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Wanda Lybarger: Living a Dream

IN MEMORY OF WANDA LYBARGER

Wanda requested that her essay, Living A Dream from Geek Elders Speak be her eulogy.

We are honouring her wishes. Please share and credit this lovely and heartfelt essay.

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“The atmosphere was electric with everything seeming possible. Fans wanted to take part. It’s the kind of wonderful creativity when the castles in the air build ever higher, each contributing and adding to it; not one-upmanship, but a joyous flocking to “put up the barn” together. Invention and ideas seethed everywhere, especially in those convention rooms and hallways, over a meal or drinks or coffee and into the wee hours, when we could solve anything. ” —Wanda Lybarger

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I was born in New York—one of those rare birds, a native of Manhattan, more by chance and circumstance. My maternal grandparents lived in Brooklyn, and that I remember best. I was an Army brat, so where I was born is kind of irrelevant. My dad was in the Army Corps of Engineers, so he never had normal tours of duty. He got sent wherever a levee needed sandbagging and so on. We’d be two weeks in one place and a month or half a year in another, never long enough to make any friends, not even school yet. The moves took us all over the States and to France, with visits to Italy, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Denmark; I was a baby in Japan and don’t remember it. I had 32 moves before I was even school age. I mostly remember riding somewhere or waiting in cavernous train stations for somewhere. But thanks to Fort Benning, we finally settled for good in Columbus, GA when I was nine; so I grew up in a medium-sized southern town, very 1950s suburban with my mother at home, as was just about everyone else’s mother, and doing things like Girl Scouts.

I was still solitary because I’d never learned how to be friends with other children. I read, fascinated by archaeology, cultural ideas, ancient religions; the more adult matter I read, the less I had in common with kids my age. I was bored by stories about the world around me. I was reading science fiction in the third grade. I discovered Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles in 1955 (published just prior to my coming back to America to elementary school). I didn’t want stories about going to proms or trying to get the sandlot for a baseball team; I wanted other time periods and other cultures in the world. I wanted to be transported, my imagination given enough food to soar. And it was about the same time that I began to be focused on art, to the exclusion of any other desire.

I was a “weirdo”. I waited, not always so patiently, for popular culture to get around to accepting if not embracing the fantasies I saw. The Lord of the Rings was first published in America while I was in college; by the time I graduated, the book stores were full of wonderful, affordable large paperbacks of artists like Frank Frazetta, Roger Dean, the Tolkien calendar art of the Hildebrandt brothers and Brian Froud. The artwork of Europe was filtering in with magazines like Heavy Metal, full of works by artists like Jean Girard (Moebius). Fantasy had arrived in the mainstream.

I’d been somewhat aware of fandom before I jumped in, by reading some of the professionally published stuff on Star Trek. I loved Trek, but was satisfied with the novelized scripts.

When Star Wars arrived, the effects, the pell-mell speed of the action was so immersive, coming out of the theater was like emerging from a dream in deep sleep. The story was so much like a wonderful game you could act out on the playground, the compulsion to join in was irresistible. You were clamoring for a passport to that “galaxy far, far away”.

That compulsion probably had the most to do with my hunger to read the fan fiction, the continued adventures of characters I already loved and identified with. And of course, Han Solo had me the moment he slid into that booth on Mos Eisley.

I became rather desperate to make contact with a fanzine. My search fell through a number of times, but finally I found a classified advertisement for one in the back of Starlog Magazine. I sent for the zine; it was a little thing put out by a couple of friends, who’d written and illustrated nearly the whole thing—and about what you’d expect from a couple of teenage girls, best buddies, who wanted to print a zine. But Starlog had scads of classifieds for other zines, and I started writing to them. That much of the fiction wasn’t very good was irrelevant. They satisfied my absolute hunger for more adventures.

Though illustration had never entered my mind in the past, I found I wanted to draw for these stories and sent samples of my ink and brush work. It happened to be at a time when artists were in fairly short supply. All the good ones were always booked up, or not doing Star Wars. I was welcomed quickly for my art and sent stories to illustrate.

