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The Zine Lives: Why the 90s Aren't As Dead As You Think

For a kid growing up in the 90s, zines – those tiny, xeroxed pamphlets of counterculture – could be found at every skate shop, coffeehouse and DIY "scene" that cool kids hung out at. But then grunge died and along came the Internet, where former zine-makers found a way to express themselves while also reaching a larger audience and saving money on paper.

Zines certainly aren't as prevalent as they once were, but is the culture really as dead as the rest of print media, or has it just returned to its underground roots? We interviewed zinesters from around the globe to find out what encourages them to keep producing print in a blog world.

The Performance Artist

Cat Chow is both the name of a zine and its creator, but she would prefer not to use the "z" word. "I don't like to define things," Cat says over the phone from Chicago, "but I think of Chow as an artists' book…it fits many categories." Cat started off doing garment-sewing of found objects and has moved on to sculptures. She also does performances, drawings, as well as putting out these artists' books. She says herself that she is "not limited to certain media."

When I ask her the benefit of printing versus putting something online, Cat gives me the first of many similar answers. "There's an intimacy in picking something up and reading it," she says, a visceral experience that stands in stark contrast to reading off the computer. Cat's audience is small. She prints tiny runs as needed, anywhere from 50-100 copies at her local copy store. "Supply and demand," she laughs. When I ask about the zine scene in Chicago versus New York, she throws a couple names out my way, like Elk and Burn Collector, zines that started in the mid-90s and have survived the internet.
When I ask Cat if her zine, like many back in the day, has a political statement, she doesn't hesitate to tell me it doesn't. It's just "tender moments."

The Promoter

By contrast, Todd P. has a statement, all right. Anyone who is involved in the Brooklyn/New York underground rock scene knows Todd's name and face, since he all but brought back the DIY nightlife and made bands like Matt & Kim and Japanther infamous for their parties in people's loft spaces. The New York Times knows about Todd P., but so does your little brother. He is somehow both every kid that's ever wanted to have a good time and party, and the godfather of that scene. He also, with help of some cohorts, produces a zine called Showpaper, which comes out biweekly and lists all the all-ages shows in the area.

"It's actually harder to promote obscure shows than it was before the Internet," Todd says, talking fast over the phone, "because of MySpace and all that, it started out with people promoting their own work, but then it went commercial – people doing stuff for money – real quick." If that diatribe sounds cliched, Todd has a point. Ever since News Corp. bought MySpace, or perhaps before then, the amount of spam and impersonal "show promotion" has increased a thousand fold. "So even though there is all this information on the net, and trust me, I'm not a neophyte," Todd laughs, "it almost doesn't matter because you're not paying attention to it, you aren't sifting through it. Kids don't have a place to go to that they can trust will give them good information about shows."

And while that may not be entirely the case (what about OhMyRockness?), Todd's Showpaper does fill a niche for kids looking for a show they can trust won't be "sponsored by Motorola," as Todd puts it.

When I ask him about the price of printing color copies, versus putting stuff on the web for free, Todd agrees that it costs more, but the cost is absorbed by frequent benefit shows that Showpaper holds, and says that his company is trying to get non-profit status through the government to help with the costs. Todd has been part of the indie zine scene since the 90s in Oregon, he says, and claims that the good stuff is still out there, but it's harder to find. (He mentions King Kat comics, Murder can be fun, Cometbus, and Dishwasher for some of his earliest memories of good zines.) Perhaps that's what zine culture is these days: a messaging board or a personal artistic sentiment, rather than a political statement. Especially since political rants and raves seem perfectly suited for the net, and the anonymity of the Internet allows for more assurance of freedom of speech.

The Jerusalem Feminist

I am not able to talk to Hadass S. Ben-Ari over the phone, since the time difference between Israel and New York City works at complete odds with our schedule. But we are finally able to connect through email. It's an ironic advantage for a piece about how the Internet is killing off the medium that Hadass and others still try to keep alive.

Hadass runs Fallopian Falafel, an almost-two-year-old zine in Jerusalem that is politically focused on third-wave feminism in the country. When asked about the content of the zine, Hadass replies, "On one hand, the zine includes articles and poems written by Israeli Jews about their views on feminism and the topic of the zine, in order to spread to the world feminist ideology from an Israeli/Jewish perspective. On the other, it also includes submissions from people from other countries and nationalities in order to spread various feminist views from around the world to the Israeli audience." She says that, politically, her zine is not part of the trendier scene in Tel Aviv, which focus on the Israeli-Palestinian debate and are frequently anti-religion and anti-Zionist. Hadass says she finds this offensive, because "it disregards a large chunk of Israeli public, especially Jerusalemites, most of whom are religious and Zionist."

