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Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has a few lessons for the digital nation

Low-tech, hyper-personal, and fiercely independent, the zine subculture has
a few lessons for the digital nation=20

by <#charles>Charles Hutchinson

March 18, 1998

Crap Hound.
 Dish Washer.
 Farm Pulp.
 Fat Girl.
 Fat! So?
 Temp Slave.

We're talking zines, those smart-mouthed homemade journals that have
sprouted up like a million blades of grass in college towns and urban
enclaves, staid suburbs and remote hamlets -- wherever, in fact, there's a
will and a photocopier.

The zine tradition is some sixty years old, with origins in the
science-fiction and comic-book fan worlds of the 1930s. But it took the
punk-rock scene of the late seventies, with its do-it-yourself imperative,
to give the medium a second wind. Just as punk was a reaction to the slick
professionalism of commercial rock, the producers of zines likewise made a
virtue out of amateurism, overturning whatever they knew about design and
journalistic standards and ignoring the rest.

What most distinguishes zines from the mainstream press -- not to mention
such traditions as the political pamphlet, the literary quarterly, and the
underground newspaper -- is that they are a hyper-personal medium. Though
the ostensible focus of any given zine might be sex, work, gender, or any
of the endless mutations of popular culture, the degree to which the
subject matter is filtered through an individual personality is enough to
make even the most forthcoming New Journalist or confessional memoirist
blush. (There's even a wholly autobiographical zine subgenre called the

While this results in a fair amount of BS, readers of zines are exposed to
an impressive range of human experience. Sometimes we're confronted with
disquieting intimacies, like L Girl's ongoing chronicle of a life with
lupus, or the weirdly prosaic details of one man's friendship with a
suspected serial killer in Camping with the Zodiac. Other zines move in the
opposite direction, documenting the commonplace. 1544 West Grace records
the comings and goings in Larry Roth's apartment building and neighborhood,
while 20 Bus documents Kelli Williams's regular rides on number
twenty-something San Francisco Muni Buses. Everyday consumer life, the
realm of "inconspicuous consumption," is wryly examined in Paul Lukas's
Beer Frame. Death and taxes, the great inevitables, are perhaps
underrepresented in the realm of zines, but the topic of work has inspired
a hearty tradition of zine writing: Temp Slave, McJob, and Drive Thru read
like dispatches from the front lines of the service economy -- raw, angry,
and out-for-blood. In some cases social identity is noisily under
construction, as in Fat Girl: The Zine for Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want
Them, and Mazel-Tov Cocktail, devoted to one woman's attempts to merge an
Orthodox upbringing with a punk-rock sensibility.

Even when zine writers are covering the well-trod turf of pop culture what
we get is a refreshing contrast to all the publicity-driven features in the
national press. Here is the view from the cheap seats, where fans come
before stars. Zine fan-writing is by turns impertinent, prurient, and
emotionally honest, revealing the messy ways that we interact with the pop

zinebk1 picture Looking back over the past twenty years, one realizes that
punk (or whatever they're calling it these days) and zines have continued
up a similar path. Both have carved out social, informational, and
distributional networks outside the conventional channels. Both still
define themselves in contradistinction to whatever's flowing through the
mainstream. And both, after years of neglect, have become attractive to the
corporate barons of the entertainment industry.=20

In 1997 several major publishing houses banked on talent from the zine
world, bringing out nearly a dozen titles by some of the most canny figures
in the subculture. The flurry of commercial interest brought to mind the
events of 1991, when Nirvana shot up the charts and big-time record labels
got busy signing up all the grunge rockers they could find. And while the
publishing world has yet to see a comparable success, it's clear that for
many zines the days of cozy insulation may be numbered. Predictably, this
has generated a fair amount of angst in the alt.zines newsgroup and in the
various zines that are either strictly about the zine culture or that in
some way self-consciously acknowledge their status as zines, and the
shop-worn debates about selling out (what are the risks? the payoffs?) are
getting played out for the umpteenth time. The anxieties may be premature.
After all, those book publishers cut deals with only the most market-savvy
of zine-makers. Just what makes the majority of zines special may not be so
easily translated to the marketplace.

"In an era marked by the rapid centralization of corporate media, zines are
independent and localized..."
--Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground. Read a brief <sd1.htm>excerpt.=
  A timely new critical study, Stephen Duncombe's
from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (1997),
throws some light on the current state of zines and what's at stake.
Duncombe, a professor of American Studies and a zine-maker himself, locates
zines within a wider bohemian tradition, and maps out both the potential
and the limits of their cultural radicalism. They are unique, he writes,
because their ultra-subjective, do-it-yourself ethic makes them
"repositories of nonalienated creation and media for nonalienating
communication." That may seem a pretty hefty claim to make about such
humble products -- after all, it's a clich=E9 of our age that capitalism
distorts all facets of social intercourse, including the relation we have
with works of art and other communications media. Duncombe cites an astute
argument made by Walter Benjamin in a 1934 essay, "The Author as Producer,"
in which the German critic pointed out that viewers are alienated from even
the most knowing and politically engaged works of art. If even the most
subversive statements can be repackaged aesthetically and consumed
passively as entertainment, Benjamin asserted, the only way that socially
conscious art can have an impact is by encouraging viewers to become
collaborators and producers of their own art. Of course, participatory
culture, like that other quaint notion, participatory democracy, is a hard
sell in this age of mass media, when the real message is "let us entertain
you." Today, when Corporate America has so fully colonized leisure time,
creating your own entertainment has come to seem like a radical gesture.

