Handmade and experimental, zine culture has defied the rise of social media to be more popular than ever. As the internet shifts further and further away from its decentralised beginnings, the niche community-based nature of zines can provide a necessary respite.
Opening up the pages of a photocopied booklet, its content haphazard across the fold, its ideas new and untouched and trenchant – to a lonely, malleable 17-year-old like me they were a scattershot to the light. The World Wide Web had only started taking shape: in its adolescence we were laying waste to listservs and message boards, hidden behind identities we didn’t necessarily want to divulge.
At that time, social media was virtually non-existent, the only semblance of a ‘real’ identity expressed behind locked LiveJournal and MySpace profiles. Niche communities were found and formed, introducing networks to the outside world. Within these, I discovered the early do-it-yourself and feminist publishing movements, tumbling down a rabbit hole of history and theory I otherwise would not have had access to.
What was this thing called a zine and what sort of possibilities did it open?
For the uninitiated, a zine is a labour of love – a self-published collection of words and images carefully put together. There are no hard and fast rules. Zines are not only just typewritten, photocopied and stapled manifestos of personal affect, art and theory; they’re screenprinted, the size of your palm, an A0 piece of board folded into ten. They contain linocut prints, glossy pages and letterset type. They are fancy and peculiar and stylised and wonderful.
A zine is a labour of love – There are no hard and fast rules. They are fancy and peculiar and stylised and wonderful.
The zines I read in the 2000s mostly consisted of dry socialist theory, cut-and-paste layouts on the feminisms of Audre Lorde, morose retellings of cross-country trips abroad, black and white photos of punk bands printed on newsprint, scamming in late 90s New York. Now they include screenshots of rejected Tinder dates, full-colour comics detailing smut and desire, anthologies with a focus on punks of colour, genderqueer coming-of-age stories and fat-positive imagery.
Hand in hand with online media, zine culture was giving way to a collective consciousness made even more apparent and bridged by the unlimited possibilities the web had given birth to. Within this spirit, tentacles were spread even further outward to incorporate even more accessibility, and subsequently even more voices.
My introduction to zines in the early 2000s gave me the language to carve a reality outside the ones that were most readily accessible. Feminist zines like Doris and Greenzine provided me with an arsenal of knowledge about my place in the world, giving me a sense of independence and strength. When I pored over punk fanzines such as Punk Planet and Slug and Lettuce (RIP), they helped me see the world in a different light, new ways to live and think that are still with me more than a decade on. Of course, youthful idealism is the same story told countless times, but nonetheless the mantra felt like this: within this world, another world was possible.
In theory, the internet should have killed off interest in zines completely. In our age of late capitalism, where attention has gradually become an economy in itself, who has the time to savour earnest, carefully-crafted paper missives? The web, after all, is right there, redolent with snark. ‘Content’ in this instance becomes a double entendre, a non-stop stream of affect that results in an unfillable vortex of need: the need to always be entertained, the need to always be on the lookout for new ideas, the need to always work. We’re tired, but we can’t stop scrolling. The internet in 2017 is a beast that never seems to sleep – amidst the clutter it can feel like a struggle for ideas to stand out and sink in, making it difficult to properly process the range of perspectives offered.
The internet in 2017 is a beast that never seems to sleep – amidst the clutter it can feel like a struggle for ideas to stand out.
But it is perhaps these conditions that have allowed zine culture to continue to poke its head out, leading to resurgence after resurgence. Zines never truly went away – there have been times where it seemed like they were only relegated to the smallest corners, a secret only the committed and fanatical were privy to. But then something shifted: a rapid grasp for nostalgia, a renewed appreciation for DIY objets d’art and a new deluge of zines that continue to stretch what its definitions can entail.
Sticky Institute, a long-running zine store in Melbourne, sees this too. Since 2001, the store has provided a physical platform for both curious first-timers and full-fledged zinesters to join the fray, stocking up to 15,000 individual zine titles since inception. When I spoke with coordinator Luke Sinclair, he told me that recent zine fairs – from Melbourne’s Festival of the Photocopier to Noted Festival’s Independent Publishing Fair in Canberra – have exploded in capacity in recent years. At the Other Worlds Zine Fair in Sydney, stall-holders had to be reluctantly turned away. As Sinclair puts it, ‘Zines [have always been] there and are always awesome. Media coverage does lead to more zines. Great zine fairs too, which also lead to more people inspired to make zines.’
