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Beat Poetry Chapbooks

Aside from fanzines, the mimeographed poetry chapbooks of the 1940s and '50s produced by the Beat writers and poets of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance are generally cited as the most immediate source of today's zines. Because of the small audience for these publications initially, the Beats and the San Francisco poets "perfected the small-run, beautifully crafted publications called chapbooks." According to zine publisher Michael Stutz:

    "They mimeographed tons of stuff, little chapbooks and poetry rags—and all of this directly comes from the Greatest Living Poet, Allen Ginsberg. His background was trying to get the work of [he] and his friends (like Burroughs and Kerouac) out there in the public . . . when he hooked up with the SF [San Francisco] people, he did the same thing . . . they made little booklets for self-promotion, and it worked."

Zines, particularly of the artistic and literary variety, have continued the Beat tradition of fine quality and innovative design. Many zine publishers also carry on the immediacy and Do-It-Yourself spirit of the Beat chapbooks, both in writing style and publishing methods, in their own work.

Revolutionary War Broadsides

However, the Beats and San Francisco poets could be seen as just one step in a long tradition of American individualism, especially where printing and publishing are concerned. Seth Friedman, one-time publisher of Factsheet Five, is quoted in Time as saying, "Benjamin Franklin made zines. He published his own thoughts using his own printing presses. It wasn't the magazine business. He did it all on his own." Franklin, like almost all of colonial America's printers, in addition to taking on outside orders, published his own work on the side in the form of pamphlets and broadsides.
This practice increased in frequency as colonial America broke from Britain, with printers taking both sides, as Carl Berger describes in "Broadsides and Bayonets: The Propaganda War of the American Revolution": "From the beginning it was a war of words as well as gunpowder, with each major protagonist seeking to subvert and weaken the enemy camp with carefully prepared arguments." The strong parallel between the printers of the Revolutionary War era disseminating their political views via the broadside and pamphlet and zine publishers spreading their opinions and viewpoints via the zine formulates easily, especially because independence and autonomy operate so strongly in the activities of both.
It could also be argued that the parallel, especially in light of Friedman's statement, demonstrates how zine publishers attempt to bring the now corporate and complex publishing world back to its roots, the lone printer of Franklin's day.

Russian Samizdat

Another primarily politically oriented publishing activity that serves as a parallel to the zines of today is the Russian activity of Samizdat, most prevalent during the lifetime of the Soviet Union. "Samizdat" literally means "self-publishers," and George Saunders, in the foreword to Samizdat: Voices of the Soviet Opposition, describes its origins:

    "Samizdat is a Soviet term coined by post-Stalin dissidents f or the old Russian revolutionary practice , from the days of the czarist censorship of circulating uncensored material privately, usually in manuscript form—nonconformist poetry and fiction, memoirs, historical documents, protest statements, trial records, etc. The name "Samizdat"—Self-Publishers—is an ironic parody of such official acronyms as "Gosizdat," meaning State Publishers (short for Gosudarstvennoe Izdatelstvo). More colloquially, one might translate Samizdat as the Do-It-Yourself Press. The message is clear: "If the bureaucrats won't print it, we'll get it around ourselves."

American zine publishers don't have to worry about bureaucrats not printing their material; their adversary is the marketplace. Many zines fill niches mainstream publishers won't, for reasons ranging from subject matter (e.g., The Black Flame, which deals with Satanism) to commercial viability (e.g., 8-Track Mind, a forum for eight-track cassette collectors). Zines, like Samizdat, also define themselves boldly against the official, or mainstream culture, and provide an alternative form of communication.
Therefore, zine publishers sometimes refer to their activity as a form of Samizdat. This is most easily evidenced by Merritt Clifton's book "The Samizdat Method," which instructs prospective zine and other underground publishers in how to set up their own printing facilities.