I was also very lucky in the fact I came into fandom about the time printing was becoming affordable. Until then, zines were either photo-copied—at a time when even those machines were hard to find—or done on a mimeo machine. My style of art, with strong areas of black and dynamic thick and thin lines, would never have reproduced well on either method; mimeo in particular required a very controlled, thin line and open areas, or you’d have a nightmare of smeared ink. The printed sheets were still hand collated and stapled. It was a number of years before regular binding came in, often comb bound. When color printing for covers became feasible, it was like someone opened the floodgates.

I stipulated firmly that I wanted only Han-centric plots and no “kills” or graphic sex—this was when Lucas was sending out cease and desist letters left and right and everyone was shocked and unnerved. We’d been lulled by the permissiveness Paramount had begun to accord Trek fandom. Lucas was very different, and pretty paranoid. He’d relentlessly copyrighted everything down to Han Solo’s belt buckle. Fans were either angry—as Lucas seemed ready to either shut the fandom down at the gate or impose strictures so tight nothing could practically be done—or genuinely worried and not wanting to get in trouble with the law. Lucas’ cease-and-desist orders were worded to be intimidating. But fortunately, I suspect some of his own people, veterans of the circling and posturing that Paramount and the Star Trek fans had gone through, set him straight. We got breathing room. I didn’t want to get dragged into trouble with Lucas, but I also didn’t want to illustrate problematic stories, anyway.

My “gateway” fandom was simultaneously Star Wars and Harrison Ford. Jane Firmstone and Kelly Hill, the editors of the Ford zine Facets, called me up after I’d sent them my art samples and invited me to share their room at the first MediaWest*Con in 1981. There had been two conventions previously in Lansing but this was the first one officially called MediaWest. It became the premiere fan and fanzine-centric convention for many years. I was taken aback by the invitation, as I didn’t get long-distance calls out of the blue, but on a very unusual—for me—impulse, I said yes. Red eye flights, three plane changes, then a taxi and bus ride later, I met Jane and Kelly and was enfolded—the only word for it.

Later that day another artist, Martynn, arrived from Pittsburgh; she’d also be sharing the hotel room. I had sort of briefly met Martynn on the phone. I’d called Jane over a story concern, and she’d advised me to talk it over with Martynn, who had been drawing for zines for a number of years and knew the ropes and pitfalls. She couldn’t have been warmer, friendlier or more helpful, with plenty of solid advice. She not only calmed my mind, she gave me a basis for dealing with editors thereafter so that I was always on fair terms with all of them.

We all stayed up, getting acquainted. . . in between collating Jane and Kelly’s own zine, which had to be ready the next morning to take to the con and sell. Headfirst into fandom, and I never truly came up for air for over 35 years.

It was the headiest time of my life. That first con, we ended up with eight in the room—some in sleeping bags—and were “green room” for the “townies” changing hall costumes. I could liken it to the famous scene in the Marx Brothers movie Coconuts, where all kinds of people keep coming into a ship stateroom, with no one leaving until Harpo is sleeping atop the seething mass! I got through the con on no sleep and a lot of adrenalin, came home wiped to the bone—and loved every second.

I’d not only met people who shared my passions, but I was plunged into a world of so many fandoms, hall costumes, masquerades, a banquet with awards, an art show, a dealer’s room where you could buy things I’d never imagined existed, and just a whole lot of quirky, enthusiastic people: inventive, spontaneously creative, smart, and easy to meet. Not one soul talking about a mortgage, or so-and-so ditching so-and-so. They talked about books, movies, TV, stage.

The convention would secure an entire hotel for a long holiday weekend; like gypsies, we were safely among our own kind and could play freely. Every room would stand open with partiers spilling into the halls, mingling with the overflow from the party next door and across the way. VCR tapes, and later DVDs, played in machines, all showing clips and episodes from the fandom of choice. The only entrée required was an interest in that fandom: grab a fistful of popcorn or pretzels and a coke, sit on the floor in the corner, and be happily proselytized into whichever passion of the folks throwing the party—or wander on to the next room and another fandom.

