Forgetting about the exact terminology and the who-said-what-first of it all for a moment, the notion of controlling one's own voice has been around for as long as voice itself—or, for that matter, notions themselves. That is to say, the concerns that guide the credo of the self-publisher are not new, or secret, or hidden. They weren't invented in the 1970s, the 1930s, or 1517. Self-publishing and zinemaking are rooted in simple, timeless concepts. They grew from the desire of individuals to produce their own voice without interference from others. One needn't be a punk-rocker, poor, under the age of twenty-four, feel desperately misunderstood by one's peers, or live in the basement of a parent to desire to both speak and to control the conditions under which one will be heard. One must simply want to be understood clearly, and be willing to accrue and utilize the necessary resources — which will be detailed for you in a moment.
That all being said, histories of self-publishing that trace the practice back to Benjamin Franklin, Siegel and Shuster, Ray Bradbury, or Aaron Cometbus not only create a false historical sanctity of zines, but give proof to the assumption that famous white men created everything interesting that has ever happened in the world. And this, really, is not true. (Nor is it a helpful way of convincing people in general to make their own zines.) Equally legitimate histories of zinemaking can be found in early American quilts, the lessons heard in church about reformation, written on the backs of old family photographs, crumbling in the alleyways of urban areas, the oral histories of conspiracy theorists, or made up in your own head during a long walk in the rain. Each of these potential histories have just as much to explain about who is granted power to speak in our culture and who is not; each of these potential histories provide models for exercising voice, even if the speaker hasn't been gifted it. The Underground Railroad produced coded maps in the form of bed-covers just as The Vageniuses popularize their appearance in town with wheat-pasted flyers. Both groups work against mainstream culture to bring their unique voice to people; both use whatever available means they can muster to do so.
Such unrecognized histories are extremely important to point out when discussing zines, because zines are currently one of the means by which hidden histories occasionally come to light. Zines are personal, small-scale paper ventures and tell the kinds of stories deliberately ignored, glossed over, or entirely forgotten by mainstream media. Zines are created by prisoners, young girls, people with emotional and physical disabilities, queers, geeks, non-native speakers of English, survivors of sexual assault, radical offspring of conservative politicians, homeschoolers, members of the military, Native Americans, sexworkers, and anyone else who has ever felt that the voices speaking for them in the larger culture weren't conveying their stories.
The term zine, however, has a specific history. It comes from the weird world of science fiction, a genre that grew as a hybrid of pure fantastical storytelling and a desire to geek out and show off to others how smart you were. When the genre first appeared in the 1920s, a group of people coalesced around it and something remarkable happened; either early science fiction was of such horrendous quality that it seemed instantly accessible to those who came across it, or it was an invention so late in coming that the audience's personal abilities had surpassed it already. Regardless, science fiction fans started creating their own science fictions almost immediately, photocopying them, mailing them throughout the country, trading them with each other, writing each other letters, printing those letters with addresses in subsequent issues, and, assumedly, dressing up like Storm Troopers on the weekends. Just kidding: This would not happen for another few decades. (But if you were not aware of it, it does happen, a lot. Even now.)
The mimeographed fictions scifi fans created developed a name, identity, and following of their own. The word magazine wouldn’t do. It was used to describe any kind of information or resource storage, and came to apply to both military ammunitions holdings and the esteemed collection of knowledge we think of as People today. Yet the term "magazine" connotes an officialness scifi fans wanted to buck. In no way legitimate magazine enterprises, merely fan-created magazines—with names like The Comet, Time Traveler, and Alter Ego — their early publications were called fanzines. This term was still used until the mid-1990s. (My first fanzine in 1994 was named AnneZine and was intended to support and popularize people named Anne, although this joke stopped making sense by 2000.) To some degree, fanzines grew out of a passion for a form fans couldn't get enough of. But, they were also a legitimate testing ground for new directions in which to push a new genre, as well as a way for writers—and immediately, as comics came into the mix, artists too—to practice skills untaught in most schools.
For the comic book was invented at around this same time and, many would say, by the same people — although comics themselves had been appearing in newspapers since the turn of the century, and crudely drawn packets of sex jokes called Tijuana Bibles had been passed around the pub circuit for about as long. By the 1960s, however, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, the creators of Superman, and Biljo White, who edited and published Batmania, encouraged the union of words and pictures for popular consumption with their brightly colored, non-professionally produced tales of physically overdeveloped men.
