Writing Past the Margins: Zine Culture

As I write this paper, a teenage girl in upstate New York has added a lengthy piece to her blog on the social media site, Tumblr. The  topics may vary between bands, videogames and television shows but each is unified through a distinct aesthetic and theme. Unbeknownst to her, she is carrying on a rich tradition of self-publishing started decades before the internet. Steeped in self-expression and artistic freedom, her blog is in essence a digital zine. Unlike the blog, which has become an ubiquitous format of the 21st century, zines occupy an unexplored space in the current media landscape, yet they feel oddly familiar due to their similarities to new media like blogs and websites. Despite losing significant traction due to less time and cost intensive digital media such as the blog, zines still spark interest in various social circles. Even in Saint John, zines enjoy a surge of popularity with publications such as SAD DOG Magazine and Hard Times in the Maritimes due to their creators’ desires to create tangible media.  For much of the twentieth centuries, zines were a primere medium for amateur self-expression and collaboration. Taking advantage of advancements in print technology, artists and writers as well as punks and geeks came together to produce amateur magazines, known colloquially as zines. According to Alison Piepmeier (2008), zines have traditionally been “quirky, individualized booklets filled with diatribes, reworkings of pop culture iconography, and all variety of personal and political narratives” (p.214). For these reasons, zines have functioned as primary artifacts from countercultural movements ranging from punk rock to science-fiction.

In this essay I will argue that the participatory nature and accessibility of zines contributes heavily to the medium’s adoption as a form of cultural resistance by subcultures such as punk and fan communities. Additionally, I will explore the reasons why zines remain a favorable medium among some communities while they are abandoned by others. In the case of punk communities of the 1970s and 1980s, regionality and materiality were two central aspects of the culture. Relying on the cultivation of art scenes to foster creativity, the zine functioned as both a means to document their activities as well as to promote their culture. Conversely, science fiction and fan communities approached zines as a means of fostering discussion. Fan activities and zines were centered around mass media such as science fiction novels, films and television shows. Fan zines reflected the decentralized nature of their writers with little to no regional subtext. For this reason, they more readily made the transition onto the internet. After these zine-based subcultures moved on to other media, zines enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in smaller communities which had predominantly been electronically mediated. In closing this essay, I will explore these renaissance zines using examples from the Saint John art community.    

Most of the existing research on zines focuses on either are grouped into a loose dichotomy with scholars focusing on either art and music zines or pop culture fan zines. For this reason, my paper will focus primarily on these forms of zines. Given the dichotomy of my subject, my theoretical framework will also be somewhat dichotomous. My fan-focused material will be drawn primarily from Henry Jenkins’ work on participatory culture but will also make use of Scott Timberg’s model for sustained creativity in local scenes. Since zines are not used exclusively by a single community, they cannot be evaluated under a single framework.

A Note on Print Technology

Before diving directly into the expansive world of zine culture, I feel as though it is critical to perform some housekeeping regarding the medium of print itself. As a medium, print holds a special place in modern history. Despite its omnipresent nature in the developed world, it is routinely misunderstood. Like more recent communications media such as the internet, the press is romanticized to the point that it has become a personified, historical entity. This romanticization of technology is an unfortunate mindset which historians have had trouble to shake. It plays into the commonly held belief of technological determinism: a reductionist approach to technology which assumes that “all changes are caused by technological forces” (Loon 29). For print, this has resulted in the historical erasure of a long, complex history wrought with conflict between marginalized voices and commercial power.

Fortunately, this approach falls flat once human agency is introduced into the equation. As expressed by Van Loon, “in the routine practices of everyday life, we invoke technology as a set of tools” (30). As instruments, technologies bend to the will of their users.  For argument’s sake, let’s revisit Gutenberg’s press. The main draw to the early press was that it significantly reduced the time that it took to produce texts. As a medium, the press has never picked favorites. Instead, it is has adopted and used by both cultural hegemonies and counter cultural movements alike. Despite the obvious dangers of romanticizing history and technology, it is a hard habit to shake. Personally, I do not blame the authors of introductory textbooks or undergraduates for caving to romantic pressures regarding the press. It sounds satisfying to write that “before the inception of the printing press in the fifthteenth century, knowledge and its dissemination had been centralized around hegemonic structures;” or that the press represented some sort of revolutionary force in Europe. The technology did indeed represent a shift in institutional structure for many sectors of European society, but revolution may not be the best way in which to describe the changes which took place. The printing revolution, which some argue is still ongoing (Eisenstein 1979, p.216), has enjoyed steady progress rather than explosive revolution. During this slow shift, certain technological leaps such as scribal culture to Gutenburg’s press and from small-scale printing houses to industrial letterpressing monopolies have blurred the image of print history. In focusing on these events and their social impacts, print scholars such Elizabeth Eisenstein (1979) argue that after these famous shifts “the activities of printers and publishers seem to become less newsworthy” (p.225).