Costumed characters strolled the halls, some so beautifully realized they were camera-ready. It was, I suspect, like the hallucinatory, surreal experience of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, fueled by short sleep, irregular meals, and an overload of sensory stimulation. No wonder we couldn’t wait to get back there next year. We’d never live so intensely the rest of the year.

I could have been starry-eyed very easily. Fortunately, I didn’t get into fandom until I was 30 and had my balance. I’ve warned many a young fan coming in behind me that fandom is only a microcosm of the larger world and you have to act accordingly; not be too open and trusting, don’t lead with your heart or your chin, and though these were passions, not to take everything so seriously that you couldn’t see a measure of moderation and signs to be wary.

But in the main—the early days of fandom, during the huge influx of so many more drawn in by Star Wars than Star Trek previously—were kind of innocent and open. Trek was a large fandom and had already begun to get organized, but it was more focused, still very much in the camp of Science Fiction. Star Wars, with its fairy tale plot line and the budget to depict the trappings of the environment in what was then state-of-the-art effects, appealed to a larger base. The world of Star Wars was so vividly realized, it became a genuine social phenomenon. It ignited passion in such a broad swath of the population, it had to be constantly referenced in the mainstream, and thus embedded itself lastingly into the popular culture. For many, it’s become a lifestyle even yet. And it swept Star Trek up along with it, so that fandom became even bigger.

The atmosphere was electric with everything seeming possible. Fans wanted to take part. It’s the kind of wonderful creativity when the castles in the air build ever higher, each contributing and adding to it; not one-upmanship, but a joyous flocking to “put up the barn” together. Invention and ideas seethed everywhere, especially in those convention rooms and hallways, over a meal or drinks or coffee and into the wee hours, when we could solve anything.

The entrepreneurship that also came out of that brainstorming had to tread a careful line. Media fandom has always celebrated stories and characters that are copyrighted. Fans operated in a gray area, citing “fair usage” dependent on the sufferance of studios. It took some years before the owners realized, in allowing fans some latitude, they were getting a huge free PR machine. We were building their core audience for them. They’ve always had a slight tug-o-war with fandom; they woo us. San Diego Comic Con has gone from a little comics lovers’ venue to a trade show for the entertainment industry as well as the place for every author, artist, and actor in the world; it’s a monster. But they don’t own us, we’re free agents; we feel as proprietary over the works as they do, and with a sense that our love is the purer for not thinking of it only as a franchise. And so the little dance twirls on. . . In the meantime, fandom consolidated into a true subculture, with little vendors popping up to address the needs of the “citizens.” In an era when the lemonade stand had gone the way of Norman Rockwell, these were the first notions of business for many, especially women.

All that is what fandom was for me. As for a definition, I’d have to go with the opportunity to live in a lifelong dream, though that’s what it became, not what pulled me in. I came along just at the tail end of the golden age of periodical fiction and magazines like Collier’s and the weekly version of Saturday Evening Post, which featured excellent fiction, all illustrated by the last great illustrators—artists I had idolized, followed, and saved clippings of their work. By the time I was old enough to seek work, that venue had all but vanished. I was lucky to get jobs in art departments, a lot of them, and did a considerable variety of art, but none of it was story illustration, no chance to flex a lifetime of study and preparation. Fandom made me be in demand—my technique was fast, and I often got tapped to step in on a story whose illustrator didn’t come through in time for publication.

I got to live my dream in fandom. I got to apply the lessons I’d learned from master illustrators, to the point where editors quickly stopped trying to direct me and just left a story in my hands, knowing I’d recognize what scenes and actions needed depicting and how. I counted my ledger, which I kept. I illustrated for over 60 different zines and I stopped counting the art when, not counting covers, I passed a thousand. I even found time to contribute some fiction as well.

