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Life after zines
By Julie Cirelli


Zines have a rich countercultural tradition, but never in their thirty-five-plus years of development did they prosper as much as in the early 90s, when it seemed as though every fledgling writer, every aspiring artist, every queer-touting, pissed- off, blue-haired punk sat on the bedroom floor assembling the pages of little black-and-white booklets with a stapler.

In the 90s, zine producing was a cottage industry with hundreds, even thousands, of people—mostly young, alienated, and eager to subvert whatever they supposed to be the “mainstream” establishment—self-publishing noncommercial, small-circulation magazines. There were political zines bent on social justice, animal rights, the refashioning of sexual identity, and the like. There were glorified diaries (called personal zines or perzines) that related the mundane ephemera of the zinesters’ day-to-day existence. Indie rock, screen stars, motherhood, roadkill, mix tapes. . .the list of zine fodder goes on and on. 

There was a brief period when self-publishers were taken very seriously. Books cropped up everywhere claiming to be the definitive treatise on underground publishing and hailing zinesters for their creativity, their gumption, and, most of all, their authenticity. “Against the studied hipness of music and style magazines, the pabulum of mass newsweeklies, and the posturing of academic journals, here was something completely different,” wrote Stephen Duncombe in his book Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture.

Zines, the beacons of Do It Yourself (DIY) culture, were hailed as the harbingers of a new kind of expression, one neither founded in corporate culture nor in any way sympathetic to the status quo. For an instant, it seemed as though the mode d’emploi responsible for zines would revolutionize publishing.

But it was not to be. At least, not in the way that anyone predicted at the time. Also gaining momentum in the late 90s was a medium that ultimately proved much more conducive to self-publishing: the internet.

All of which brought me to the door of Paul Lukas’s apartment. Walking into it is like falling down a rabbit hole and landing in a flea market in 1955. For a forty-three-year-old professional blogger, he certainly does have a lot of stuff. Paul spends his days critiquing sports uniforms in his online column for ESPN.com, Uni Watch, dissecting the minutiae of waistbands and footwear for the amusement of sports-outfit fanatics.

From the little I knew about his personal life, I expected all the accoutrements of a suspended adolescence—in other words, a sports-themed bachelor pad. Instead, I found jars and bottles, 50s-era furniture, and humming old-timey soda fountains, not to mention all manner of advertisement posters.

For seven years, from 1993 to 2000, Paul wrote and produced the zine Beer Frame, “The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption,” that critiqued household products based on Paul’s own nuanced system of design criteria: the oddities of ill-begotten ad copy (“cock-flavored soup mix”), underappreciated genius (the unsung hero of foot measurement, “the Branic device”), or overall usefulness/uselessness (toothbrush spray, Cleen Ball Antibacterial Pen).

Lukas paid serious, touchingly critical attention to the stuff of everyday life—for instance, by interviewing the VP of specialty brands at Mott about the difficulty of breaking through the “clam barrier” when marketing Clamato, and pronouncing the plastic table-looking thingamabobs that hold up pizza lids “de rigueur.” Souvenirs from that project dominate his Brooklyn brownstone. On the mantel sits a small, brown plastic onion. “Onion juice,” Lukas explained. “I’ve never dared to open it.” In the corner, a parking meter. “I love coin-operated things.”

“This,” he recalled, “ was during that period, that very brief window where, for about ten minutes, the publishing industry thought zine writers would be the next big thing and that they could make money off of us. We were going to be the next hot generation of writers.”

There has been much ink spilled on the relationship between zine culture and blogging. Traditionalists maintain that blogs are the bastard children of zines. They tout the populism of zinemaking; fuss about the importance of having something that can be read on the subway, in the bathtub, or on the can; and dismiss the internet as “impersonal” at best, “elitist” at worst.

“I think print zines and e-zines (or blogs) appeal to different people, or to different parts of people; they aren’t interchangeable,” said Julie Bartel, founder of the Salt Lake City Public Library’s zine collection, the oldest such collection in the country. “At the root there is a common impulse to create something and to share it, but for zinesters there is also the added impulse to create something physical, whether it’s a utilitarian stapled zine on white paper or an elaborate art zine.”

