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IDEAS: Zine But Not Heard

7 minute read
David M. Gross

There are those who argue that the underground these days can be found on the Internet: the global computer network allows its travelers to move about anonymously and carve out a corner for narrow, unconventional obsessions. But there is another, subterranean world of people with aliases and attitudes that makes the Internet seem almost fuddy-duddy. E-mail? Postings? Those are for executives and housewives.

The real underground has taken the very un-Postmodern step of depending on paper and the Postal Service: this is the low-tech, unwired world of photocopied “fanzines” (from fan magazines), the vanity projects of a new generation of publishers who are making fat, unglossy magazines radical again. Many of these “zines,” as they are more generally called, are produced with desktop computers, but that is as sophisticated as they get. The majority make a point of their crude appearance and unhurried voyage to the reader; most are collated by hand, distributed by the mailman and cost $3 to $6. If they are printed at all, the runs typically remain at fewer than 2,000 copies. And the goal, of course, is not to make money, build circulation or get noticed. Instead some zines refuse to carry any advertising, distribute only to their intellectual compatriots and switch titles to disguise themselves as well as avoid detection by a possible talent scout.

The purpose of zines is to have a voice — quiet, yes, but more tangible than a computer message — to create a nonvirtual community of like-minded readers who can, in the case of the more longstanding publications, actually reach the publisher on the phone. “Benjamin Franklin made zines,” says R. Seth Friedman, 32, publisher of Factsheet Five, a bimonthly review of these publications. “He published his own thoughts using his own printing presses. It wasn’t the magazine business. He did it all on his own.”

Cometbus is a case in point. A hand-collated zine with a cult following, it recounts the travels, incidents and imaginings of Aaron, an American drifter who wanders the contemporary landscape in search of adventure, both ordinary and profound. With more than 30 issues published in 12 years, Cometbus is considered a classic in this subterranean world. Like many zines, it is filled with words. Issue No. 30, for instance, is 82 pages of pure print, sometimes crawling off the page. It contains this paean to punk love: “Punk rock love is . . . looking at her tattoos while she’s asleep. Taking showers together. Playing checkers with cigarette butts. Watching her band play . . . Both of you having the same ex-girlfriend . . . Her giving you 10 rolls of duct tape for your birthday. Her beating up skinheads. Going to the prom on her motorcycle and checking in the helmets at the coat check . . .”

With its low cost of entry — a few thousand dollars and access to a copying machine — this society of self-publishers is growing fast. This year alone, at least 20,000 titles have been produced in the U.S., and Friedman says the cottage industry is growing at an annual rate of 20%. Doug Biggert, who oversees the supply of some 500 titles at 102 of the Tower record, video and book stores, says the chain sells 4,000 zines a month. The supply always changes, of course. Dozens of new titles pop up and fold each month and focus on everything from the benign to the outre. 8-Track Mind, for instance, extols the aural experience of listening to eight-track tapes. ANSWER Me!, on the other hand, claims to tap “primal longings for violence,” according to its 33-year-old publisher, Jim Goad. Issues have contained the text of an actual phone conversation between euthanasia advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian and a woman pretending to be terminally ill (in reality, Goad’s wife), as well as articles about the North American Man/Boy Love Association, a pro-pedophilia organization. Goad is about to publish “The Rape Issue,” which includes such articles as “Let’s Hear It for Violence Toward Women.” An admirer of Louis Farrakhan and David Duke, Goad proudly describes what he does as “journalism without a social value.” Publishing, he says, “keeps people like me out of jail. The zine is a good outlet for aggression that otherwise might be spent injudiciously.”

The vast majority of zines, however, settle for the slightly irreverent. Some have literary aspirations, others revel in white-trash culture; some have , a weirdly tight focus, others purposefully ramble. Diseased Pariah News uses gallows humor to lampoon the daily trauma of living with AIDS; Processed World ridicules the consumer culture of Popeye’s chicken shacks and Subway sandwich shops; the I Hate Brenda Newsletter lambastes former Beverly Hills, 90210 star Shannen Doherty for everything from her pancake-white makeup to her recital of the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 Republican Convention. Dirt Rag is a service zine for dirt bikers that lists the sport’s contests and teaches readers how to make spiked ice tires for the winter. Chuck glorifies trailer- park food — such dishes as Armour Potted Meat Food Product; and FishWrap publishes poetry like Craig Thompson’s “Swarm,” which includes the line: “Splattered on the windshield, a thousand gnats struck low by physics.”

Friedman traces contemporary zines to two sources. One route passes through the highbrow beat poetry of the 1940s and ’50s that, because of its small audience, perfected the art of producing the small-run, beautifully crafted publications called chapbooks. The other follows the science-fiction press back to its pulp roots in the late ’30s when fans of this literary genre circulated rough, mimeographed copies of their own voluminous stories, commentary and manifestos.

The exploding of the punk scene in the late ’70s gave rise to the first fanzines, which were devoted to the bands and their followers. Fanzines soon branched out, engaging in more general critiques of contemporary mores and aesthetics but always reflecting the personal tastes of their publishers: thus they evolved into so-called perzines. Nancy’s, edited by Ohio librarian Nancy Bonnell-Kangas, broke the “band barrier” in the mid-’80s to become one of the earliest perzines to address nonmusic issues. Now in its 10th year, its current offering is called “The Ground Issue” and includes articles on the richness of humus, the sweetness of yams and the delights of beet salad.

Whether discussing food or crepe-sole shoes, the point is always to take the personal public, while preserving an intimate audience. That’s why the thing most feared by a zine publisher is fame, even the notorious kind. Greta, for instance, is the publisher of Mudslap, but Greta is an alias, and she puts out her zine as she hitches rides in the boxcars of America’s railway system. “I don’t want anyone to know too much about it — ’cause if they do, then people will think they’re Jack London or Steinbeck. They’ll go freight hopping and get their legs cut off. Please don’t do it.” Greta is not just worried about inspiring imitators. Her underground status also allows her to justify her unconventional publishing practices. “If you’re mainstream, you can’t steal postage. You can’t plagiarize. You can’t ditch bills. You can’t be incendiary. You can’t be yourself,” she says.

Bobby S. Fred also uses an alias to run an independent record label — which he refuses to name — and to edit a post-punk zine called Bobby Is Fred. He makes his living stuffing burritos at a Del Taco in Los Angeles. Unlike wannabes who prowl Sunset Plaza looking to get noticed, Bobby craves obscurity. He enjoys saying his favorite activity is eating at such trendy restaurants as Spago — by serving himself from the Dumpster out back. “Look, this is a nation of disenfranchised kids,” says Bobby. “The reason we don’t talk to the mainstream media is because we want to guard the few places that we have left, like our zines.” But the secret is getting harder to keep. A budding zinemeister can now consult a glossary called The World of Zines, put out by Penguin, which offers helpful hints on how to start your own.

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