Like the participants in Samizdat, the artistic rebels of Dada, particularly in the movement's beginnings in Zurich during World War I, had to resort to underground publishing in order to make such bold statements in their publications as "we demand the right to piss in different colors." In addition to their desire to shock bourgeois sensibilities (which would become a common characteristic of many of today's zines), the Dada magazines, Cabaret Voltaire, Dada, 291, 391, and New York Dada, also demonstrate techniques that would become future staples of zines: rants, detournement, and collages.
Many of these techniques would later be adopted by the surrealists in their publications, and later still the situationists would pick up on the same techniques in their publications. The influence of the situationalist publications, filtered through the punk movement of the late nineteen seventies, would cause Bob Black to later reflect in his 1994 book "Beneath the Underground" that "No small number of the thousands of zines which have come out in the last fifteen years look like messy versions of Situationist International publications."
The techniques of these various social and artistic avant-garde groups continue in the zines of today primarily because they are so accessible person. Collages are easy to make, and certainly everyone has ranted at one time or another. Detournement (demonstrated most simply by the changing of comic strip captions) can also be easily achieved—all it takes is a few strokes of the pen. All have long been hallmarks of artistic rebels everywhere and are integral characteristics of zine culture.


Collage and detournement often involve mainstream cultural icons and are part of an overall aesthetic in zines that involves the appropriation of mainstream culture for the purposes of the zine publisher. This appropriation of mainstream cultural icons by zines can be seen most easily in the defacement and distortion of names from mainstream culture. The names of most zines range from the outrageous (e.g., Asshole Weekly, Fucktooth, Murder Can Be Fun, etc.) to the merely silly (e.g., Eat Poop, Fat Nipples, Tangy Bunnies, etc.), but some are specially designed to disturb mainstream sensibilities by twisting the names of mainstream magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and SPIN into Better Homos and Gardens and SPUN.
The tweaking of the mainstream's nose can also be seen in the appropriation of mainstream images by zines. In the first issue of Asbestos, an Absolut Vodka advertisement (which frequently appears in mainstream magazines) appears with the head of a penis attached to the top of the bottle. The caption reads "Absolut Dick," and thus absolutely changes the message behind the advertisement. The Bil Keane cartoons ("The Family Circus") that appear with new captions in the Angry Thoreauan are also prime examples of appropriation and defacement. The replaced captions give the cartoons a sinister undertone. For example, Mommy scolds Jeffy and P.J. for sticking stamps on the refrigerator by telling them, "Why don't you try decorating the refrigerator from the inside?" In another cartoon, Dolly and Jeffy's conversation on a phone constructed of paper cups consists of "Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you" and "Fuck you, too."
If these were original cartoons featuring unfamiliar cartoon characters, chances are the jokes wouldn't be nearly as funny, or funny at all. It's precisely the fact that the cartoons have been taken out of their original context and fitted for the purposes of the zine that gives the new captions their shocking and humorous power.
The appropriation and distortion of mainstream cultural forms and images has long been an established part of zine production. It hearkens back to literary experiments like James Joyce's appropriation of advertising slogans in Finnegans Wake and William Burroughs "cut-up" experiments involving manuscripts and newspapers. In his book on the English punk movement of the late '70s, England's Dreaming, Jon Savage describes the process of appropriation, using one of his diary entries from the period:

    30.11.76: In the lunch hour, I sit on the bog attacking bits of paper with Pritt glue in a very real fever—gotto do it now, now. 'It' is a fanzine. I need to give the NME [New Musical Express, an English music magazine], '60s pop annuals, Wilhelm Reich and 'Prostitution' handbills, are slashed together around a long improvised piece about violence, fascism, Thatcher, and the impending apocalypse."

The language Savage uses to describe the appropriation ("attacking" and "slashed") is fitting, because this appropriation is an attack on the mainstream culture. The editor of Netshaker, Crackerjack Kid, explains that this is an attempt to define an individual voice through subversion of the media that barrages one constantly with its images night and day: "Networkers use zines to jam the communication age with media noise, appropriating the established media's fictive truths, detourning its images, [subverting its] mediated political, social, economic, and cultural dogma."


