Zines: Where the Action Is: The Very Small Press in America

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Zines: Where the Action Is: The Very Small Press in America

By Mike Gunderloy, originally published in Whole Earth Review, Fall 1990, re-published with permission from the author.

I know a place where you can find out about the art of writing renga. A place where people discuss the merits of Japanese monster movies. A place where the preservation of cave fish is more important than housing developments. One where men grapple with feminism and what it means to their lives - and where women can be alone for a moment without the presence of men. One where new languages are being invented and learned even as you read this. One where workers, from old-line unionists to new burger-flippers, talk about work in their own words. One where the battle over where to hold science-fiction conventions is a matter of the gravest importance. One where millions of facts, near-facts, rumors, suspicions and downright lies are available to anyone who cares to look for them. The place? It's the very small press.

I'm excited about the very small press, whether you call it the underground press, the alternative press, or simply "zines" (short for "fanzines" a contraction of "fan magazines" which originated with lovers of science fiction). I don't mean, for the most part, things like Whole Earth Review on the scale I'm considering, Whole Earth Review is a megazine, so large as to be almost frightening. No, what I'm excited about are publications like Gray Matter, Flipside, Greed, Yellow Silk, Kick It Over, Sign of the Times, Union of Opposites, Philly Zine, Ju'i Lobypli, Quimby, and The Kvinde Hader Klub: things with a circulation in the thousands, the hundreds, and sometimes only in the tens. This is where the action is, where information (and disinformation) is free, where things are happening.

Of course, when you're immersed in a sea of hammers, it's sometimes difficult to remember that not everyone wants to drive nails all the time. I've been collecting the very small press since about 1977, seriously so since 1982 when I started publishing Factsheet Five. In mid-1990, I don't have an exact count except in archivist's terms: about 150 linear feet of files (with close to another foot coming in each week). As near as I can figure, that amounts to about 25,000 separate issues of some 10,000 titles. And at best, I'm only getting about 10 percent of what gets published in the United States alone - not even thinking about the rest of the world.

These figures are a bit less impressive when you think about the people at the other end of the information pipeline: the readers. Out of those 10,000 zines, only a few hundred have ever had a circulation over 1,000. Of these at least half have gone out of business - the half-life of a zine is on the order of two years (that is, two years from now half the current zines will be out of business). Even when they don't go bankrupt, editors on this scale tend to move on to other things as their interests change. Since for most of us there is no fortune and darned little fame to be made from publishing a zine, this is quite understandable. All in all, there are at most a couple of million people who read any of these things, and only a handful of hardcore zine junkies who, like myself, read lots of them.

So then why am I excited? Because these people, the few thousand publishers and the few million readers, are the ones at the cutting edge of social change. Even when they think they're just writing or reading about punk music, kite-flying, the revival of Asatru, or new sculpture, these people are part of A Phenomenon. Our industrial society has finally brought things to the point where almost anyone can own the means of production of a zine. Cheap photocopiers, cheap computers and (if you don't believe me, look at other countries) cheap postage have combined to bring the opportunity cost of publishing way down. And presented with the means to say things, people have found things to say. Better yet, they've discovered that other people will listen. And so a groundswell of publishers is appearing, people who realize that people can get things done, without the help of the major organizations which we tend to assume run society. The key word, for me, is gumption. That's what these publishers have and that's what we need more of if the 21st century is not to begin as a sorry mess. The people who work the hardest (and the smartest) in the coming decade will be the ones who define the future for all of us. I don't think I can predict what that future will be. But here's a hopeful lock at the leading sectors of the zine world.

Where the Action is:

The Kooks: This is an amorphous category and a hard one to generalize about, but it's certainly important. Not everyone who self-publishes seems to have their head together. The zines I am thinking of range from pathetic ramblings of those who think the government is running their sex lives to the more dangerous stuff put out by Nazis and Klanners. But I don't see any way to draw a line and say that one side is bad and not allowed to use the photocopier while the other side is okay, and can photocopy. For better or worse, self-publishing means we all get a voice. On a more positive note, the circulation of these things tends to remain small, and I suspect many of their subscribers want to laugh at rather than agree with the Nazis. That said, let's go on to happier kinds of zines.

Comics: With the arrogance born of ignorance, the people who self-publish comics refer to what they're doing as "The Small Press," as if there was no other. (Several other groups, notably the folks who publish literary magazines from college English departments and those who write about wrestling, do the same). Comics, and especially minicomics (the size of a quarter-sheet of standard paper, for easy reading and cheap production) are definitely on the upswing. But frankly, I can't make a lot of social hay out of this part of the small press, because they're a very closed community, dealing with one another but not reaching out to the wider world. (There are a few comics publishers who deal with issues like AIDS or nuclear war, but they're the exceptions.) Science-fiction fandom is the same way, and has been for decades: a closed universe of publishers. Probably as a result of this hermeticism, there are fewer SF fanzines today than there were thirty years ago - although this field is beginning to revive as well. The film-oriented folks are another insular community, though thanks to videotape, their numbers are growing.