It is precisely these lapses in the historiography of print which create an inauthentic linear image of the medium. That being said, it is this sanitized and trimmed version of print history which circulates readily in textbooks.  Despite my reservations, these historical expositions find their base in some truth. It is true that the production of texts and literacy itself were only privileged to those in the upper echelons of Western society, and it is true that the press had a dramatic effect on the production of texts and the literacy rate. That being said, it did not happen as quickly as popular history would suggest. For the press to achieve its ultimate historical success, it was reshaped and repurposed many times by a variety of dissenters who had been underrepresented by previous cultural regimes. Without social dissident, print would remain a tool for the privileged.

A Short History of Print

  Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the process of publication had almost been entirely commercialized. Print had entered the realm of mass culture, which resulted the centralization of production. Despite the struggles inherent to the first wave of publishing established during Gutenberg’s time, print had remained free and divested from large scale commercial interest. Each country had their own series of printing houses which catered to their unique societal needs. In a way, a vernacular of printing was established during these formative years of print. Unfortunately, print became homogenized under dominant mass culture, and for many years vernacular texts were sidelined.

Redrawing the Lines

Despite the zine’s flexibility as a creative medium, it has been eclipsed by digital outlets such as blogs, video production or even social media. While many would argue that this shift comes as part of the natural flow inherent to technological advancements, it cannot be framed so simply. Instead, each new form of media we adopt must be examined within a technological context and a social context. Technologically, zines occupy a space opened up by advancements in low-cost printing technologies such as the mimeograph and the photocopier. Socially, the zine represents a shift in the way which audiences interact and structure themselves.Unlike digital blogs, zines are a medium heavily dependant on regional flavour and local artistic scenes to fuel both their production and dissemination. They lack the large scale distribution channels that commercial media use, and reject (for the most part) digital platforms. Until the rise of fan communities in the mid-twentieth century, commercial media had rightfully assumed that their audiences had few avenues of choice. The audience consumed whatever was being commercially produced and peddled. At the time, the only channel that existed for feedback was restricted to ratings and sales. Audience research  illustrated a dramatic shift from passive consumption to active participation among audiences. Before the advent of the internet, very few outlets existed for media collaboration. Small publishing houses produced small bodies of work, but they replicated the the structure of larger, commercial publications. Mainstream media, such as print, radio and television all followed a top down model of distribution, locking the average person out of the creative process. Zines, and other DIY media rose as a means to challenge the cultural industry’s monopoly on the creation and dissemination of texts.

Fandom: The Interactive Audience

However, for fans this was largely not an issue. Fan cultures are less wary of mainstream media, and often appropriate their favourite texts. Fans and their communities take part in a constant process in which the renegotiate the parameters of the texts and their terms of engagement. Fans do not simply consume commercial texts, but instead adopt them and expand upon them.  Jenkins (2006) identifies this act as textual poaching, a process in which “challenges the very notion of literature as a kind of private property to be controlled by textual producers and their academic interpreters” (40). For Jenkins, fan activity constitutes a form of resistance as it challenges the hegemonic understandings of commercial texts. Activities can range from simple discussion to the production of new texts in the form of supplementary narratives, art and more recently the creation of fan films and video games. For early science fiction fans like Trekkies, fanzines function as a means of interpersonal correspondence as well as a way to disseminate these fan made artifacts. For fans, the social networking that zines provided was the medium’s primary attractor. As noted by Jenkins (2002), “fandom is particularly attractive to groups marginalized or subordinated in the dominant culture” (213). The communities that formed around the circulation of fanzines were made up of men, women, people of colour and people from the gay community. Texts like Star Trek provided fans with a rich universe to interact with, and events such as the interracial kiss between James T. Kirk and Nyota Uhura proved particularly inspirational for the diverse fan base. Following the lead of the primary text, fans began to challenge or social conventions of sexuality and gender. Fan narratives, in which Kirk and his first-officer, Spock develop romantic feelings became common in fan material. These stories, commonly known as slash fiction or m/m slash represent a form of early fan appropriation. In the process of queering Kirk and Spock, fans laid claim to their primary text.   

