The Making of Zzap Issue 107

Rockford in Glass Case
As you may well be aware, Zzap!64 rose from the dead in 2002, with a brand-new issue. Although most of the original staff thought the idea was as mad as a whippet, a couple of them were kidnapped and locked in a cupboard until they produced the goods, including ex-editor Gordon Houghton. A bunch of other people were also recruited, thereby creating a worldwide Zzap! editorial team for the first time.

The full story is one of tears and joy, happiness and madness, fish and strange little creatures in the page margins. In fact, the story is far too big to print here, so we’re not going to bother. Instead, our intrepid reporter, Craig Grannell, interviewed ringleader Cameron ‘Gazunta’ Davies [CD]; editor Gordon Houghton [GH]; art lackey Ant Stiller [AS]; and, erm, himself [CG]…

What are your memories of Zzap!64, and what was your first issue?

CD: I remember it being passed around school between all the other C64 owners when I was a super-deformed-size Gaz, and thinking that I needed to pick it up when I got my own C64. My first issue was #35. I read it from cover to cover, not understanding half of it, but wanting to know more about the weird world of C64 gaming. Something for which I’ll be forever grateful happened while reading it—the realisation that the magazine was put together by people who did this for their job. I knew then it was possible to have a fun job as a ‘grown up’—a big relief!

AS: Like many of my 8-bit-related memories, I recall Zzap! very fondly. Rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but they really were the glory days. Zzap! had high production values and such a talented team that it had me in its clutches from Issue 1. Ironically, my strongest memory of Zzap!64 was daydreaming about working with Gordo and co!

GH: As a reader, all my memories are good ones: I remember every month desperately waiting for the next issue to arrive at the newsagent. I bought Zzap! as soon as I had a C64 (Issue 18 was the first, I think), and getting each new issue and seeing which games had been awarded Sizzlers or Gold Medals was one of the highlights of the month. That excitement never really waned even when I became editor, because in addition to discovering great new software every month, I had the pleasure of helping the entire magazine come to print.

CG: It was different from anything else out there—you felt the magazine’s staff cared about the readers not getting stung by crap games, and therefore that they were honest with the reviews. The style was friendly and relaxed, which made a change from the rather stuck-up competition. I was given dog-eared, aged copies of Issues 3 and 6, but the first I bought myself was #23. I stuck with Zzap!64 almost to the end, with my last purchase being #104 (Commodore Force #14). By that time, I wasn’t really using the C64 anymore, but still bought the magazine anyway.

How did z107 come about? What was the thinking behind it?

GH: It resulted from Gazunta posting a message on Iain Black’s Zzap!Rrap board. Gazunta’s enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and soon all the board regulars had convinced each other that creating Zzap! #107 was a) not a crap idea, b) feasible, and c) would make us all feel like we were giving something back to the magazine that we’d enjoyed in our youth. I’m not sure there was any concrete thinking to begin with, just plenty of loose ideas discussed in various posts; but once Gazunta, Craig, and I had started dealing with the reviews and reviewers, setting up the features, and actually begun working on it, it rapidly took shape.

CD: I was working as a games reviewer for a local company (after the bust, it was the only place to go) that hated my guts. Every day they’d tell me how much my writing sucked, how I’d be lost without them carrying me, how much I sucked as a person and how I had no future. The work consisted of writing up press releases as news and saying nice things about truly awful games that I barely played in order to keep the advertisers and publishers happy. It was incredibly depressing stuff and it was turning me into a miserable sod. My love of gaming was going down the toilet, and I was so depressed that the only way I could get some sleep was to dream of playing C64 games.

I decided to start a new C64 fanzine in my own time to give me something fun to do, and posted on the message board to see what the reaction to such an idea would be. I asked the hypothetical question “if there was a new issue of Zzap! 64 out today, what would it be like?” thinking that I’d get some feedback on what to put in my own little thing… It kind of snowballed from there.

CG: Along with the idea of ‘giving something back’ that Gordon mentioned, I think there was a feeling that the last dozen or so Zzap!64s were rather poor, and although Commodore Force made attempts to straighten things out, the magazine didn’t get any sort of send-off. Not only that, but the publisher liquidated, so no-one got the chance to say ‘goodbye’. Commodore Format’s final issue was something of a parody, and we thought Zzap!64 deserved better.