zinebk2 picture Larry-Bob Roberts, publisher of the zine Holy Titclamps,
says, "The message of a zine is 'do your own zine.' The message of a glossy
magazine is 'buy this magazine and don't think for yourself.'" He may be
right, but the irony is that Roberts is quoted in
Factsheet Five Zine Reader, one of the new anthologies of zine writing
brought to you by a publishing conglomerate -- in this case Three Rivers
Press, an imprint of Crown Publishing, which is a division of Random House,
a wholly owned subsidiary of ... well, you get the picture. Both the Reader
and the
of Zines, a competing anthology from Henry Holt, have a curiously bland,
homogenized feel to them: illustrated with generically hip clip-art
graphics, they read like Gen-X versions of Reader's Digest. Though compiled
from several dozen zines, and representing more subcultures than you'll
find on the average college campus, what's missing is the frisson, the
sense of discovery. Most of all, one misses the energy that these articles
would have had in their original context, where everything bore the mark of
a single, idiosyncratic mind. (To be sure, some zines are collectively
produced, and a few even boast mastheads that would rival a medium sized
commercial publication. But, generally speaking, zines are solitary

"When I think of the typical citizen of this world, I see in my mind
Christine Boarts, the 24-year-old editor of Slug & Lettuce."
--Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground. Read a brief <sd2.htm>excerpt.=
  Just who is likely to read a magazine about, say, eraser carvings or sock
monkeys? And where, pray tell, would they find such publications? I'll
leave the first question to your imagination, but the answer to the second
is the aforementioned Factsheet Five, the great social magnet of all the
far-flung perzines, femzines, queerzines, and fanzines. This
directory-review was founded back in 1982 by a sci-fi fanziner named Mike
Gunderloy. A natural proselytizer, Gunderloy was writing to all his friends
about the exciting little magazines he kept discovering. Soon it made more
sense just to publish a newsletter and tell everybody -- especially the
zine-makers themselves, who were largely unaware of one another. From the
beginning, according to Duncombe, Factsheet Five was a self-consciously
political gesture, a determined effort to harness potential sources of
power. Gunderloy hoped that "by connecting up the various people who were
exercising their First Amendment rights on a small non-profit scale
[possibly] they could learn from each other and this might help generate a
larger alternative community." Zine-making was a way of "getting people off
their butts and [doing] something."

In the spirit of inclusivity Gunderloy made it a policy to review every
zine that came his way and to send a copy of FF5 in return. Thus began the
trade ritual, one of the great bonding mechanisms of the community, still
largely in force (though no longer at FF5). Gunderloy resisted organizing
his collections into categories, and instead forced readers to wade through
all the reviews to find what they wanted. If cumbersome and inefficient,
this policy also managed to pry open more than a few eyes and minds. In the
words of one enthusiastic reader, "Christians, gays, artists, occultists,
bowlers, historians, prisoners, diarists. I can't think of a place where
one can be exposed to a wider range of thought." Like a low-tech precursor
to the Internet, FF5 was slowly plugging the underground into the
communications grid.

Today, sixteen years and two editors later, the FF5 mission continues --
although the current editor, Seth Friedman, who describes himself as an
"anarchist capitalist," has made the magazine more reader-friendly
(categories are back) and, Duncombe charges, has placed the needs of
zine-consumers above zine-producers (The Factsheet Five Reader mentioned
above is a case in point). Nevertheless, the world of zines remains a
thriving hodge-podge of heterodoxies. In describing this state of affairs
Duncombe is reminded of a comment by the leftist critic Raymond Williams,
who argued, Duncombe writes, that "the strongest weapon in the arsenal of
democracy is communication -- not as it is but as it should be: with
multiple origins and open channels, and with its goal not to dominate, but
to achieve 'active reception and living response.'"=20

That's a claim that's already been made for another medium, of course --
the one that brought you to this page. In addition to whatever else it is,
the Web is zine culture's doppelganger, the j-pegged, java-addled upgrade
of a dead-tree, cut-and-paste prototype. As HTML and Photoshop become as
accessible as the photocopier, you can expect zines previously published
only on paper to move online in droves, and very likely reshape themselves
in the Web's image. Even so, don't count on the demise of print zines
anytime soon. For one thing, as Seth Friedman suggests in the FF5 Reader,
if commercial publications become increasingly Web-oriented, print zines
may take on a rarefied air, where handicraft and the one-of-a kind,
physical aura of art objects predominate, as they do already in some
essentially visual zines.

Although there are countless e-zines and zine-like homepages dotting
cyberspace, it seems most paper zines and their readers carry out their
business as if they were still living in those halcyon days of 1993,
blissfully ignorant of browser wars, streaming audio, and high-bandwidth
modems. True, it may not be long before we're all bumper-to-bumper on the
info turnpike, but it's important to acknowledge that zines in some crucial
sense paved the way. For all its egalitarian promise, the Web remains
accessible to a minority of Americans, generally those in the upper
economic and technological tiers of society. By contrast, print zines
thrive in a medium open to a much larger population, regardless of means
and abililties. Paper, pen, copy machine, stamps, and a need to vent -- it
doesn't get much more basic than that. Zine-makers have used the
rudimentary technology at hand to make themselves heard -- upwards of
50,000 individual titles have criss-crossed the country during the past
twenty years. As it turns out, zines may have a few things to teach the
digital nation about the ideal of a decentralized, democratic medium.

Charles Hutchinson is a writer based in New York City.=20

Copyright =A9 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.   =

Der Buchbinder als Architekt des Buches baut eine
Fassade seiner Zeit. Edwin Redslob

Peter D. Verheyen

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