f I'm to be true to the letter and spirit of the world of zines as I proceed, it wouldn't hurt to begin with a little admission: I like having editors. I need my editors. And not just editors: I take comfort in knowing that behind and surrounding my prose there are people who know lots more than I do about page layout, photography, printing and distribution, proofreading, and sales, just for starters. They do what they do, I do what I do; from my point of view, the arrangement is perfectly copacetic.
But I also know this: There is another way.
If you're of a certain age -- old enough to remember switching from typewriters to "word processors" but young enough to have taken part in serious conversations about disco, punk and new wave -- then you may remember when zines first hit the scene in quantity. Maybe your college roommate or the person sitting in the cubicle next to yours made one. Or maybe you made one. You wrote some text -- articles, opinions, interviews, reviews, incoherent rants, coherent rants -- on any matter of subject: music, parenthood, politics, television shows, runaway consumer culture, sex, your roommate's snoring, you name it. No one told you you shouldn't bother to write about such things -- or maybe they did but you went ahead and wrote about such things anyway. Once you'd created a few pages' worth of material you arranged your writing neatly on several pages of paper, drew or clipped some amateur artwork for a little visual interest, and then finished off your personal publication by way of Scotch tape or paper glue. Off you went, then, surreptitiously or otherwise, to the nearest Xerox machine.
You might not have been interested in readers beyond your immediate circle of friends. But if you were, there was no better strategy than to send a copy of your freshly minted zine (shorthand for -- oh, you know) to a man named Mike Gunderloy, publisher of Factsheet Five, a quarterly zine that did almost nothing but review other zines. A good (or simply prominent) review in Factsheet Five could produce your own personal P.O. box stuffed full of envelopes, each of them bearing the identity of a new reader, a return address and a few bucks for postage. In the meantime you might have also begun to trade your zine, sending a copy off in exchange for someone else's at-home handiwork. At first there were hundreds like you; by the beginning of the '90s, there were thousands like you.
And then the Internet came along. And as the Internet did to many, many things, it turned the world of zines upside down. Zine writers now had to choose to stay underground or go virtual (or both), and then Factsheet Five went away, leaving in its wake such a persistent clamor for its return that founder Gunderloy no longer gives zine-related interviews. (Note to my valued editors: I tried.) The upshot of all this upheaval is that trying to get your head around the world of zines these days is, to use a familiar phrase, like trying to herd cats. Or, more accurately, like trying to herd house cats, virtual cats, alley cats and cartoon cats all at once.
Passion, Not Profit
They're out there, as many as ever, it seems, published on their traditional when-I-can-get-to-it schedules, some still stubbornly mail-only and plenty of others happily willing to be Googled, a wide and turbulent ocean of per-zines (for "personal zine"), review zines, music zines, mama zines, punk zines, history zines, poetry zines, political zines, medley zines (a little bit of everything) and you-fill-in-the-blank zines, all equipped with those great unused-garage-band names: Preparation X. Roctober. Inconspicuous Consumption. Heinous. Inquisitor. Farm Pulp. Reign of Toads. Head. Mystery Date. Murder Can Be Fun. Fridge Magnet Concoctions. Shouting at the Postman. Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Open City. Brain Child. Grimsby Fishmarket. Girl Swirl. The Carbon Based Mistake.
I'd continue the list (Ben is Dead and Temp Slave just have to make the cut, don't they?), but just how much space do I have here? Some of these home-brewed publications are very good, a few more are very bad, most remain in-between, but all of them . . . well, what do all of them have in common?
"No matter how you're publishing, it's not a zine if profit takes precedence over passion," says Davida Gypsy Breier, a small press book distributor by day who presides over a personal publishing empire in her Havre de Grace, Md., home by night and on weekends. "Not that a zine can't make money or attract a lot of attention. But it's about motivation. If no one paid attention to you, would you still be making it? Would you still make a crappy typed zine if there were no computers? That's the test."
Breier found her way to zines in 1994 thanks to a friend who innocently loaned her copies of Factsheet Five and Reptiles of the Mind, an early and influential per-zine produced by Kat Jaz in Knoxville, Tenn., and made up largely of essays built around what Jaz was thinking about or doing that day. Reptiles of the Mind inspired Breier to pick up the metaphorical pen and put her daily life into paragraph form. "There wasn't really a lot of thought to it when I started," she says. "I just realized that I liked to write. I'd never really written about myself, for fun, without a specific audience. Now I always have a list of articles I want to write."
Indeed. The latest edition of Leeking Ink, Breier's per-zine, features a winding essay about getting her first tattoo, while recent issues have featured such similarly quotidian topics as feeding a shoe fetish, visiting an "icky doctor," riding mass transit and, in time-honored list form, "Stupid Things I Have Done Lately." Readers still need to send Breier their old-fashioned cash to procure an old-fashioned paper copy of Leeking Ink, though she does post a few sample articles for the curious at www.leekinginc.com.
Breier is also an online zine columnist for www.atomicbooks.com, the Web site of Baltimore's Atomic Books, one of the few physical stores in the country to carry a sizable selection of paper zines. And if that weren't enough zine in her life, Breier and publishing partner Donny Smith, creator of the "queer poetry" zine Dwan, produce Xerography Debt (formerly known as Xerox Debt until the copy-machine giant threatened litigation), just one of several serious "review zines" toiling conscientiously to fill the gaping hole left by Factsheet Five. Working steadily on two such different zines means "two different mindsets," Breier says. "With Xerography, I'm orchestrating something. I'm an editor trying to keep track of a lot of contributors. When I don't want to worry about all this coordination and I just want to write, I've got the per-zine. It keeps me balanced."