“There’s a greater intimacy in sharing and having to do the work,” said Jenna Freedman, coordinator of reference services and zine librarian at Barnard College. “Like in writing a letter, you can tell the emotion of a person by how hard they pressed the pen. It requires a deeper commitment and is that much more important.”

“I have mixed feelings about letters that leave through your fingertips,” wrote Marissa Falco in the zine Red-Hooded Sweatshirt in 1999, on the relationship between electronic text and the written word. “I can’t stop feeling like there is something artificial about this kind of communication.”
These statements have been echoed by many ride-or-die zinesters who have stuck it out in the face of the internet’s seductive convenience. For them, the handmade object—the personalization, and the commitment of time, energy, and money spent—is as important as the words printed in it.

Hand-made objects, however, were—and are—expensive to produce and distribute. “There were tough budgetary concerns for a lot of people,” said Paul Lukas. “If you go to Blogspot [an internet resource for the production and distribution of blogs], it’s free. It’s really tough to compete with free.”

Then there is the accessibility factor. “Ten years ago you couldn’t just go to a newsstand and find Beer Frame right next to Time magazine,” Lukas said. “But you can sit at your computer and find whatever obscure blog right next to Time.com. That’s why blogs are taken seriously on the political landscape.”

And there was also the problem of zine distribution. From 1995 to 2005, a number of small-time distribution companies went belly-up, leaving hundreds of zinesters stranded and discouraging others from trying to start zines.

Perhaps the most telling sign that the zine explosion had reached critical mass was the collapse of Factsheet 5, a zine about zines—it reviewed and carried listings for other small-time publications. Anyone with a zine could ask to be listed in Factsheet 5. This provided a reliable directory and a means for publishers to network and learn from one another. The zine shut down in 1998, cutting that lifeline, and now exists only as a skeletal website.

John Marr, who has been producing the sociopathological death-related zine Murder Can Be Fun for more than twenty years, has been tolling the funeral bells for about a decade. In “Zines Are Dead,” an article for the nonprofit magazine Bad Subjects, Marr wrote about what he called “the Great Zine Crash of 1997”: “Years of steady growth in the zine scene reached a peak. Two major anthologies of zine writing came out, accompanied by a flock of other zine-related books. Media attention peaked. And then: nothing. It’s been downhill ever since. Most of the zine books tanked. All those breathless feature writers who popularized zines are expending their adjectives on the latest dotcom IPO.”

Murder Can Be Fun tackles such morbid subjects as “Zoo Deaths” (captive animals that have turned on humans), “Naughty Children 1650-1960” (“Train wreckers, kidnappers, child killers—you name it, the little monsters did it”), the famously dead Karen Carpenter (“She’s skinny, she’s sexy, she’s dead”). After a hiatus, Marr says he’s working on his final issue, a “best of” compilation of his favorite stories. 

“Ten, fifteen years ago, it was pretty central to my existence,” he said. “Issues came out more or less regularly, orders flowed in, the whole zine thing was happening. But the onset of middle-age resignation, combined with the near-total collapse of the zine infrastructure in the late 90s, really dampened the old publishing spirit, let me tell you. I’m forty-five years old. I’ve run out of gas. I’m lazy.”

As for Paul Lukas, by 2000, he said, his enthusiasm for Beer Frame had fizzled. “It felt a little like it had run its course. I had been doing it for seven years, and it was a lot of work. Uni Watch now fills the exact same role in my life. It pushes the same buttons. It scratches the same itch.”

Does this mean that zines are dead? Not totally. The burgeoning popularity of graphic novels has shifted attention back to self-publishers, and distribution houses can again afford to take some risks on no-name zinesters.

Marr pointed to the Alternative Press Expo as one sign of hope. It is a yearly event where a zinester can rent a folding table, lay out his wares, and try to attract readers. From 1994 to 1999, it was held at a small civic center in San Jose, CA—one that both Marr and the event’s organizer said felt much like a junior high school gym. If the weather was good, eager zinesters could expect one hundred to two hundred visitors, Marr said. APE was bought by Comic-Con International, and in 2000 moved to a gigantic convention center in San Francisco. Now hundreds of zinesters and graphic novelists attract thousands of visitors.

“People are riding the tails of the graphic novels boom,” said Marr. “They’re back into the grungy, poorly produced aesthetic.”

 
 

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