In Adelaide, where I live, artist and curator Haneen Martin has been organising a twice-yearly Zine Swap since May 2015. The event is exactly like it sounds: zine-makers apply for a stall and showcase their zines, swapping with other zinesters if they so please. When I participated in one early this year, I came away with a stack of new zines, my sci-fi microfiction collab turned into twelve other zines ranging from design ethics to New Zealand camping trip comics to a hand-drawn zine on sex techniques.
Using social media to get the word out, Zine Swap has enjoyed higher attendances over time, with its sixth iteration later this year. According to Martin, zines are meant for ‘people from a range of means and cultures’, a DIY medium she finds easier to organise with ‘minimal money, some goodwill, and my own hard work.’ It was through her work with zines that she says she was able to start getting taken seriously as a non-white curator and artist.
It was through her work with zines that [Martin] was able to start getting taken seriously as a non-white curator and artist.
Jonno Révanche, who edits and publishes the queer-centric Vaein Zine, told me that zines act as the logical result to online content creation and thought dissemination, ‘but in an IRL context’. For them, the act of zine-making feels intentional, a specificity that caters to self-validation in a more tangible way. A writer themselves, they feel the pressure that comes with deadlines and expectations surrounding other forms of media is non-existent when it comes to zines. The general sentiment that values physical publishing over online publishing also drives a zine-maker to put more thought into what they make. Despite that not being an overarching fact, ‘that thought is always hanging above your head when you’re creating something.’
Nine, a fellow zine-maker I got to know through trading zines years ago, echoes these sentiments, having been producing zines since 1994. A vocal advocate for sex workers’ rights, she is known for the zine Sex Industry Apologist, as well as personal zines detailing her travels to far-flung locales like Kurdistan, most of which have been archived in state libraries and other zine repositories. During our conversation, she noted what is most often mentioned: that zines provide information people can’t easily access elsewhere, which is especially important as they’re ‘not in the education system and may be hard to come across online if you don’t know what you’re looking for in the first place.’
Now based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Nine co-runs Biawak Gemok, a radical zine distribution source (also known as a distro) which centres marginalised voices. Explaining that one is more likely to return to a good zine than a good blog post, her personal goal with zines is to make available content that ‘makes people feel less alone in their identity,’ and ‘educates other people about what it’s like to have that identity.’
Unlike periodicals and literary journals, zines exist in a liminal space between traditional and new media where there are no gatekeepers; zine-makers answer to no-one but themselves. There are no limits as to what one can possibly dream up, no endgame in which one aspires towards profit. As a result, zines have always been kept affordable, their aesthetic varied, and their content inexhaustible. And as the internet shifts further and further away from its decentralised beginnings, zines can feel like a respite against the curated Instagram feed and promotional Facebook post. With zines, platforms are created to suit the work, not the other way around.
Unlike periodicals and literary journals, zines exist in a liminal space between traditional and new media; zine-makers answer to no-one but themselves.
To many participants of zine culture, zines can feel like a necessary pushback against cultural norms which can sometimes dictate or impose how certain identities are received. Every zinester I spoke to described the liberation of setting their own terms – unlike online media, there is no comments or analytics, no second-guessing whether your output will garner enough likes or follows, thus influencing the sincerity of your work. The care and intentionality behind zine-making also often coalesces in real-life engagement that can feel less fleeting. Once a zine is out in the world, there is no turning back.
This is perhaps a testament to the prolonged power of zines, even as the spin-cycle of culture keeps mutating to form different beasts. The handful of zines I’ve created and distributed in the past decade may one day re-emerge and cause me to cringe, but they provide a historical record into a moment in time that can never be replicated. Our LiveJournals may have disappeared, but our zines live on, always ready to be picked up again.