It’s flippin’ ama-zine

While training as a journalist I wrote a feature on zine culture. I have yet to make a zine (other than some very minor contributions to collaborate projects) but I enjoy being part of this DIY culture, in which creative minds can flourish.

Here is the sexy exciting unabridged article, for which I was marked an A grade. Auto-trumpeteering over.

The internet is awash with advertisements for printing your own book, with first-hand testimonials from smiling housewives who have traded in their ironing board for a Ferrari thanks to the gift of self-publishing.  Yet in reality, self-publishing brings neither fame, fortune or fast cars.  It is about getting your words out there, words written for pleasure, for the love of writing.  And where self-publishing is concerned, no medium is so synonymous with passion, pleasure and art-for-art’s sake, as the zine.

What the hell is a zine? Well, a zine is a mini-magazine, both semantically and physically. They are often written about an individual theme, topic, or issue, or serveral of these. The topics are as varied as people’s imaginations – meaning they can be about pretty offbeat and eccentric things, to say the least. Like stamp collecting? Well, yes. But also about broader topics: cookery, social issues, musical genres… You name it. Zines are often political in nature too, uniting people from around the world who align themselves with less traditional or mainstream social views. Consequently, they are often liberal and left-wing at heart, so share the same values of community and shared experience of anarchists, socialists… zapatistas… you name it.

As a result, people will often get together and collaborate on zines. They might do this to enhance the breadth and depth of the topic they are writing on; they might do this to cover different viewpoints on an event. They often do it to celebrate the experiences of life, the passions of individuals united by a common theme. Many zines will be produced by just one person, so can take on an air of personal autobiography (these are termed perzines by those in the know) or document fanatical attraction to a particular thing, usually a band or other deserving idol, in fanzines.

Conceptually, making a zine allows a thinking, feeling individial to write about whatever the ruddy hell they like, without fear of censorship or harsh criticism, and share their loves, hates and musings with like-minded people. You can express your thoughts just as you wish, even if ‘how you wish’ means that you want your political manifesto to be framed with pictures of kittens riding bicycles.  Anything goes.

Consequently, zines are the perfect outlet for those who want to write for pleasure. Now, before you assume that zines are the sort of thing produced by 20-year-old Iron Maiden fans in their bedrooms at their parents’ houses, think again. Zines have come a long way from their ‘nerdy’ sci-fi fanzine origins, yet they remain a relatively unknown, uncharted mode of self-publishing.

Back in 1890, a group of amateur printers formed Britain’s first Amateur Press Association (APA) as a way to enable writers living around the country to document their love – or hate – of common interests by producing articles and commentary.  These were then sent to a Central Mailer, which would then collate and publish their work, before distributing it to members of a group mailing list.  In the days before internet chatrooms, this publishing revolution gave people of different ages, from a variety of backgrounds a chance to air their opinions in an interactive forum.

The idea of APAs had been conceived in America around a decade or so before and the idea proved popular with fans of science fiction writing, who, by the late 1930s started to form their own APAs, offering their critiques of the genre and authors’ work to be shared within their community and sub-culture.  As typewriters became more ubiquitous in the average household, this concept evolved, and by the 1970s, the explosion of underground punk music acted as a sort of compost for the format, allowing for a metamorphosis-style blossoming into the self-published fanzine medium. Zines were a personal, angsty independent media form, perfect for enabling the voice of a pissed-off, unconventional and downright punk age to fill in the gaps that mainstream publishing failed to acknowledge.

Zines continued to grow underground, like a literary fungus, spread through the 1980s by the Heavy Metal scene, reclaimed by feminists in the Riot Grrrl movement of the 90s. Then that brings us to the ‘noughties’, the present-day, where zines are as popular as they ever were.  Yet, with the exception of Dazed and Confused, which started out as a small self-published zine, you won’t find them on the shelves in Sainsburys next to Heat and Esquire.  This might seem surprising to some; given their diverse history surely they are just as valid a publishing format as any found in bookshops? And this would be a fair question, but neglects to acknowledge the essence of zines themselves, the whole point of them. To uncover what that is, one must first look at what a zine really is.


So what’s with the design? Well, the look of zines is pretty distinctive – most are comprised of photocopied pages stapled or sewn together, sometimes with a coloured paper front cover.  They usually feature images – illustrations, scribbles or collage-style photographs – and artistically set pages. The images will be broken up with blocks of text, sometimes wonky, sometimes reading left to right, but never to a uniform or universal template.  These tiny works of art can be bought online from sites like Etsy, or specialist community sites like wemakezines. As they are commonly aimed at music fans they can sometimes be sniffed out in indie record shops, or at specialist fayres and festivals dedicated to self-publishing or do-it-yourself culture. Zinesters love to trade their work with other people, but when they do have to talk cold hard cash, prices range from a few pence to several pounds for thicker, more arty-style publications.  The money they raise is usually just enough to cover production costs – zines are essentially a not-for-profit art form.

Mujinga, a Brighton-based zine maker and fan, explains: “There are a few vague interlocking concepts which together loosely define what a zine is.”

“For me a zine is normally A5, although you do of course get weirdly shaped ones or A4 or A6 or A7. A zine is normally photocopied although it could be handmade or drawn or potato stamped or whatever. Normally less than 100 copies are made.”

So after you’ve gone to the trouble of making and photocopying your zine, what will make anyone read it? Zine fan Ellie says: “I think everyone must have slightly different reasons – I read them for a couple of different reasons depending on the zine.”

I read punk zines to find out about new bands and records, I read perzines and gender/feminism related zines because of shared interests – I like reading other people’s opinions of stuff I like.”

The appeal of zines lies largely, as Mujinga explains, in a united sense of “common interest”.  This topic is much-debated in US zine documentary, $100 and a T-shirt, in which artist Brad Adkins describes zine culture as being about people who are fanatical about something, coming together and talking about it. In $100 and a T-shirt, Brad says: “If they don’t publish some kind of document about what their eclectic taste is, they might not ever meet the people that have the similar eclectic tastes.”

For the fans and writers of zines, there is more to them than simply reading about a band you like, or a political ideology that you sympathise with.  There is a complete sub-culture that has arisen from the DIY aesthetic that is at the heart of zines. And this culture love to make things, swap things, share their skills and encourage other members to flourish creatively:  Brighton Zine Fest, for example, was host to workshops on everything from making a zine to screenprinting to vegan cooking.  Based on this, it might be safe to conclude that the sense of community inherent in zine culture is as important as the art form itself. Ellie agrees. “I like [zine culture] because it brings a sense of unity to the punk scene I care about, but outside of that it creates a sense of unity across cultures and countries.”

“I really like feeling like someone’s written me a letter or something when I read a zine – I like that personal connection you get, and reading something by someone who would never have got their voice heard if the mainstream was all we had.”

So it seems that zines are as much about culture and community as they are about content. And while many people turn to zine writing to avoid censorship, many do it for the self-expression. Mujinga sums this up well: “I just get this feeling, often around the full moon, that I have to create something, so then I sit down and crank out a zine – most of the time I then feel better. Otherwise my head might explode.”

(C) me.


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