Opinion | An exploration of the super expressive world of zines

Zines are a crucial part of the cultural fabric of an open, reflective and responsive society

Today, 23 April, is World Book Day, a good occasion to ask the following question: If regular bookshops are leading a precarious existence, what to say of specialist stores? One of them, Wow Cool Alternative Comics near my home in Cupertino, California, used to be my weekly haunt. Not so long ago, its owner Marc Arsenault told me, “The sale of zines has gone up by 50% in my shop. In many ways, it is like the sale of vinyl records that has gone up regularly in the last few years." But Wow Cool, it turns out, is shutting down.

It was—and it’s sad to use the past tense—a bookstore that specialized in alternative comics, graphic novels, vinyl records and zines.

So, what exactly is a “zine" and why is it so special?

In the world of zines, the medium is as important as the content. The book is handmade, with no bar code or distribution channel, and it is often hand-delivered by the author. Most pages are photo copied. Sometimes, a zine is made from a single A-4 sheet folded and cut into a tiny eight-page booklet. The author controls every aspect from design to distribution. In many ways, the zine is the precursor to the blog, though more intimate.

Zine culture is centred around the United States and the United Kingdom, but is growing around the globe. Zine conferences and symposiums are being held, with Los Angeles and San Francisco hosting the most prominent ones. Many zines, which feature banned topics, are underground publications: they are too controversial to be in the mainstream space. Most have a local flavour and represent a certain community. Marginalized and fringe groups have continued to express themselves through this cheap, empowering medium.

The first zine I happened to read was Sammy the Mouse by Zak Sally. It had small and blurry text and the graphic style looked amateurish, but the story, about a mouse, was wacky and funny. This zine had a large circulation even though it had a niche audience. Another Zak Sally book is Folrath: An Account of Stupid Shit I Did in the Early 1990s! Then there is Can’t Lose by Melissa Mendes, about the TV show Friday Night Lights; Signal by New York City graffiti artist EKG; King-Cat by John Porcellino.

Aaron Elliot, author of Cometbus, is possibly the best-known zine writer; his zine is up to issue No. 58. His A Bestiary of Booksellers is a fascinating first-hand account of the lesser known world of New York pavement booksellers, and the underground booksellers spread all over North America. These eccentric characters are not into the high-end rare book trade; instead, they deal in books out of trailer homes, cramped apartments, pavements, and from cars and vans.

John Porcellino, curator of Spit and a Half, distributor, author and artist for King-Cat Comics, is another old timer. In Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, for example, he captures his experience as a pest control worker. He is up to issue No. 78 now.

Other popular long-running zines are Cindy Crabb’s Doris zine and Scam by “Iggy Scam" Erica Lyle. The paradox about extremely popular zines is that at some point their authors start printing them through a regular printer and binder, instead of Xerox copying sheets and stapling them, not least because they need 4,000 copies or more. The more successful zine writers possibly have a million readers online.

Consider the story of Pete Dishwasher, a former self-published zine author whose Dishwasher and In the City of Bikes are regular published books. Pete’s Dishwasher’s goal was to work as a dishwasher in all 50 states of the United States. Although he fell short of covering all 50, he discovered in the process that quite a few leaders, such as Malcolm X, and former American presidents, such as Ronald Reagan, had been dishwashers at some point or another in their lives. Pete Dishwasher was asked to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman and was so shy that he had his friend Jesse pretend to be him on air. Some years later, Pete Dishwasher himself appeared on the show to promote Dishwasher. He now lives in Amsterdam and runs a bike shop.

Zines, one academic critic pointed out, “are hyper-personal texts"—that is, they allow for the most personal of things to be written about or recorded. Critics feel that zines are an important component of the cultural fabric of a freethinking, responsive and reflective society. They are important cultural documents that reveal the creativity, values and complexity of the unrepresented and the marginalised.

When I asked Marc Arsenault (who has edited and art-directed the Eisner award-nominated books Malicious Resplendence by Robert Williams and The Michael Kaluta Sketchbook) why he thought zines were making a comeback, he said: “After a couple decades of screen fatigue, there has emerged a movement of people who want more direct and in-real-life experiences. They want the handmade. They want to see expressions that relate to them and their background more than what the latest Disney blockbuster has to offer. The IRL—In Real Life – movement has really started to become a vast cultural phenomenon. Zines are the personal blog post you hold in your hands and savour like a fine wine."

Here indeed is a publishing phenomenon to celebrate this World Book Day, the truly handmade in a digital world.

V.R. Ferose is an inclusion evangelist and senior vice-president at SAP based in Silicon Valley.


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