The History and
Characteristics of Zines
by Fred WrightPART I
Introduction, The Word, Fanzines, From Fanzine to Zine, Other
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.
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 wholesuch as their emphasis on autonomy and independence,
and their often confrontational relationship with mainstream
culture and communication mediaand 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.
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
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."
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
reasonsthe 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."
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 mostscience 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
- 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 (APAswhich
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.
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
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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