If, however, comics and science fiction were taught in schools, it is unlikely they would have proceeded to develop as democratic institutions. Some histories, for example, indicate that early science fiction fandom was fairly gender equitable, and when fanzines were created, girls may have participated in even greater numbers than boys because they felt shut out from the traditional, masculine world of professional publishing. (It is true that female science fiction writers came to take masculine-sounding names when called upon to publish their craft.) Interestingly, girls often purchased early comic books in greater numbers than boys — yet rarely were even the most talented then granted admission into the studios of the growing numbers of publishers who later became DC, Marvel, and Harvey Comics. Even Frederic Wertham in 1973—anti-comics activist, psychiatrist, and author of Seduction of the Innocent and The World of Fanzines — admits "the male-female proportion in fanzines is somewhat similar... Among outstanding female fanzine editors and co-editors are Joanne Burger (Pegasus), Linda Bushyager (Granfalloon), Juanita Coulson (Yandro), Ethel Lindsay (Haverings), Pat Lupoff (Xero; a best-of book came out last year, available here), Lesleigh Luttrell (Starling), Karen Rockow (Unicorn), and Lisa Tuttle (Mathom)" (Wertham, 121). Clearly, the unprofessional natures of comics and science fiction fanzine publishing allowed for a great deal of flexibility in interpreting approaches to authorship, craft-honing, and audience: the high rate of participation by women, when compared to professional participation in comics and scifi publishing, was only one indication. Clearly, the democratic nature of fanzines was advanced by their status as outsider modes of communication — perhaps most exemplified by Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto, which began to appear around New York in 1968, shortly before the author shot Andy Warhol.
Surely, the lines between various outsider and geek cultures are thin and malleable, so when punk culture got going in the 1970s, fanzines were adopted immediately by punk-rock music fans. Widely considered to be the first punk fanzine in England, Sniffin' Glue was edited by Mark Perry. Perry, however, had this to say about the distinction of his publication: "...All that stuff about Sniffin' Glue being the first fanzine is crap. Brian Hogg's Bam Balam, which was all about 1960s music, was in its fourth issue by then: it showed you could do a magazine and you didn’t have to be glossy" (Savage, 1992). Other early punk fanzines included Search and Destroy, Flipside, and Profane Existence.
As fanzines proliferated, the term describing them was shortened. First to 'zines, and then, simply, to zines. Zines and punk made a perfect match, for as Heath Row notes in "From Fandom to Feminism: An Analysis of the Zine Press," "The punk press demonstrates that not only clothes and music can be produced cheaply and immediately from limited resources and experience." The DIY ethic of punk culture, the bucking of mainstream acceptance, and the newly minted pejorative "selling out" all combined to grant zines the official voice of punk culture — or at least as official as it was going to get. Originally, too, this combination meant that the zine press developed a heavy reliance on music reviews, interviews with musicians, and talk of "shows," "gigs," and "sets."
Yet more importantly for a music non-fan such as myself, this infusion of print media into a culture focused on live performances opened up previously unexplored distribution options. Suddenly, going to see music often meant picking up three or four zines distributed for free at shows, dropped into bathrooms, or sold very cheaply at tables set up at music venues. Punk zinesters emulated scifi and comics fanzine creators directly: if you loved a certain musician, or a certain scifi writer, or a certain comic-book character, you wrote about them and networked with other people who would write about them for your zine. Thus, zine culture grew into a close-knit community.
Obviously, however, zine culture developed beyond it's musical, scifi, and comics, origins. In fact, the hidden fourth antecedent of zines — porn — was just as influential. As a fast, sure way to shock the mainstream, graphic depictions of sex have never been bested. Tijuana Bibles —which displayed, for example, popular figures such as Popeye having sex with some young movie starlet — and early photo-based pornographic magazines, pin-up collections, and erotic fiction that brought in the regular cashflow that allowed comic-book publishers to create that industry—these were all still prevalent in zine-making. Naked ladies, non-standard spelling, pop-culture commentary, street language, personal narratives: these came to mark the language of zinedom.
As zines moved away from music more and more, zine topics grew to focus on underground obsessions such as crappy jobs (Dishwasher), killing (Murder Can Be Fun), unique thrift-store purchases (Thrift Score), and zine culture (Factsheet 5).
Then, in the 1990s, a deliberately anti-media outgrowth of the post-punk music scene emerged in the Pacific Northwest called Riot Grrrl. While most histories of zine culture fold Riot Grrrl into punk, two distinct matters cause me to keep these discussions separate: 1) the media blackout mandated by the Riot Grrrl movement was a unique and thrilling invention that forced zine-making and personal experience to tell the entirety of the history, and 2) my personal involvement with Riot Grrrl zines profoundly influenced my education in the field of publishing.