The Web's Allure
It's no accident that one of Breier's babies is paper and one is electronic. "I'm still more comfortable designing on paper, especially after dealing with a computer all day at work," she says, "but the Web site gives me freedom to experiment with color, and I don't have to worry about the cost."
For other zine makers, the attractions of the Web run much deeper. "There are certain die-hards still producing print zines, sure, and it's easy to be nostalgic about it," says Chip Rowe, a senior editor for Playboy and author of "The Book of Zines: Readings From the Fringe." "But think about it: I can create a Web site that can be seen all over the world. It's very inexpensive. I can fix my mistakes. I can get instant feedback, and I don't have to live anywhere near a Kinko's."
Another advantage of the Web is the chance for those with the necessary graphic expertise to match design chops with the slicks. In 1992, Gail O'Hara had just left Washington and her job at City Paper for New York and a position at Spin magazine when she hatched chickfactor ("the international bible of french new wave, fluffy bossa nova, anglophilic baroque pop, and other junk") mostly because she and publishing partner Pam Berry loved indie bands and wanted to say more about them and run longer interviews with them than the confines of Spin allowed. But O'Hara had serious interests in design and photography and found that a zine allowed her a free and unmediated way to combine her interests and expertise.
"There is nothing more satisfying than working on a project that you have total control over," O'Hara says. "If things are not going that well in your day job or your personal life, having something like a zine is endlessly rewarding. It helped me come socially out of my shell. I've taken loads and loads of great photographs for it. It can be physically tiring and financially difficult but for the most part I've been lucky in that we still have an audience despite our irregular schedule and ever-changing musical taste."
O'Hara, who moved to London last year, quickly plugged herself into the music scene there and kept chickfactor alive on paper and in virtual form, even if the logistics of the move did require the sacrifice of an entire year's worth of issues. Though the zine's first few years of operation relied on hand-folding and a cheap mom-and-pop printer in Tecumseh, Mich., chickfactor has evolved to the point that it can be difficult to distinguish its production and promotional leanings (check out the online chickfactor shop) from its more lavishly budgeted corporate cousins. For O'Hara, that's not the point: Her idea of what a zine is isn't dependent on the publication looking particularly homemade or reaching a relatively tiny audience.
"It's hard to say what makes a zine and what makes a magazine," O'Hara says. "I think chickfactor is a magazine, just as valid as Time and Newsweek. I guess what makes mine a zine is that there is no company behind me. It's just me."
Rowe summarizes the movement of zines onto the Web thusly: "Fanzines became paper zines became webzines became blogs. That's where we are now." But he's not just being blithe. He sees in the current blog craze something akin to the paper zine craze of the early '90's. "The same spirit is there," Rowe says. "Everybody feels powerless to one degree or another and is looking to get some kind of reaction. They want people to care about what they think. It's heartening seeing blogs, even if a lot of them will go away as the novelty wears off."
Breier and Smith, whose Xerography Debt includes a regular column on the history of zines, find the antecedents of Leeking Ink and chickfactor and all of their kin much further back, in the 19th century broadsheets often named Tatler or Spectator and devoted to a wide range of political and literary subject matter, a sudden surge of home publishing made possible by the growing availability of the tabletop printing press.
Perhaps in the end, though, it's less crucial to identify what zines are exactly or when they appeared than to talk about the kinds of communities they create. And thanks in large part to the Internet, those communities are more than ever relentlessly interdependent. It's as if the place of Factsheet Five has been filled by everyone rather than someone. Take as examples Xerography Debt -- churning out and Web-archiving a couple of hundred brief reviews from a couple of dozen reviewers each issue -- or Rowe's Web site, www.zinebook.com, which acts as a clearinghouse of zine review sites, zine anthologies and zine editors' personal favorites. Rowe's site even dares to ask and answer my quixotic question: What's a zine? ("They're Tinkertoys for malcontents," writes Rowe. "They're obsessed with obsession. They're extraordinary and ordinary. They're about strangeness but since it's usually happening somewhere else you're kind of relieved.") O'Hara's chickfactor site takes the more common and less time-intensive approach, providing a page of links to her own favorite zines. In fact, it's hard to find a zine, online or on paper, that isn't assiduously pointing its readers to other homemade publications.
"The back-of-the-zine review is now viewed as almost an obligation," Breier says, "in the same way that communities have always existed in the back of books, through bibliographies and acknowledgements, helping to lead you on to the next book, the next writer."
"That's one way that the word 'underground' really fits the world of zines -- the privacy and the sense of a subculture," Rowe adds. "It's like an underground river that's always flowing, and every once in a while a mainstream journalist drills a hole down and all this water spouts up. It can be difficult to keep up with all the zines -- you have to read nine to find one good one -- but that's what people do. They read the online zines and when they hear about a print zine that sounds interesting they send off their well-wrapped cash. Just to keep it all going."
Scott W. Berg is a frequent contributor to Weekend. He has never produced a zine, but there's still time.
help readers navigate through this ocean of type.A recent back cover from a paper version of chickfactor, the brainchild of Washington City Paper alum Gail O'Hara.