Music: Now we come to what may well be the heart of current zinedom. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of zines out there dealing with music. These range from old-line fanzines focused exclusive on the Beatles (did you know people are now manufacturing counterfeit studio outtakes for gullible collectors?) or Springsteen to ones dealing with bluegrass or folk, but the vast majority are from the punk rockers. Now, I'm sure there are plenty of old-line hippies reading this who dismiss the punks as worthless kids, interested only in their own fun and not caring about the rest of the world.

Well, let me be the first to tell you it's not like that at all. Punks come in all varieties, but there are plenty of them who are deeply concerned about what sort of future they'll grow up to see. (For that matter, the original punks are over 30 by now themselves.) Animal rights, peace, anarchy, self-reliance, draft resistance, and censorship are a few of the topics I've seen discussed in these zines many times - along with music, of course. So don't write off the punks. Though their political analysis is sometimes rudimentary and their fashions may be chosen to deliberately annoy, there's a lot of good people beneath those mohawks or shaved heads. And they publish like mad, giving them an information network unsurpassed at the grassroots level.

Apas & MTMs: No, that's not the latest pair of designer drugs. Apa (by tradition not all capitalized) stands for Amateur Press Association, and MTM stands for Many To Many. They all work the same way, and can trace their heritage back a century or so to the advent of the affordable letterpress, which brought about a wave of self-publishing concerned with producing exquisite editions of various works. Letterpress publishers began trading their wares, and the first apas were born. Each quarter you would send, say, 50 copies of your latest product to a "Central Mailer," who would take these. along with 50 copies from 49 other people, and make 50 collated sets. Then you'd get one copy of everything back in the mail so you could see what other folks were up to. It wasn't long before some people started using these apas as a way to communicate, putting the content ahead of the form, leading to the current description of an apa as "a cocktail party in print." Science-fiction fans were particularly active in promoting this means of communication, since for decades they were scattered all over the country and had no cheaper means to stay in touch. But in the past several decades, the idea has spread more widely, and now there are apas on a variety of themes: Tarot cards, Mondragon-style communities, sex and erotica, comics, politics, and even self-publishing. Apas are a great way to get together with people sharing your own particular obsession. For a long time they were focused solely on discussion, but now some are becoming more action-oriented. For example, large SF conventions organize some of their activities via a dedicated Apa, while another group I know of is getting ready to try to run a seminar in print to help refine a new book.

High School Underground Papers: I can't say much here except that they seem to be on the upswing lately. We published one fifteen years ago at our high school, but it was mostly humor. in the last year or so, though, I've seen half a dozen new high school papers with a mix of poetry, humor, artwork, and socially conscious stuff. I hope this explodes soon, and suspect it will.

Anarchists: Yeah, the anarchists have been around for a long time, and any group of three anarchists has always printed five newspapers, but there are some exciting new developments in the anarchist press. The last four years have seen anarchist gatherings drawing young people from across the continent (though it looks as if there will not be such a gathering in 1990) and this in turn seems to have revitalized some of the anarchist press. Nowadays most anarchists are neither such slaves to Marx and Bakunin as the Old Left thinkers nor such insurrectionary hotheads as the New Left (though there are exceptions to both these rules). Instead, they seem to be building bridges to the peace movement and the ecologists and the gay community and the punks. I doubt that they'll bring about The Revolution, but they will help it to be more democratic.

Pagans: More and more worshippers of the Goddess are coming out of the broom closet these days, and the pagan press is active and vibrant, both with people trying to recover the old religions and people trying to develop modern alternatives. This is another community that's already going beyond the printed page, with several groups already owning land for retreats and more thinking about it. I expect a number of explicitly pagan intentional communities to develop during the nineties, linked by a strong press.

Artists: I use the term widely, to encompass poetry, prose, and visual works. What the very small press is doing in this area is helping to democratize art and at the same time to free it from previous limitations. Mail art has made artists of many people who could never have gotten into a gallery. This in turn has strengthened publications which print experimental art works - and encouraged experimental writers. People are battering down the barriers between artist and subject, fact and fiction, even language and nonsense, and doing so in ways which allow this community to build on past successes. Much of this stuff doesn't speak to me yet, but if we're to get new forms of thinking in the next decade, this is one place that they'll come from.

Sex and gender issues: I don't really have a good name for this category of zines, but I think there are connections between the successes of the gay, lesbian and bisexual presses, the women's movement, the newer men's movement, and a new wave of more humane erotica. As discourse about sex and sexuality and gender moves from the bathroom, bedroom and gutter to the printed page, it gets more integrated into everything else we're doing. We've by no means solved all the problems inherent in dealing with one another as sexual beings, but we've learned to recognize and confront these problems. Among other things, this means that the alternatives of the next decade are unlikely to be plagued by the overt sexism that marked such sixties groups as the SDS.

Social Justice: Finally, there are the people who are trying to make the connections back from our publishing efforts to a better world. There are a lot of groups involved in this, from many points of view: Greens, ecologists (social, deep or otherwise), peace activists, folks worried about toxic wastes, homeless activists, boycotters and tons of others. Some of these remain narrow special-interest groups, but the most exciting ones are trying to put together unified visions of a better future, drawing on resources from all over. It is these synthesists of the very small press who may ultimately have the most direct effect on our world. But I don't think they could do it without the support, direct and conscious or indirect and unintentional, of the rest of the zines, whether within the categories I've mentioned or not. In the end, it's all a seamless web, and we strengthen each other.