SciFi4Me Interviews STARLOG’s David McDonnell!

If there’s a handful of names that immediately come to mind when thinking back on Starlog, David McDonnell’s will be up there among the top of the list.

From issue #66 all the way through the unpublished issue #375, McDonnell was the managing editor and then editor, steering the magazine through its heyday and into its waning years as the internet grew and threw its shadow over all of the genre publications. And not necessarily for the better, either. “A lot of them seem a little shallow or short to me, which doesn’t make a lot of sense because with the internet, you have infinite space,” McDonnell says. “But it does seem that conversely, people reading things on the internet, have shorter attention spans, so when you start getting beyond six or nine paragraphs, their eyes start to glaze over. In Starlog, in print, six to nine paragraphs was a sidebar.”

McDonnell, a graduate of Bethany College, started his professional life in advertising, having worked that side of the bullpen for the college radio station. He majored in communications and English, and then went to Syracuse University for his masters. There, he met the reality of the advertising world: the need to satisfy too many cooks. “We learned that you can create the best advertising in the world in your print campaign or whatever, and then … if you were a writer, art director, you have to satisfy the people on your side of the agency who were directing your account, but then you had to make the client happy, the client’s wife, and the client’s wife’s hairdresser and their son, and there was just an unending number of people that held sway over whatever you created and I just, I just hated this.” His time at Bethany, where he was a one-stop shop to create promotions and advertising for his radio station, had put him essentially on both sides of the creative-client coin. “So, I sort of haphazardly continued this thing, got my masters and then came back here to Lebanon, Pennsylvania and figured around, what was I gonna do?”

Ironically, McDonnell’s first paying gig was a column called “Media Report” for The Comics Buyer’s Guide. “It was an aggregator column much like you see on the internet today, when people get news various different places and put it all in one place. And I read Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Publishers Weekly, all these other things. Plus, I got some news of my own on various things and did this column. And it was very successful, it had some following among comic book fans.”

From there, his path crossed that of Jim Steranko, who had his own publication, Media Scene, which needed a new columnist. “The guy who was writing his media news column, ‘Coming Attractions’, in Media Scene left to do other things and recommended me for the job, even though I never met him. He was just recommending me on the basis of ‘hey, why don’t you get that guy who does the column in The Buyer’s Guide?'” Steranko’s magazine was based in Reading, Pennsylvania, and McDonnell had already sent a resumé on the off chance the comics legend was looking for new staffers. (Ironically, the guy who recommended McDonnell, Bill Warren, ended up working for him at Starlog for a number of years until his death.)

While working at Steranko’s re-named Media Scene Preview, McDonnell met Cinefantastique‘s Dan Scapperotti and Fangoria editor Bob Martin during a visit to the set of Swamp Thing in 1981. “Bob told me that Bob Greenburger, who you talked to, was leaving as managing editor of Fangoria, much to Bob Martin’s annoyance, to create a new magazine for the Starlog group called Comic Scene, and it just happened that Steranko, even though he’s a legendary comic book writer, was eliminating comic book coverage from our magazine Media Scene Preview, which allowed me to freelance for Comic Scene, for Bob Greenberger, which I did.”

During a trip to New York, McDonnell dropped in to visit the Starlog offices, and he was impressed by what he saw. “It was a wider opportunity at Starlog Group, and they didn’t micromanage you…” As much as Jim Steranko is a legend in the comics industry, according to McDonnell, he was also a perfectionist who revised his magazine to the point where it only came out three or four times a year. “I told Greenberger while I was there at the Starlog offices, ‘Hey if there’s ever job opening let me know’ and he did and in October 1982 I ended up starting there as managing editor.”

McDonnell’s first responsibilities under editor Howard Zimmerman were to deal with the writers who were contributing to the book, “and I don’t like the phone. The phone’s an instrument of Satan.” On his first day, he was calling to introduce himself to David Gerrold, Bjo Trimble, and Ed Naha. At the same time, he was given most of the publicity contacts. “Howard only kept Sue Tremblay at Lucasfilm to talk to himself.”