What were you responsible for in z107?

GH: Gaz, Craig and I made most of the big decisions about the direction and content of the magazine; but my major job was subbing, a task they also shared (thankfully). On the creative side, I wrote the cover, contents, editorial, Scorelord, Zzap!Back intros and Ken’s closing words, and helped Lloyd with his replies in the Rrap. I also compiled the votes for the Top 10 C64 games of all time—a surprisingly time-consuming and annoying piece of work.

CD: I guess I was the guy in charge of keeping track of what everyone was doing and making sure we were all busy! I feel like I just road the coattails of everyone else’s hard work, though!

AS: I had the good fortune of doing some reviews, including the write-up for the excellent Metal Warrior III. I also joined Craig in the art department, drawing the reviewer heads from various amusing photos that the guys sent in—mildly disturbing but mostly a lot of fun.

CG: As Gordo said, I was involved with the features list, writing the odd article, and sub-editing (despite what the masthead says). However, my main input was the design, which was done from scratch, based on Markie’s early Zzap!64 stuff. Despite what people thought at the time, the cover was also mine—it was based on an old Oli Rogue Trooper image from 2000 AD, recoloured and combined with elements from his other work. It certainly wasn’t just scanned from somewhere!

Gazunta, how did you convince some ex-Zzap!64 staff to get involved?

CD: I owe this to Gordon. If I recall correctly, I didn’t need to cajole him into it—he volunteered right away. Once he was on board, the project was much more ‘official’ and other ex-Zzap!64 staff got word of it through him.

Gordon, why did you agree to edit the magazine (under the strict supervision of Ken D. Fish)?

GH: It seemed like a good idea at the time! :) Well, honestly, I’m a little vain and was flattered to be asked, and having just finished a novel, I had nothing else on. Some of it was hard work, but it was mostly a lot of fun, slipping back into a writing style I hadn’t used for 12 years. And the finished result more than made up for any misgivings I’d had during the project: everyone did a great job, but in particular Gaz’s organisation, Craig’s design work, and Ant Stiller’s reviewer heads really gave the magazine the look and feel of the classic Zzap!

How did you decide what features to put into the magazine?

CG: We tried to think what Zzap!64 would have in it today if it was still around. Most of the features were obvious, and many were taken from the old magazines—even the online page, which is basically a revamped Compunet section.

GH: From what I can remember, and I might be having a senior moment here, it was as simple as gathering suggestions in a post on the Zzap!Rrap message board (and then a Yahoo! Group), then deciding amongst ourselves which were the best and most varied ideas. We ended up with a pretty broad spread, ranging from Iain Black’s lightning round-up of 106 issues of Zzap!, through Mort’s Techie Bit in the Middle, to more modern articles about remixes of classic C64 tunes and the emulation scene.

CD: I knew right away that I also wanted reviews of all the new games, news, previews—all the standard stuff. Stuff like Zzap!Back became a possibility once we got some original Zzapers involved.

Gazunta, how did you keep everyone happy?

CD: I’m not entirely sure that I did! :) I tried to keep everyone happy and motivated by getting them writing about stuff that interested them. I tried to accommodate everyone’s wishes as much as possible, because when it came down to it, they were volunteering their time and energy for something with little reward (besides worldwide fame and adulation amongst fellow geeks) so I had to make it worth their while. It was a delicate balancing act at times, especially when writers wouldn’t understand terms like ‘word count’ or ‘deadline’.

What were the biggest challenges?

CD: Getting people to understand terms like ‘word count’ and ‘deadline’! The project took six months from start to finish and, towards the end, took an astonishing amount of time from myself, Gordon and Craig. Of course, everyone put in hard work—Ant needs to be specially commended for the reviewer head illustrations (the one he did of me I carry around like a badge of honour)—but, geez, I’m glad I was effectively unemployed by the time it came out because it would have been a nightmare otherwise.

GH: Yeah, from the editorial trio’s viewpoint, getting everything organised was the most difficult job. It was actually easier producing the huge Christmas 1988 issue in one month with four staff, than it was getting a dozen or so people to create 32 pages of editorial in four... The planning and writing were relatively easy and enjoyable, but the subbing and chasing people for copy was frustrating.

AS: Fortunately I was only a humble minion, so I didn’t need to worry about that. Personally I wanted my work to be of a high enough quality so that fans could, through the wonders of hazy memory, trick themselves into believing that they were reading a ‘real’ issue.