Artist Sue Perry Lewis (as she was named then) got me into costuming, and I loved that. I never entered the masquerades, being happy to walk around in a hall costume because I didn’t want to tie up precious “con time” in rehearsals; so I never got into the growth of that part of fandom, its politics and evolution. I entered work in the art shows. One year at the World Fantasy Convention, I didn’t attend and only sent my work. Unfortunately, I have the dubious distinction of one of mine being the only piece of art ever to be stolen from their show. I wish I could take it as a compliment, but it was the year 2010 hit the theaters and the planet Jupiter was a large feature in that painting.

My memories of fandom in the main are happy ones: many conventions, including World Cons and Dragon Cons, so many people with whom I interacted well. I’d spent a solitary life until fandom, an only child raised as a “short adult.” Though I was long an adult by the time I entered fandom, it gave me the chance to experience a heady youth I’d never had. I had more acquaintances and so many who knew me only through my artwork, it could get hard to keep up. But I met and have kept some of my dearest friends, a close circle of perhaps six or seven, with maybe another ten still close but not interacted with as frequently. We met through a shared interest, but by now, after nearly 40 years, we’ve shared births, deaths, weddings, divorces, job woes, personal issues, all that friends can do.

I never “dropped” a fandom, though I’ve had a few dry up and go dormant on me. When I stopped going to conventions, I pretty much stopped doing illustration as well. Star Wars was going subdued, print zines were becoming fewer, and for all I’d loved fandom, navigating the high drama, politics, and upheavals in such a necessarily volatile environment had taken its toll on my energy and desire to deal. My home and work circumstances had evolved, and I was no longer in the same place in my life. I became my parents’ help, and then my aunt’s 24-7 caregiver. I had to be a “grownup. ”

Now retired and on my own, I have some time to sit back and greet a new film or show, with the same old enthusiasm and excitement I did before. I never actually stopped being a fan, just one active in fandom. I have kept an admiration for and an avuncular interest in Harrison Ford, and to a lesser extent the other “crushes” of those years, but I never expected to take to heart another actor. Along came Pirates of the Caribbean. In the long run, I placed my passion and affection in the Jack Sparrow character rather than the actor Johnny Depp. That was the last fandom I contributed art to, doing some illustrations for one of the few remaining print zines, and also a series of Pirates of the Caribbean cartoon strips. The latter I published in another zine as a portfolio collection, and also posted to the Internet within a fan group, Black Pearl Sails, and ultimately on its archive site.

Having “broken the ice” with Jack Sparrow, I started taking note of Tom Hiddleston, both as his Marvel character, Loki, and the actor in his own right. I realistically don’t expect paragons, but it matters to me if the people I admire are worth admiring.

Besides movies and TV, I have time again for books like Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, The St. Mary’s Chronicles, and the Invisible Library series. I continue to cherish C. J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series as I have for years. I’m thrilled—and relieved—to see one of my favorite books, Good Omens, which I’ve loved for 30 years, be made into a nigh perfectly done mini series.

After all these years—nearly 40—I’d only been peripherally aware of Doctor Who. But being taken with and following the actor, David Tennant, from his role in Good Omens, I’ve just discovered his years of tenure on Doctor Who as the Tenth Doctor. The show itself has captivated me, and I’ll likely work my way through all the Doctors from the show’s revival in 2005. (I might eventually go back to take a look at the “Classic” doctors, 1963—1987, too).

Last year, I undertook a major clear out and organizing of my household and belongings. I donated all my own carved marionettes to the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta. A 23-piece, carved wooden Nativity I’d made over several Christmases for my mother is now on permanent display in the library at La Grange College, La Grange, GA. Most of my wood portrait dolls are in the hands of friends and some private collectors. I sold my band saw and tools. With arthritis, I no longer have the hand strength to carve. I may be a spectator now, but I’m find that I’m still a fan. I guess you never really stop being one.

essay & attached image © Wanda Lybarger

JUNE 27, 1947 – DECEMBER 31, 2022

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Fly free, Wanda. You are missed.

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