In those early days as managing editor, McDonnell was responsible for the writers, dealing with publicists, making sure the articles were in with plenty of time to copy edit, and work with Zimmerman to come up with headlines. After that, it was a matter of coming up with cover lines for McDonnell and Zimmerman to run past Milburn Smith, and then publisher Norman Jacobs. “Howard and I would go over this and Norman would have the final say over the cover image and the cover lines.” By that time, McDonnell was doing a lot of the work for the covers. “Howard, who I think had tired of the magazine by then – because he’d been there since issue seven and this was issue sixty-six when I joined – kept giving me more and more to do.” When Zimmerman left the magazine in 1985, McDonnell took over as editor starting with issue #97.

Of course, having the title of “managing editor” didn’t mean McDonnell was just the managing editor. He, like everyone else, wore many hats in the course of putting together an issue. And it was usually a scramble. “We were always pushing those deadlines; meanwhile, the art department was so behind that they would be thrown on a wrestling book when they were supposed to be working on your book for two or three or four days and then they’d be off over on Fangoria when they were supposed to be working on Starlog and then finally, by the time they were ready to work on you, you already had eighty to ninety percent of your files in your art department for them and suddenly there would be a blitz, which of course would make life hard for the editors of that particular magazine…”

During McDonnell’s time as editor, he went through twelve different managing editors, each lasting a while before moving on to other opportunities. “They weren’t moving up to my position. I would just hang there, know what I mean? And plus, it’s not like the salaries were going to make anybody rich. So when they had other opportunities at DC Comics or Marvel Comics or elsewhere or in Carr’s case, as you’ll learn, he decided to move to LA and ended up at Universal Pictures.” (Read our chat with Carr D’Angelo here.) At one point, McDonnell had two managing editors at once, working simultaneously on the copy editing and headlines while McDonnell would finalize the layout of the issue. “As twenty-seven years rolled by, I had less and less help because at one point, after (special effects editor) David Hutchinson died, we ended up with just one managing editor. That was my longest-serving guy, Allan Dart, who worked there nine years.” By that time, Smith had also left the company, and McDonnell found it easier to just write the cover lines himself and then discuss them with Dart and Jacobs.

Dart was especially helpful when it came to transcribing interviews. But when it came to writing an article of his own, which included transcriptions, McDonnell found that in the time it took him to work on one article, he could have been editing five or six from other contributors. Dart “was very gracious in transcribing interviews for me. So when I went and did six or seven half-hour interviews on the set of The Matrix in May ’98, I came back – I think I transcribed one of them; he did all the rest. And then I made, I guess it was four trips over the years to Pixar to cover Monsters Inc., La Luna, Finding Nemo, Incredibles, and Wall-E, all by myself in each case. I didn’t transcribe one of those interviews; that was sixteen or eighteen pieces. And I could productively go do other things, edit stuff, copyedit stuff, deal with writers and publicists, and Allan would transcribe the whole thing, and then I’d take the results of that and write a piece.”

The arrangement gave McDonnell the time and flexibility to be more productive. “I remember once – I never did this before or since – one day I wrote an interview with Joe Pantoliano – “Joey Pants” for Starlog – thankfully transcribed by Allan, and the next day I did one on the special effects of The Matrix. An article a day, it was like working at a newspaper. But I couldn’t have done that if I’d had to transcribe myself.” It saved time, and it also saved money because there wasn’t a need to hire someone to transcribe the interviews.