So if Fallopian Falafel has a political line, it is that of gender, not nations. "My zine attempts to spread that aspect of feminism to the Israeli audience with a regular column called Riot Grrrl Corner, which appears in every issue and features a different female artist or band every time, in relation to the specific topic." Still, Hadass wishes for the exposure her zine might get in America, where the scene is more varied, as opposed to Israel, where "if a zine or a band is underground, it's REALLY underground, not known at all, playing in tiny venues to audiences of five to 10 people."

The Romanticist

Harue Ino is an American living in Japan, and along with two contemporaries he publishes Menami, a culture and commentary zine. Out of all the people I interview, Ino's perspective most corresponds to what I traditionally think of as a zine: "We're just trying to capture the feeling of not belonging in a way that isn't depressing but at least a little enlightening – not being white enough, not being Asian enough, having accents, not having a family, not going to college, wanting to have a lot money, but mostly wanting to just sit around all day drinking cheap wine and listening to shitty music you love."

While Ino also dodges the cheap Internet versus costly publication question by waxing philosophical about the tactile experience of holding a blog in your hand, she also admits that Japanese culture is a little more traditional (though the word Ino uses is "dramatic") in regard to that form of media. "A guy finds a zine next to him in a bar in Tokyo and he picks it up and reads it then he doesn't stick it in his bag and take it home because it asks him not to. He feels like he's part of a secret club. He feels a sense of belonging and romanticism and goes home and calls the lady he has a crush on and asks her to lunch."

But for all the romanticism, political statements and underground credibility, it must be mentioned that three of these four zines have presences online, which makes it much easier to track these people down. I'm still not sure if there's a grand statement to be made about the overarching "death of print media" that everyone seems so desperate to apply to any situation these days, or if these "last guards" of the zine world are merely the current torchbearers for a form of media that has always been underground and elusive.

Comments (5)
No. 1 · Plug One Boss

(He mentions King Kat comics, Murder can be fun, Comic Bus, and Dishwasher for some of his earliest memories of good zines.)

It's Cometbus, not "Comic Bus."

Posted: Feb 18, 2009 at 1:35 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 2 · Roe

It's understandable that more people are doing "zines" online. The cost of printing can be a lot, and putting something on a website is virtually free. It also allows for immediate user-generated content, like comments, discussion board, etc.

But you can't replace the intimacy of the printed product. I've gone through the same thing with my website, which specializes in covering Twin Cities hip-hop news and culture. It's much cheaper to keep it all online, but having printed copies floating around bars, coffeeshops, and venues in the city increases exposure and drives people to the website.

Luckily, printing has actually gotten cheaper with the rise of digital printing. And the old belief that digital printing quality falls far short of actual presses is no longer true. In many cases, you can't tell the difference.

Of course zine makers who go into Kinko's and their ilk will not notice a significant drop in the price to print. They need to go online. The company I work for (since covering local hip-hop doesn't exactly pay the bills) is, which operates exclusively over the Internet. Our prices are about 5 times less than the big chains copy shops. So for the zine makers who can't let go of the printed product (I totally understand), try doing it through an online copy company like us instead of throwing away hundreds at Staples or Kinko's.

Posted: Feb 18, 2009 at 5:58 pm · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 3 · Cat Chow

Jocko Wayland (Elk) currently has a show up at KS Art in NYC through April 11th. I highly highly recommend it.

Posted: Feb 19, 2009 at 12:10 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 4 · Elizabeth

Zines are actually gaining legitimacy as a form of publishing in the library/academic world right now. There are a couple of colleges that have zine collections (the first and best is located in Barnard College Library at Columbia University in NYC).

The online ones are great, but I can't help but be personally attached to the photocopies - I love going through and seeing where they taped words over typos, doodled on a page, or stuck a sticker somewhere. It's just not the same when it's all digital.

Posted: Feb 19, 2009 at 7:55 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
No. 5 · pipsie

we did a monthly-ish papery fanzine for twelve-plus years but gradually lost readers. Thought they were deserting online (but maybe we were just no good). So 8 months ago we became a "scanzine" ( haven*t exactly gained any readers and all we*ve learnt is that one papery reader is worth fifty online readers when it comes to response and feedback yno. We*ll be going back to being papery at the end of the year.

Posted: Feb 26, 2009 at 5:31 am · @Reply · [Flag?]
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