"Riot Grrrl zines attempt to expand the boundaries of feminist conversation through discussion of editor's sexual exploits, the ins and outs of menstruation and feminine hygiene, and the danger of silverfish," Heath Row explains. "Like punk zines, Riot Grrrl zines exhibit the rough-edged, hand-written text, doodles in the margins, and third-generational photocopied photographs." Through collage, text, and comics, publishers like Nomy Lamm radicalized the rejection of mainstream beauty images by sexualizing physical disabilities, fatness, queer desire, and masculine women. In 1992, mainstream press coverage began to distort the Riot Grrrl message and a media blackout was enacted. Interested parties were forced to turn to zines like Girl Germs, Satan Wears a Bra, Girly Mag, and Quit Whining for information; otherwise, newspaper reporters simply recounted tales of key Riot Grrrl figures refusing their phone calls.
Bitch, Bust, and HipMama all grew directly from the third-wave feminist/Riot Grrrl self-publishing ethos around this same time and are widely available on newsstands and in bookstores today. The expansion—and continuation—of punk relevance brought about by Riot Grrl also influenced the growth of two different zines, also widely available on newsstands and in bookstores, that remain influential: Maximum Rock’n’Roll (first published in 1982; maximumrocknroll.com) and Punk Planet (first published in 1994; punkplanet.com). Self-published comic books, now often called minicomics, have been launching pads for such contemporary artists as Tom Hart, Megan Kelso, David Lasky, and Jesse Reklaw. Their small, self-published comics are actively traded through the mail, sold at comic-book conventions, given away during social gatherings, and purchased through specialized distributors such as Global Hobo, USS Catastrophe, and Cold Cut Comics Distribution.
Yet even with this rich, profound, and slightly hidden but well-documented history, the word zine is not going to be found in most dictionaries. This is as important to note as the secret religious, quilt-related, and flyer-influenced histories of zinemaking, because it proves something very important about our culture: not everything that happens is granted space in our most widely available reference materials.
In fact, our most widely available reference materials, anathema as they are to self-publishing and anti-professionalism, frequently get it wrong when it comes to contemporary zines and comics. In 2004, The Grand Rapids Press described zines hilariously and nonsensically as "shaped from a blank piece of standard paper and folded into a pint-sized booklet . . . Some liken early books of the Bible to zine style" (Denton).1 Further trouble with relying on mainstream and professional press accounts of the history of zines — and the importance of seeking out alternative historical sources — is made clear by the fact that Wertham's Southern Illinois University Press-published book is considered one of the most important documents in zine history. While, granted, an excellent resource, few historians in the history of the world have ever been so clearly understood to be biased toward conservatism as Wertham was when Seduction was released in 1954, an act that lead to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, widespread comics censorship, and the loss of entire comic-book lines and several publishers. And even Stephen Duncombe's Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture only tells a very small part of the story about the politics of alternative culture, focusing as he does on the largest and most widely available zines—in other words, those that most closely emulate major media.
In fact, if any period of our culture deserved to have a bottom-up (as opposed to top-down) history committed to paper, it is zines. They themselves outline the very reasons for such a messy, nonlinear, and unprofessional approach. Because messy, nonlinear, and unprofessional describe not only the way they are constructed, but also the reasons they are made.
The experiences of women involved in Riot Grrrl show us that history wants to package and proselytize, and it gives us one way to avoid contributing to the creation of neat boxes in which we will later be placed. Consider for a moment that perhaps a media blackout has been enacted on fully accurate zine histories, and you must go to the source for more information.2 Hundreds of archives now exist for such purposes, in Portland, Chicago, New York, Madison, Seattle, Austin. Possibly, someone you know will have an extensive collection on hand. Read it, and then write your own history.
Perhaps most importantly, however, be aware when reading a history of zines that for every single sentence you read committed to paper by a devotee of some subject or another, a different sentence was uttered somewhere and never written down. It was more accurate than whatever you just read, and more beautiful, and spoke more directly to you and your experiences. You can think of it as lost, gone, and unavailable to history — or you can assume it is there, still, somewhere.
1 This story was, in fact, written about my Radical Education Roadshow, a self-publishing speaking and workshopping tour that took place in the summer of 2004.
2 In fact it was. I and several fellow zinesters refused to talk to the authors of books or go on TV talk shows to discuss our projects during the zine boom of the mid-1990s. Or, rather, technically, I refused to go on TV talk shows for a long, long time, until I was invited to appear on the Jim Jay and Tammy Faye show, which was then canceled before I was able to record the zine segment.
Denton, Kathy. "'Zine' trend catches on at school." The Grand Rapids Press: August 5, 2004.
Savage, Jon. England's Dreaming. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.
Wertham, Frederic. The World of Fanzines. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973.
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Stanford, California 94305, USA.
Click HERE to Leave a Comment