Low-tech zines in a high-tech world
Blogging—the personal rather than professional variety—might owe its popularity in part to its ability to provide an outlet for ideas unmediated by editors or bosses, teachers or parents. Before blogs enabled such unbridled expression, other vehicles, of course, were used. One of those was zines. Zines? Think: small magazine. Zines are typically short, self-published tracts produced on a low budget and on paper. They address personal issues, philosophy, culture, media, or a host of other topics that inspire the writer. Though less popular now than in their hey-day in the 80s and 90s, low-tech zines are still being produced. In our highly technological age, perhaps in spite of it, zines continue to be a relevant creative outlet.
Samantha (Sam) Crane, an energetic senior history major, has a particular interest in zines. She recently wrote a zine about her trip to Berlin on the UNH-managed Berlin short-study course. Called the Sagittarius Manifesto (Sagittarius a zodiac sign associated with travel), the zine documents, in ten or so brief sections, some of the observations she made while abroad. In one section, Sam writes about the large Turkish community in Berlin and the many Turkish shops, restaurants, baths, and architecture she encountered. In another, she notes the thriving gay community and the relative tolerance of Berlin culture. In the section “saying ‘excuse me,’” she writes, “By far the oddest cultural/linguistic quirk I observed is that Germans hardly ever say ‘excuse me.’ Americans use that phrase excessively, but a German person has to pretty much run right into you before they’ll say it.” A light-hearted travelogue, the zine includes photos, and paste-ups of maps and tickets.
Zines are typically either traded or sold for a few dollars by word-of-mouth, sometimes at bookstores, on websites, and at conferences. Sam sells her zines online but has sold or simply given away zines on campus, too, including femizine, a free publication produced by the UNH Women’s Club that highlighted feminist issues. This summer, Sam attended a small-publishers conference in Oregon at which people sold or traded not only zines, but also small press comics and vanity press publications.
Zines have been traced back to 1930 when the first science fiction fan club magazine, or fanzine, called The Comet was produced. A wave of self-published fanzines ensued as fans capitalized on this fun way to connect with like-minded people across the country. But the tradition of self-published writing goes back to the earliest days of America, when political tracts were produced and distributed. In fact, zines seem to be more in keeping with that tradition, often providing an alternative voice to mainstream ideas. With no mediation by publishers and no profit imperative, zinesters can be ideologically extreme, sharply critical, highly creative, or solipsistic. Sam points out the inherent democratic nature of zines, how they can be produced and shared by anyone and at very little cost. “People like to have their own voice,” Sam explains, “and they feel that they don’t have to have some slick magazine to create something worthy. Some people document their struggles with sexuality or religion, others might document mental health struggles. People who are going through those same struggles might really want to read these stories, but they may not be able to get them in any other kind of way.”
Though blogs and social media might appear to serve much the same purpose as zines (and, for that matter, e-zines actually do exist), writers such as Rita Florez have interviewed zinesters to explore where the differences may lay between digital and print and why zines have not died out with the expansion of the Web. Florez notes that some zinesters identify a different motivation behind the two forms of communication: bloggers and social media users are motivated by social recognition, whereas zinesters are motivated by personal expression. Zinesters also point to the expanded options for design in the print format. Florez contends that, unlike social media, “the better zines reflect something more than the ins and outs of someone’s personal life. Some of them explore a topic, dissect it, and give their readers something that they can’t get anywhere else.” Some zinesters focus on the positive interpersonal experience of handing someone your zine or receiving a personal note with a zine you just bought. And, as with all e-publications, there will always be that group of people who just prefer the sensation of holding the print publication over reading a screen and want the liberty to read when and where they choose.
In the same way that zine production seems democratic compared to industrial publishing, so, too, do zines seem open to all socioeconomic strata. Not everyone in the U.S. has access to a computer 24-7, but most have access to a pen and paper and can find a photocopier to reproduce work. As a means of expression, zines are available to individuals across a wide economic range, both as creators and consumers.
Zine production might also express a longing for a precomputer time. Like a number of zinesters, Sam produces her work on a typewriter—an Underwood Universal from the 1940s. When asked why, she replies “Nostalgia. I’m a history major. We’re all for that kind of thing.” But she then adds, “No, I like it, I’m a writer.” A zine reader may desire the tactile sensation of holding a zine, but a writer might desire the feel of banging on typewriter keys and watching the typebars hit the paper. In a culture permeated by virtual reality, zines might fulfill a need for a bit of comforting, old-fashioned reality.
Want to learn more? The article by Rita Florez and much more is available at The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe.
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