Starlog was among those businesses that operated on limited resources. With Dart transcribing interviews, McDonnell was free to work on editing several other articles. Plus, whenever a “staff article” was needed, it fell to either McDonnell or Dan Dickholtz or David Hutchinson to write it — as it was something that didn’t cost extra. “After a while I learned that, you want to keep your really good freelancers writing for you until they decide that you don’t pay enough or they have another opportunity or whatever, or they’re going to another line of work or just don’t want to do it anymore. And of course, that meant that after a while, they all were getting the top pay at the magazine, which meant my budget every month was usually over what it was supposed to be, whereas if I ran a staff story or wrote one myself, we’d be saving a couple hundred dollars, which would keep my budget down slightly.”

That stable of writers included a number of first-timers, mainly because McDonnell wanted to bring along new talent. “I was nurturing a set of writers, because you want to get regulars, and when they first debut in the magazine, unless they have already done something elsewhere like Bill Warren, their byline means practically nothing, because they’re new to the readership. But after a while, after the fifteenth Lee Goldberg story, his name may mean something to the readers now.” In Goldberg’s case, he had interviewed Star Trek II screenwriter Jack Sowards, and the manuscript had made its way to McDonnell’s “slush pile” of article submissions, something left over from his predecessor, Sue Adamo. “And there was Lee’s story: Jack Sowards, The Man Who Killed Spock. You don’t really need to read the story because you can see in the headline, his proposed title, hey this is a commercial story. Because that’ll grab readers. Those five words right there will grab readers.” McDonnell bought the story on his very first day at Starlog.

Goldberg helped recruit Brian Lowry, a fellow student at UCLA. Lowry had interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger for the UCLA Bruin. Goldberg, Lowry, and Bill Rabkin all became very prolific writers for Starlog, along with some established writers to round out the bullpen. “I brought Kim Howard Johnson, our expert on Monty Python, who’d been my friend since 1976, and Will Murray, pulp magazine historian, also my friend – co-creator of Squirrel Girl – I brought him into the magazine. So I had people who had a track record, and then these young newcomers.”

As with most genre publications, a lot of the staff were fans of Star Trek, which was the foundation for the magazine at its founding — Kerry O’Quinn and Norm Jacobs had originally planned a Trek-themed episode guide, but rights issues necessitated an expansion of the scope of the magazine’s coverage. But as the Starlog Group grew and flourished, the coverage of Trek continued, and eventually led back around to the “Square One” point of publishing episode guides for the shows. “For a good part of that time, I was editing not only the monthly Starlog, but Comics Scene, which was, depending on the time, four, six, eight or nine issues a year, and the two Star Trek magazines, quarterlies, Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and various one shots. It was an incredible work load, which is why at one point I had two managing editors working for me at the same time.”

The Trek episode guides became somewhat… problematic from an accuracy point of view, mainly because in the beginning McDonnell and staff were working with early drafts of scripts. And at times, like with all scripts, things didn’t quite match what ended up on the screen. After the first couple of issues were published, “we’d get complaints from this one guy who thought he was God’s gift to Star Trek, who worked at Paramount….So he objected and convinced Paramount licensing folks that we shouldn’t run these until after the episode had aired, and they should be checked carefully against the episode.” This led to McDonnell himself watching each episode to double-check the synopses against what actually made it to air.

“I had the synopsizers, who included Bob Greenberger, Carr D’Angelo did one, Patrick Danny O’Neill, and Will Murray did a number. He’s also a novelist, so he’s really good at it. And eventually my friend John Sayers, a fraternity brother from Bethany College, who works at the Library of Congress and edits their magazine and has for some fifteen, twenty years now. Anyhow, he became the best at this and the most faithful at this because he wasn’t out doing interviews like all these other guys. He just wanted to do this. So I would send him the scripts I’d get from Paramount –  and I had to sign a disclaimer every time we got things – and he would then write his short story versions, and then we would edit them, and then I would watch the episode as it aired in New York City Saturday night at seven o’clock. I’d have a tape recorder next to me, taping the dialogue, and I would edit the synopsis as I was watching for that hour.”

The Starlog Group ran synopses for all seven years of Star Trek: The Next Generation and six seasons of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, until Paramount Pictures raised the licensing fee for the rights to publish the material (Paramount owned the copyright on these books), and Norman Jacobs decided to end the partnership.

