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The History and
Characteristics of Zines
by Fred Wright

Introduction, The Word, Fanzines, From Fanzine to Zine, Other Ancestors
Beat Poetry Chapbooks, Revolutionary War Broadsides, Russian Samizdat, Dada, Appropriation, Detournement, Subculture Style, Beyond Commodification, Independence and Autonomy, How to Order


One of the most interesting cultural phenomenona of the past two decades has been the proliferation of zines, self-published periodicals with small press runs, often photocopied, frequently irreverent, and usually appealing to audiences with highly specialized interests. With an estimated 20,000 in existence, zines can no longer be regarded as a strictly underground culture phenomenon, but must be accepted as a significant, if not permanent, part of the American cultural landscape.
Zine publishers produce works comprising a wide variety of subjects, ranging from punk rock music to bowling, from the collection of Pez dispensers to the daily occurrences of the zine publisher's personal life. Despite their disparity of subject matter, the great majority of zines share many common characteristics that bear examining as a whole—such as their emphasis on autonomy and independence, and their often confrontational relationship with mainstream culture and communication media—and the tremendous growth of zines in the past two decades (which Factsheet Five, the zine devoted to reviewing other zines, calls "the zine revolution") is a phenomenon alone well-deserving of study. For zines are not commercial ventures: few zine publishers expect to make a monetary profit from their work, and yet they invest considerable amounts of money and time publishing their zines.
Why then do they continue to publish? The quick answer is that they publish for essentially personal reasons, which vary widely from individual to individual. The aim of this study will be to explore those reasons in detail, and achieve a better understanding of the role of zines in the lives of the publishers, the lives of their readers, and American society in general.
In this article, I trace a brief history of zines and survey and analyze some of their common characteristics. To aid my study, I employ some of the theories of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose close attention to language as a determining force in the lives of human beings and whose division of human subjectivity into the registers of the Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real are useful tools when exploring the complex relationship between human beings and language evidenced in zines.

The Word

Keeping Lacan's linguistic orientation in mind, it is appropriate to begin with the etymology of the word "zine." The most distant ancestor of the term "zine" in the English language is the word "magazine," which comes itself from the Arabian word "makhazin"—the plural of "makhzan," meaning storehouse. In English, magazine retains the same meaning, but has become more commonly known as the name for a periodical that contains "miscellaneous pieces" of writing, a definition that would seem to fit most zines as well. But although related, magazines aren't zines, and it isn't a simple matter of dropping the "maga" to arrive at "zine," as Larry-bob, publisher of the zine Holytitclamps, points out:

    "There is no apostrophe in zine. Zine is not short for magazine. A magazine is a product, a commercial commodity. A zine is a labor of love, producing no profit, and zine, information is just another ingredient, thinly sliced layers to keep the cream filling of advertising from sticking together. Information is the reason a zine exists; everything else, down to on."

Larry-bob diametrically opposes the words "zine" and "magazine" in the above statement, using the terms as what Lacan would call master signifiers—"any [words] that the subject has identified with (or against) and which thus constitute powerful positive (or negative) values." In Larry-bob's statement, "zine" is a positive master signifier connected to other positive signifiers such as "information" and "love," while "magazine" is a negative master signifier connected to other negative signifiers such as "product" and "commodity."
Larry-bob's view is common among zine publishers. From their viewpoint, magazines are produced for money, and for money alone; the magazine supplies a demand in the marketplace and would not exist if there were not money to be made from advertisers and readers. Consequently, Larry-bob and other zine publishers view the zine as the antithesis of the magazine; it is uncorrupted by money or the demands of advertisers. Money exists only to sustain the zine a little longer, and not the other way around. A zine is produced for purer, personal reasons—the only demand it supplies comes from the creator's imagination and not the marketplace.


The reasons for this sharp differentiation between magazines and zines comes directly from zines' closest relative and the immediate source of the term "zine": the fanzine. Like zines, the earliest fanzines were produced for personal and not financial reasons. They were predominately produced by aficionados of a certain subject, most frequently fantasy and science-fiction literature, as documents to celebrate their devotion and interest. As Fredric Wertham points out in his book "The World of Fanzines." The word fanzine was originally an in-group slang expression used loosely and interchangeably with 'fan-mag,' that is fan magazine."
This signification of "fan magazine" differentiated the publications produced by fans from the "professional newsstand magazines" such as Amazing Stories and Weird Tales, which were referred to as "prozines"—professional magazines. Fanzines were widely devoted to discussion of science-fiction and fantasy literature, and featured articles, cartoons, and fiction related to the subject, all produced by the fans themselves. In her introduction to "Some Zines," Cari Goldberg-Janice writes that the fanzines united far-flung fans to write about "the subject they loved to talk about the most—science fiction."
Many fanzine writers aspired to write in the prozines someday, and many did, notable among them Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Robert Heinlein. Stephen Perkins lists the first fanzine as The Comet, which appeared in 1930, and summarizes the influence of these early fantasy/science-fiction fanzines on today's zines in his pamphlet, Approaching the '80's Zine Scene.

