Whenever I get into a discussion about print culture, I always have to bite my tongue to stop myself saying “well, since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century…” and enter into a lengthy description of the role the printing press and its part in the reformation. Then, I realise that what I’ve really been asked is a much simpler question: “What is a zine?” I therefore choose to begin with that.
“Zines”, pronounced zeen, like magazine, are essentially that. Traditionally handmade, but often professionally printed, and invariably self-published or developed by independent publishers, zines are small booklets, usually containing poetry, prose, factual articles, photographs or illustrations. In order to be defined as a zine, it’s often said circulation must fall below 1000 copies per issue, butin reality it is usually much less than this. Some are totally unique, or may only have five or ten copies produced. The definition of a zine is somewhat loose; by its very nature, a zine does not have to conform to particular standards and ideas. When you publish something yourself, it leaves you in the driving seat, and there’s no need to stick to a theme or various publication norms. In fact, it is arguably the point of zines to stand out as something a bit different; they might contain controversial words and images, look at things in a different way, or feature art so post-post-post-modern I confess to not really understanding it myself. Zines are a great opportunity to create a series, such as one off comic books, or creative writing on a theme, but equally they can be standalone.
One type of zine many of us are familiar with is the fanzine. These are essentially publications based around something the producer admires, such as an artist or band. The most popular topics for fanzines include horror films and science fiction, and there is evidence of sci-fi fanzines as far back as the 1930s.
As an example, for fans of book and film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Mary Alice publishes a fanzine called Punk Rocky which centres around the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even one solitary cult film can provide fodder for a whole series of zines, if you have writers who are passionate about it.
Although you can make a zine about perfectly harmless, mainstream and normal material, as I have done, independent publishing inevitably becomes associated with more “alternative” genres. In this vein, zine cultue and the punk movement are intrinsically linked. Before social media, zines were the first port of call for interviews with lesser-known bands, and even the dates and locations of the hottest local gigs.
Another movement zines became closely associated with was the feminist movement. The underground Riot Grrrl movement, linked to third wave feminism and hardcore punk, addresses issues such as domestic violence, rape, patriarchy and female empowerment; Riot Grrrl subculture resulted in the production of many zines, some of which are now anthologised in a collection entitled A Girl’s Guide to Taking over the World: Writings from the Girl Zine Revolution. Giving a voice to groups who feel oppressed and marginalised such as young women, with whom the mainstream media did not take much of an interest, can therefore be said to be one of the greatest achievements of zine culture and independent publishing.
Indeed, independent, non-censored printed publication gives the opportunity to get political points across, as has been done since the 1400s, by affording publishers the ability to shock and awe; anyone who has been to a zine fair and seen the inevitable stalls with bloody political imagery, or in your face images of female genitalia will understand. While some of these bold statements would not wash with mainstream media – perhaps for some valid reasons – they are excellent opportunities to get people to talk and take notice. However, a worry for those of us who publish zines will always be this: if there is no censorship, how do we keep from causing offense?
The short answer is that we don’t. This can be both liberating and terrifying. Last year, UEA’s Feminist Society published an edition of their popular zine “Riot” with an image of a feminist kicking Robin Thicke. Although the woman in the illustration was labelled as a metaphor, “the embodiment of the anger of pretty much every feminist ever”: this nethertheless sparked debate among UEA students about whether the cover was promoting violence against men. I changed the title of an upcoming zine which I had intended as satirical when it was pointed out to me that those who only read the cover may find it offensive. The frightening thing about self-publishing is that the buck doesn’t stop with the bigwigs of your publishing company or your editor-in-chief. In self-publishing, it stops with you. It’s up to you to decide if you want to play it safe or simply admit that zines weren’t built to please everyone – quite the opposite, in fact.
In terms of distribution, it’s rare that a zine-maker or independent publisher will be in it for the money. Zines are a work of passion, and therefore tend to remain within small, niche markets or alternatively can be traded, borrowed or given away for free. Fairs take place across the country, many towns have their own zine archive, and zines can also be purchased on popular DIY websites such as Etsy.
When I started my first year at UEA, I was quite surprised that a university famed for its literary prowess and creative writing courses did not already have several zine groups. Aside from the Feminist Society and the occasional fanzine, there didn’t seem to be a community, as I had discovered amongst zinesters at the Dublin Zine fair when I lived in Ireland. In my my second year, I decided to set up a zine society of my own. where people could come together, collaborate, share ideas and self-publish. In an unexpected collaboration with co-founder Jessica Rhodes, who had been thinking along the same lines, UEA Publishers was born. We run workshops to produce zines, as well as reflecting a natural progression by producing a series of chapbooks which have been edited by a committee, and helping publish the Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology.
In pitching the society, and in particular the zine department, it was necessary to explain why zines are so necessary. If we’ve got Venue, why do we need zines? Submitting to a professional-style newspaper can often be daunting, whereas zines can be made for your own enjoyment and shown to as many or as few people as possible. Many people instead choose to keep a blog; I myself am one of them, but having experienced both I can certainly say that pressing your printed art into someone’s hands or watching them smile or laugh as they read your piece at a fair right in front of you is an entirely different experience to gaining followers on WordPress or Blogger. You can explore your creativity, challenge norms and come up with new and alternative views to be shared. If you write a zine or part of one, which within a few weeks’ time you find yourself disagreeing with, then great. That’s the point.