Other partnerships for Starlog included an early flirtation with online publishing through Microsoft in 1996. Articles from Starlog and Fangoria would be available online for a small fee. And since this was technically considered a reprint, the McDonnell and the editors in the group decided the writers of these articles would get a reprint fee. “Well, the first month we did this, we made thirty-nine dollars for the entire everything that people downloaded. And we’d put up twenty articles. I guess that may tell you why this experiment lasted for three months, because there was no way to really make money at it, because you want to pay your writer, and you’ve already contractually agreed to do that reprint fee, and internet viewers thought fifty cents was over-priced and they weren’t going for it.” Going online never seemed to be a good option for Starlog, as far as McDonnell was concerned. “I couldn’t really pay the writers anything decent, and it was cannibalizing print sales at the same time.”

As digital started gaining ground, other market forces came into play to squeeze Starlog into a corner. Printing and shipping costs were on the rise, orders had dropped by half, and comic shops were closing at an alarming rate. That affected the retail price of the magazine, which continued to climb. “And every time the price went up, I yelled. The publisher – it’s a good thing the publisher found me useful – workaholic, multi-talented – cause I gave him so many opportunities to fire me over the years. ‘We’re raising the price again? Are you crazy?’”

Eventually, Norman Jacobs sold what was left of the Starlog Group to The Brooklyn Company, owned by Tom DeFeo, who eventually mismanaged the entire property to the point where it seemed as if Starlog and Fangoria were gone forever. “He was crazy about Fangoria,” McDonnell recalls. “Wanted to make it a lifestyle brand and turn it into a TV sensation with his own network and all that stuff, and Starlog just came along for the ride because he was buying Fangoria from Norman. It ultimately, as soon as Norman was out of the picture, a couple of months went by, he lopped Starlog off and then mismanaged Fangoria for a couple more years until it went down as well.”

But now, things seem to be turning around, at least for Fangoria. Now owned by Cinestate in Dallas, the horror magazine has found new life as a quarterly print publication. But that’s not without its challenges. “Where are you going to sell your magazine? Well, they’ll sell on the internet. But there’s increasingly fewer places – comic shops, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, others to sell it in person.”

And it naturally leads to the question of whether or not Starlog could see a similar revival.

If it were to happen, would McDonnell take a call to be a part of it? “If there were ever a revival, I’d be more than willing to be part of it, like a columnist or advisor or whatever.” And he’d want to “get the band back together” and assemble as many past contributors as he could. “My major sin is pride. I’m extremely proud of all my people that I hired out of college. Some cases, they started out as college interns and then after they graduated, I said, ‘yay. You want a job?’” McDonnell would also revive the cartoons. “My favorite part of every issue of Starlog was deciding which cartoons would run and nurturing the cartoonists. And Norman was seldom pleased with me because I spent a lot of money over the years. Thousands and thousands of dollars on science fiction cartoons.”

In the meantime, McDonnell continues to share anecdotes and behind-the-scenes stories on his Facebook page and in the Starlog fan group there, and he includes links to the Internet Archive where most of the issues of Starlog can be found (“completely unauthorized! Nobody working for the Internet Archive asked anybody at Starlog for permission.”).

“I would say about seventy, eighty percent of our output is available digitally, if you want to go find it. So I look at these things as I’m researching links, and ‘oh, this issue of Starlog we published twenty years ago has three thousand views digitally.’ Well, that means it’s still alive. Nobody’s making any money from it. Not the writers, not the editors, not the people who own the copyright. But it’s available, and so the magazine lives on.”

Jason P. Hunt

Jason P. Hunt (founder/EIC) is the author of the sci-fi novella "The Hero At the End Of His Rope". His short film "Species Felis Dominarus" was a finalist in the Sci Fi Channel's 2007 Exposure competition.

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