We’re lucky enough to live in an age where we have all the knowledge of the world at our fingertips. The internet offers us a plethora of online platforms which equip everyone with a WiFi connection and the ability to become creators. And while countless creators benefit from this surplus of both content and tools, many artists don’t receive the same satisfaction from digital media as opposed to print. Enter: the recent surge in the world of zines.
Mass media has dominated the publishing industry, and in recent years there’s been a spike in self-publication with self-published books now contributing to 31% of e-book sales on Amazon’s Kindle Store. While the majority of work online has been self-published, there’s an unmistakably different feeling when your work becomes a physical publication.
A zine is a short-circulated, self-publication of original images and texts, often reproduced by photocopy. Most zines are physical works that circulate in 1,000 or fewer copies. Zines typically emerge from and primarily circulate through subcultures, and have never fully entered the mainstream social consciousness. Gaining popularity from the 1930s to the 1960s, fanzines dominated the zine publication scene. Primarily focused on the genre of science fiction, these fanzines allowed fans to write not only about the media they loved but also about the fandom community they were apart of. Many prominent fantasy and science fiction authors are rumoured to have had their start in fanzines, including Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and George R. R. Martin.
Moving from science fiction, zines then found a place amongst 1970s punk culture. Technological advances and cheap photocopying made it easy for these young alternative youth to create cheap publications. In the 1980s came the Factsheet Five, who catalogued and reviewed zines and small press creation that was submitted to them. This formed a network of zine creators and readers. They even coined the term “zinester”, and acted as a kind of headquarters for creators and audiences in the pre-internet era. In the 1990s with the birth of the Riot Grrrl movement, the sub-genre of “girl zines” gained popularity with the movement of third-wave feminism. The “girl zine” genre became so popular amongst the Riot Grrl movement that zinesters Erika Reinstein and May Summer created Riot Grrrl Press, a zine distribution network. The Riot Grrrl zine movement is still very present today. Many female zine creators believe that the print publications allow many women to avoid the harassment and abuse they might encounter online. In more recent years, zines have made a comeback and are now embraced by a new generation. This can be seen with the revival of DIY philosophy in publications like Rookie Mag, and online art societies like the Art Hoe Collective.
There’s a clear pattern in the creators of zines. Coming from countless subcultures and even marginalised groups, there is one thing they all have in common— they’re not represented in mainstream media. This lack of representation drives them to create their own content to share their experience with those who are clueless to the differences, and to those who share the experience to give them something to relate to. They fill a gap in the market to those who belong to the counter-culture. In certain cases, it even creates a rapport between politics and indie media production, i.e. the Riot Grrl movement.
One contemporary zine that tackles important issues is the queer zine, Side Effects. This zine is an inclusive publication which focuses on mental illness in youth in the LGBTQ+ community. Editor and Founder Meghan O’Connor cites Side Effects as being birthed from “[the] void of conversation at the intersection between being queer and being mentally ill”. It acts as a platform for young queer artists to express themselves through multiple mediums including writing, photography, illustration, and collage. Side Effects brings to surface the relationship between being queer and being mentally ill and what it means for the young people at this intersection. She states the “idea with side effects was to offer these young people a sense of belonging and community, and also to offer them some validation in their art. I want to give them something they can feel accomplished for because they deserve to take pride in themselves and their talent”.
I recently spoke to Meghan about why she chose print media over a digital platform. She notes that print media gives audiences a more personal connection with the media. “It’s low-cost, it’s visually pleasing and there’s a bit of charm to it because of its ‘old-fashionedness’. Since it’s a bit of a quirky way to produce something, I think it speaks to young queer artists and hits home for them in a way it wouldn’t quite access mainstream audiences.”
The idea of a physical form of art seems to give creators and their audiences a higher sense of satisfaction and contentment. There’s something that feels more real about print media. When creating content you in print media “you get to hold something in your hands and know that you were responsible for its creation,” Meghan said. She also explained that there’s a sense of “legitimacy” and a “form of validation” in print work. Meghan also states that if she had chosen an online platform as opposed to a zine Side Effects it wouldn’t have “connected with [her] audience in the same way”.
The content for Side Effects all comes from online submissions. On the Side Effects social media they put out a call for “queer artists under the age of 21” who “want to see [their] work in print”. The collaboration of artists in zines bring together a sense of community that doesn’t otherwise occur online. With the sense of contentment that comes with having a physical version of your work, there’s also a sense of satisfaction knowing that your drawing, or article, or poem is sitting on someone else’s bookshelf halfway across the world. As Meghan puts it, “zines have heart, whereas digital platforms can feel a bit cold and disconnected.”
Although we live in an age of digital media, print zines still maintain relevancy. There’s something in holding your own art in your hands, and even receiving someone else’s hard work in a physical format. Zines are pivotal in the maintenance of subculture, as they provide audiences with the representation that they lack in mainstream media. While probably never entering mainstream social consciousness, zines bridge the gap for the rest of us, between an identity that is either poorly represented or completely lacking. Zines aren’t created for profit, they’re created for self-expression. In a world built on profit and marketability zines are special, they give power back to audiences to become creators, and they give everyone an opportunity for self-expression.