  • Fanzines are noncommercial, nonprofessional and irregular small run publications which have taken advantage of the cheapest and most accessible tech duplicating (ditto) and xerography, as well as more traditional printing methods such as offset printing.
  • Fanzines are published by and for special interest groups and they provide a physical link between those communities and, equally importantly within that community. The inclusion of correspondents' and contributors' addresses establishes the fanzine as an 'open system,' and one in which interaction and reader involvement is essential.
  • The distribution of fanzines takes place principally within the community that generated it (small print runs and the noncommercial ethos mitigating against wider circulation.) Aside from subscribers and contributors, editors frequently adopt a fairly idiosyncratic approach to who receives copies, with some fanzines not for sale and some for exchange only.

As Perkins details, the zines of today continue to possess many of the same qualities of the early fantasy/science-fiction fanzines. They are noncommercial, produced by cheap and accessible technology, unite a community with a specific interest, and generally stay within that community and remain unknown to outsiders.

From Fanzine to Zine

Although originating in fantasy/science-fiction fandom, fanzines eventually spread to other areas of aficionado interest, particularly music and comic books, and the term "fanzine" came to denote fan publications in those fields as well. As the practice of fanzines spread to other fan communities, the new publications inherited the qualities from the original fantasy/science-fiction fanzines, eventually passing those qualities on to what would become known as zines.
The evolution from fanzine to zine was not a simple one-step process however. For once outside the exclusive domain of fantasy/science-fiction fandom, fanzines became imbued with the spirit of other independent publishing ventures such as the underground press of the 1960s, mail art magazines, and Amateur Press Associations (APAs—which also played a large part in fantasy/science-fiction fandom). Consequently, the fanzines produced outside of fantasy/science-fiction fandom became much less fan publications, and much more of a mongrel breed of publication all their own.
The term "zine" was finally adopted because, although these idiosyncratic publications resembled fanzines, the traditional definition of fanzine did not seem to apply. What is John Marr, publisher of Murder Can Be Fun, a fan of anyway? Murder? Crime? Death? One can certainly have an active interest in those subjects, but could one be truthfully described as a fan of those subjects? Probably not, and the evolution from fanzine to zine saw the elimination of the fan.
The shift from fanzine to zine also dismissed the hierarchy of producer and consumer that lies implicit in the fanzine's very name. There was no longer a quiet differentiation between fanzines and prozines. It's difficult to imagine Jim and Debbie Goad of ANSWER Me! or Jeff Koyen of Crank doing their zines for apprentice work and merely aspiring to someday break into commercial publishing as was the case with so many of the writers of the early fantasy/science-fiction fanzines.
Even the zines especially devoted to a certain interest are much less reverent to their subject. The zine Maximumrocknroll can serve as a mere catalog of this month's latest punk rock releases, but it primarily serves as a discussion forum for all aspects of "punk." Indeed, many issues devote considerable column inches to what being a "punk" means in society, coming closer to being a symposium rather than a shopping mall. The readers and writers of these zines view themselves more as an egalitarian community rather than a community which contains a hierarchy of producers and consumers, with many of the consumers aspiring to get to the top end of the hierarchy and become producers themselves.
However, the term "fanzine" is still used in fantasy/science-fiction fandom, and some members of that community regard the current generation of zines as nothing more than upstarts which will fade away soon, returning the term "fanzine" to its original uncorrupted meaning of denoting fantasy/science-fiction fan publications. In his article, "Zines (or, Fear and Loathing in the World of Amateur Press)," Peter Maranci writes:

    "I might also interject here that the entire zine 'revolution' of the last few years is somehow mildly amusing to those in the science-fiction and role-playing field. Zines on those subjects have been published for the last 50 years or more. It seems likely that the sex/music/goth/whatever zine fad is just that, a fad; in time, it will go ion between SF/RPG [Science-Fiction/Role-Playing Games] and the new breed of zines."

Maranci views the zines of today as just extensions of the older fanzines to other areas of interest, and a flip through the pages of many self-produced underground publications would support his claim. This explains why the terms "fanzine" and "zine" are often used interchangeably, although I argue that there is a difference between the two types of publications. The difference is not as wide a gulf as between zines and magazines, but it is considerable.
Fanzines, not just those devoted to fantasy/science-fiction literature, but in all areas of interest, are still, paradoxically, products created by consumers. They draw their most significant inspiration from the products of others. The line between fanzine and zine blurs at times because they are so closely related, and many self-published periodicals such as Maximumrocknroll are mixtures of both. The telling difference between the two types of publications is that ultimately fanzines rest upon a hierarchy of producer and consumer that zines transcend. The best zines, whatever their subject, do not inhabit a ready-made world; they create one unto themselves.

Other Ancestors

Ironically, although zines can be seen physically to descend from fanzines, in spirit they also hearken back to other, older self-publishing ventures of independent spirit and vitality such as American broadsides from Revolutionary days, Russian Samizdat material, Dada and other avant garde art and social movements' magazines and manifestoes, and beat poetry chapbooks.
Although it's fairly certain that most zine publishers were readers of fanzines or other zines before they started their own zines, it's uncertain how familiar, except by hearsay, most zine publishers are with these older publications. Nevertheless, many zine publishers have claimed affinity with these older publications, and apparently, like a whisper down the corridors of history, these works, just by the fact that they once existed, serve as both inspiration and influence to many of today's zines.


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