity of Lee was no flash in the pan. Make no mistake, despite the title, Kung Fu Monthly was a Bruce Lee fan title – almost all the articles were about him, and he appeared in all the posters. Mining one man’s five film career for seven years was certainly an impressive achievement, but you have to wonder if the magazine might have lasted even longer if it had explored the wider world of martial arts cinema.
Similarly specific and similarly long-running was the Star Wars poster magazine, which ran for five issues in the UK but kept going right until The Empire Strikes Back forced a relaunch in the USA. Here, the limited content of the magazine worked for it – what might have only lasted one or two issues in a regular magazine could be stretched out for years here. The Star Wars title continued throughout the life of the original trilogy.
Generally though, the poster magazine was, by design, an ephemeral pleasure. Movie titles would generally last one issue, though some stretched to a second edition that probably took the publishers by surprise. The Alien poster mag offered an early shot of the Alien as the issue 2 poster – until this point, images of the creature had been hard to find as 20th Century Fox sought to keep it under wraps. This issue also seemed to represent a stylistic change in the poster magazine format – Seventies titles would have the poster image as a splash shot on the front cover, but by the turn of the decade, the poster image would also appear as the front cover. Given that the magazine only had eight pages of content to begin with – and the back cover was often ads for other publications – it felt a little lazy to not even bother with an original front cover, but perhaps was an acknowledgement that no one was really buying these magazines for their content. The poster was the main – possibly only – attraction.
Although these titles didn’t exactly require a lot of content and so could be ground out quite quickly, there was still something of a gamble involved in picking the right project, especially for licensed titles. If you licenced Star Wars, you were laughing; if you licenced Doc Savage – Man of Bronze, you were not. For this reason, a lot of 1970s titles went for TV shows or movie franchises with a proven track record – The Six Million Dollar Man, The Professionals, Planet of the Apes, The Incredible Hulk, Kung Fu and so on. Sometimes, these shows were popular enough to justify two or three issues.
These magazines initially featured a movie still as the fold-out, but at the start of the 1980s, someone realised that the movie poster art might be more appealing. These were usually the US one-sheet, sometimes a full reproduction, other times a modified version with just the artwork and film title. Among the more impressive of the era were Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Heavy Metal, all of which had impressive poster art that looked great on the wall. Starburst magazine published a three-issue series featuring Excalibur, Escape from New York and Dragonslayer, again featuring the film posters.
Of course, while movies and TV shows were popular subjects, much of the poster magazine market was based around pop music. Here, a quick unlicensed cash-in on the latest pop sensation could be cranked out with indecent haste – all you needed was a minimal bit of text (often cribbed from press releases) and some photos – which might also be press shots. No one expected any substance here – the magazine was disposable, the poster everything. Some titles, like Popster, were ongoing monthly that simply featured the flavour of the week, while others were one-shot efforts (with an eye on further issues should the pop idol of choice have staying power), and everyone from Slade to Adam and the Ants and Kate Bush – as well as Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds – took their turn. It wasn’t just the pop kids either, as punk and metal poster mags popped up for those keen to have Johnny Rotten or Motorhead plastered across their walls.
In fact, the poster magazine could adapt itself to anything – sports, fast cars, you name it. In fact, the only thing that didn’t seem to appear – and I’m happy to be proven wrong here – was the girlie magazine. Odd, you might think, given the centrefolds of most titles – but perhaps a giant poster of a naked girl, legs spread, was a little too much – and definitely not for the teenage audience that bought these titles.
New poster magazines seem, by and large, to be a thing of the past, which is odd. Of all the magazine formats, you’d think that the poster magazine would be best placed to withstand the digital challenge – after all, you can’t post a JPEG on your wall. Perhaps a Reprobate poster magazine is what the world is waiting for…
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