Nerds to Headbangers: Zines in Countercultures

For punk culture, the zine served as a means to center a growing countercultural ethos around a tangible, cultural good. Unlike fanzines, which incorporate and build upon a commercial, primary text like a show or a book, punk zines function as a means to highlight and promote punk music, art and punk ideology. To do this, punk zines focus on smaller, regionally based artistic scenes. These scenes are usually situated in urban environments and serve as makeshift cultural ecosystems. Punks, and the zines they create represent a shift in the way in which the public utilize print technologies. Sci Fi fan cultures may have put the initial footwork in, but their publications still hinged on a primary commercial text. To simplify for the sake of my argument, fans did not reject commercial culture in its entirety, they simply desired a way in which to interact within commercial culture. Fans wanted to discuss and create as satellites of the established system, which made the jump to the internet much easier. Chat rooms, image boards and social media such as Twitter served fans more effectively, thus they made the technological jump much more easily than punks.

Where Culture Happens: Regionality in Punk

Unfortunately for the punks and their various offshoots such as the Riot Grrrls, the materiality and regionality of the zine could not be so easily discarded in favor of the new medium. For fans, the roots of their culture could be found in every living room with a television. For punks, culture did not happen in such a homogeneous manner. Homogeneity still occurred in punk, make no mistake, but it was more a case of aesthetics and production rather than of primary textual interest. Historically, these punk cultures have begun as regionally specific communities with distinct music, art and culture.  As noted by Thompson, “the building block of the field of punk is the scene”(3). Scenes can best be described as communities which cultivate and disseminate art and culture. They are largely tied to specific urban locations but can flourish and expand past the boundaries of the city. In punk’s case, scenes developed in urban centers such as New York, California, Washington and London (Thompson 9). For Scott Timberg, the scene is a vital, yet fragile ecosystem for creators and culture. In his book, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, Timberg explores the ways in which culture is created and disseminated. For Timberg, culture producers such as scenes can only survive if three conditions are met. The first, relies on the “day-job principle” (Timberg 47), which stipulates that creators must find work outside of the arts so that they can survive and create. The second, assumes the existence of “discernible stylistic movements” (Timberg 49) in between scenes. Scenes may share some aspects of their culture between each other such as aesthetics, but each scene will also possess discernible features. The third tenet recognizes that a scenes are intimately tied to both temporal and geographical powers. Like Timberg’s proposed day-job principle, the third tenet is heavily tied to structures and sustainability. In Timberg’s word, a scene “fades out- no matter how brightly it burns-” (Timberg 50) without structures to hold it up. Out of these tenets, the first and third stand directly in opposition to punk’s rejection of mainstream forces and commercial interest.

Resistance in Aesthetics  

The existential issue that stands between punk and these basic principles of scene creation permeate zines as well. Thompson notes that the “ commodity occupies a privileged place in punk, because it mediates between aesthetics and economics, between punk and capitalism.” (Thompson 120). Despite the DIY nature of zines, they do indeed circulate as commodities. In an attempt to resist entire commodification, punks undermine certain established aspects of zines such as industrial structure and aesthetics. Aesthetically, zines reject the symmetry and finely groomed style of mainstream media. In punk zines, professional design is rejected and an explicit “refusal to accord to the conventions of magazine layout and design” (Atton 518) is made through the cut and paste quality of the text.

Resistance in Structure

To further subvert commodification, punk publishers have been traditionally been invested in the aspects of commercial publication typically ignored or taken for granted. Punk recenters a vertically integrated industry around the needs of the author. Authors typically have to fight the interests the publishing house, its editors and ultimately the distributors of their text. Commercial publishing, like other mainstream media, create a series of gatekeepers by structuring their industry in this fashion. Authorship becomes murky as commercial interests taint the author’s original vision.

Simply put, this just doesn’t cut it for punks. Rejecting commercial channels who would either taint their visions, or simply lock them out of production altogether, they turn to DIY publishing. As noted by Freedman, zines document counterculture in its own vernacular, which in many cases are “the voices of those too young, too politically radical, too crusty, and/or to bad mannered to appeal to the corporate media” (13). Because of this marginalization, the ability to self-document through zines becomes a critical aspect of punk’s ethos. DIY rejects the uninviting structures of commercial print and reorients them so that the author is present at every step of the creative process.

Zine Renaissance

Up until the 1990s, zines had survived as artifacts of both punk subcultures and feminist movements. Leading up to the widespread adoption of the internet, movements such as the Riot Grrrl, a synthesis of punk attitude and aesthetics with the social sensibility and awareness of feminist culture became the new champions of the zine. Like their punk predecessors, the Riot Grrrls used the zine as a form of of preservation but also valued the dialogue which they created amongst their creators and readers. In essence, Riot Grrrls bridged the gap between the aspects of zines which made them popular in both fan circles and punk scenes. Fans had based their publications around primary, shared texts but had primarily enjoyed the dialogue which zines invited between fans and creators, and punks enjoyed the medium’s ability to undermine commercial media which had relegated them to the margins. Riot Grrrl zines became spaces in which women could open up about topics such as gender-based discrimination, sexual violence and other patriarchal forms of oppression. Riot Grrrls took zines and turned them into true self-publications. Using their publications as a forum to express their frustration, the Riot Grrrls invited discussion from both their readers and other writers. According to Jenna Freedman,

“Zines are more than self-expression. Zine communication, especially within riot grrrl, was supplemented substantially with letter writing and pen pal relationships. It wasn’t enough to publish your work; you also had to respond to other writers with comments about their work” (Freedman 2011, p.17).