CG: Outside of editorial duties, the visuals were my biggest challenge: trying to get the magazine looking as faithful as possible to those classic issues. I really wanted it to be so you could put the printed copy in amongst your other Zzap!64s and be fooled into thinking that it was simply another issue.

How successful do you think z107 was in achieving its aims?

GH: I think Zzap! #107 exceeded its aims. It started off as a fans’ tribute, and could easily have become a third-rate pastiche; but the result is a brilliantly designed, beautifully written and precisely subbed(!) homage that feels exactly like one of the old issues.

CD: Zzap! #107 achieved every goal I had for it. I got my love of gaming back, I was working on something that made me happy, I made a great bunch of new friends and I got to give something back to a magazine (an institution, really) that changed my life.

Not only did we create a new issue of the same quality and style of the older issues we all loved so much, but it’s turned into something bigger than we could ever have hoped for. Having it printed as a real magazine was amazing—one of the proudest moments in my life was holding it in my hands. Having it on the cover CD of popular Australian print magazine APC was humbling. Seeing it evolve into Zzap! Italia #85 was very, very surreal and made me realise that we created something really big. And who knows how it will continue?

What did you think about the final product?

CD: It’s not a rip-off or imitation. It really, truly is a brand new issue of Zzap!64. Even today I’m impressed with how well it was put together. I remember Gordon telling me that Kati Hamza thought it was just going to be some fanboyish Word document and after seeing the final product was wishing she’d have gotten involved—that made me float on air for weeks.

AS: I was somewhat stunned when z107 was finally completed—that we’d managed to create this thing out of the ether had a pretty high coolness-factor. Holding that issue from the first print run in my hands still makes me smile.

CG: I agree; the PDF was all well and good, but having the printed copy in my hands was something else: all of a sudden, it was a tangible product that I’d helped create.

How did it resemble Zzap!64 and how did it differ?

CD: The only difference between it and a ‘real’ issue is the lack of a Newsfield logo and some newsagent writing the price on the cover. It had ‘real’ Zzap!64 editors on board, old characters like Thingy, Rockford, and White Wizard. Something I found enjoyable was the mish-mash of eras as far as the graphic style went. Reviews were laid out circa #10-30, some features had a real #40-#50 feel, everything else borrowed from later issues. It all merged together incredibly well. Thanks to Craig for that, and to Gordon for keeping the editorial style consistent throughout.

GH: The visual resemblances are quite striking, mainly due to Craig’s superb design work, not least of which is the cover adapted from an old Oli Frey piece—but everything he did, in terms of layout and recreating logos and fonts, is spot-on. The similarities in the writing are less easy to identify, combining off-the-wall humour from my time in charge with the more mainstream tone of the classic Zzap! The differences are less marked: the names and faces are largely unfamiliar, the magazine is a lot shorter, and it’s in full colour—something I never achieved in my time as editor.

What was the reaction from the retro community?

CG: Everything went nuts. Near the end, the editorial team was actually getting a little worried. Unlike many of the contributors, who’d seen this as a fun way to spend a few hours, we’d put a couple of solid weeks of effort into this thing, and began to think that maybe no-one was really interested. What if only the contributors and a handful of hardcore retro fans bothered to download it? Then we cheered up a bit, realising that ultimately we’d done this for ourselves.

As it turned out, our fears were unfounded: we fried four servers, with several thousand copies being downloaded prior to the files being pulled… Apparently, we’d done a good job.

CD: It went down really well, especially among those everyone who read the magazine back in the day. Those who didn’t saw it as a weird little curio; the once-upon-a-time readers saw it was a brilliant piece of nostalgia.

So any plans for z108?

CD: I’m sure there are some... :)

AS: Well, we never did have that Zzap! Challenge that we wanted to do in z107!

GH: Yes, z108 will probably happen, if we all have the free time and (more importantly) the will to do it. There’s talk of an issue to celebrate Zzap!’s 20th anniversary in 2005. Details can be found on the Zzap!Rrap message board—so if you want to make a contribution, come and join the discussion. The danger of such a long deadline is that enthusiasm for the new project might wane long before anything gets written; but on the other hand, it gives us plenty of time to get this once-and-for-all, last ever, absolutely final tribute issue off the ground!