The detournement described by Crackerjack Kid was defined by the Lettrist International, a group of young Parisians in the 1950s, as "the theft of aesthetic artifacts from their context and their diversion into contexts of one's own devise." As Greil Marcus describes in his book Lipstick Traces, detournement was a means of reclaiming meaning in a world "where words were meaningless and [yet] they ruled the world."
Like the replacement captions of the "Family Circus" cartoons in the Angry Thoreauan and the defaced vodka ad in Asbestos, the Lettrist International use of detournement was, in Marcus's words, "a politics of subversive quotation, of cutting the vocal cords of every empowered speaker, social symbols yanked through the looking glass." The subversion of the established culture by methods such as detournement is appealing to the subculture, because it carves out a space for the subculture to live and grow from within the mainstream culture (or in Lacanian terms, the Symbolic order—those systems such as culture, language, government, and religion that define human subjects within their laws and boundaries) which constantly threatens to drown out (or water down) subcultural forms.

Subculture Style

In his book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige interprets subculture "as a form of resistance in which experienced contradictions and objections to [the] ruling ideology are obliquely represented in style. Specifically I have used the term 'noise' to describe the challenge to symbolic order that such styles are seen to constitute." The noise that Hebdige describes can be seen operating in the zine subculture. The very appearance of most zines—scruffy, untutored, printed on cheap paper, "seemingly on a whim, sometimes with no clear idea of 'good' layout or design"—can be viewed as a reaction to the slickness of mainstream magazines.
This attitude emerges directly from the punk fanzines of the late seventies, which provided "an alternative critical space within the subculture itself to counteract the hostile or at least ideologically inflected coverage which punk was receiving in the media." According to Hebdige, the unsophisticated appearance of these fanzines contributed to a feeling of authenticity:

    "The language in which the various manifestoes were framed was determinedly 'working class' (i.e. it was liberally peppered with swear words) and typing errors and grammatical mistakes, misspellings and jumbled pagination were left uncorrected in the final proof. Those corrections and crossings out that were made before publication were left to be deciphered by the reader. The overwhelming impression was one of urgency and immediacy, of a paper produced in indecent haste, of memos from the front line."

Beyond Commodification

The effect of the "immediacy" Hebdige describes leads the reader to believe that the punk fanzines are authentic, and get to the heart of the matter. They exist outside of commodification; they are real. The punk fanzines have no time to be corrupted by the petty demands of the marketplace. They come straight from the source.
If slickness is used as a method of deceiving people into buying useless consumer items so that the seller can turn a profit, then the rough appearances of the punk fanzines demonstrated that the punk fanzines—even if sold in a small record shop—existed outside of the network of buying and selling. A similar belief persists in many of today's zines. In a world where everything is a commodity, sloppiness denotes authenticity—something that exists beyond commerce—"a gift with no price tag," as Roger D., publisher of Cold, describes his conception of the zine.

Independence and Autonomy

The rough-hewn appearance of many zines is only part of an overall declaration of independence and autonomy by zine publishers, which essentially amounts to a thumbing of the nose at the Symbolic order that attempts to designate and define the boundaries of human subjects. The zine emphasis on independence and autonomy also explains why most publishers prefer to trade their work for the work of others, rather than sell it. By avoiding money except when absolutely necessary, zine publishers further defy and subvert the Symbolic order. They avoid the official system of commercial dealings and return to an ancient system of barter, trading goods directly for other goods. The use of the barter system allows the transactions to take on a more personal nature, a key concern with zines on all levels.

Fred Wright is a doctoral student in English at Kent State University. This history of zines was his master's thesis, which he distributes as a zine called "This Document Will Self-Destruct in 30 Seconds." He also plays guitar in a punk rock band called the Go-Go-Bots, reviews zines for Zine World and publishes a zine called drinkdrankdrunk.

Copyright 1997 Fred Wright. Posted with permission. To order Fred's zine, which includes more about the history and influence of zines and a lengthy bibliography, send three dollars to Fred Wright, 1413 Neshannock Blvd., New Castle, PA 16105

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