In essence, zines allowed writers to go beyond simply publishing their work and disseminating it to a faceless audience. This holds true in smaller zine circles like those of Saint John. Small zine publications such as Hard Times in the Maritimes allowed locals to showcase their art, fiction and poetry within an easily accessible, self-published format. For Julia Wright, the editor and founder of the Hard Times, the zine is a way to “tell stories which maybe difficult to tell, so that maybe people may find something to relate to and connect to” (St. Pierre 2015). In this case, the zine tells the stories of the local community while encouraging them to respond to what they read by submitting their own art and stories.

Even after Wright discontinued her publication in 2015, similarly themed zines emerged to fill the void in the city’s self-publishing community. Inspired by the Hard Times, publications such as SAD DOG Magazine have attempted to preserve the city’s underground art community through a series of concerts, zine launches and collaborations with the local art society, ThirdSpace. For SAD DOG’s publishers Angel Bustard and Kasie Wilcox, zines “are important as creative outlets that also provide relatable, meaningful content to readers” (Bustard and Wilcox 2017, Interview by Matt Carter). Like the punks, and the Riot Grrrls publications which followed, Hard Times in the Maritimes and SAD DOG Magazine publish in an effort to create a stage in which they and their readers may have the opportunity to speak openly about their community.

Conclusion   

For many years, both industries and the academy wrongfully assumed culture existed in a vacuum. Over fifty years of broadcast media and vertically integrated print had removed cultural industries from the very communities in which their commercial texts were being consumed. Luckily, technologies such as the mimeograph and photocopier were adopted by fan communities and subcultures such as punk to reorient the individual’s relationship with media. For fans, the zine offered them both a new way to interact with the objects of their fandom, but also a new way to communicate and collaborate amongst themselves. For punks and other countercultures, zines offered them an opportunity to transcend the limitations of the margins and subvert the hegemonies which had excluded them from textual production. Eventually zines fell out of favour for fans, as the internet offered them a better channel for their activities, but for many the zine could not be so easily discarded. As the bulk of North American society made the leap towards the internet, feminists and other disenfranchised communities took up zine publishing as a way to tackle issues which were neglected by mainstream media and to preserve their culture. This holds true particularly for Saint John’s tenacious zine community, as each publication inspires the next generation of local zine producers. As long as there are stories to tell, zines will remain a staple amongst marginalized communities.

Works Cited

Atton, C. (2010). Popular music fanzines: Genre, aesthetics, and the “Democratic conversation”. Popular Music & Society, 33(4), 517-531. doi:10.1080/03007761003694316

Carter, M. (2017). Zine culutre in new brunswick. Retrieved from http://www.gridcitymagazine.com/zine-culture-new-brunswick/

Eisenstein, E. L.The unacknowledged revolution. In M. Levy, & T. Mole (Eds.), The broaview reader in book history (pp. 215-230). Toronto: Broadview Press.

Freedman, J. (2011). Self-publication with riot grrrl ideals: Zines ≠ vanity press publications. In Bly, Lyz, Wooten, Kelly (Ed.), Make your own history : Documenting feminist and queer activism in the 21st century (pp. 13-22). Los Angeles, US: Litwin Books.

Hard times in the maritimes. St. Pierre, E. (Director). (2015).[Video/YouTube] Saint John:

Jenkins, H. (2002). ‘Strangers no more, we sing’: Filking and the social construction of the science fiction fan community. In L. A. Lewis (Ed.), The adoring audience : Fan culture and popular media (1) (pp. 208-236). Florence, US: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry,,. (2006). Fans, bloggers, and gamers : Exploring participatory culture. New York: New York University Press.

Loon, J. v.,. (2008). Media technology : Critical perspectives.

Piepmeier, A. (2008). Why zines matter: Materiality and the creation of embodied community. American Periodicals, 18(2), 213-238. Retrieved from https://login.proxy.hil.unb.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=34364906&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Thompson, S. (2004). Punk productions : Unfinished business. Albany: State University of New York Press. Retrieved from https://login.proxy.hil.unb.ca/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e000xna&AN=143161&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Timberg, S.,. (2015). Culture crash : The killing of the creative class Yale University Press.

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