by Jessie Lynn McMains
It’s International Zine Month, so I’m using my first post as your new Writer-in-Residence to preach the Good Zine Word. I’ve been reading zines since the early ’90s, back when everyone and their hip uncle had a fanzine, and you could find them cheap or free in every coffee shop and record store. I’ve been making zines for almost as long as I’ve been reading them. When did I start making zines, you ask? I made my first zine the same year Green Day’s Dookie was released. You’ll never get to see my super-early zines, though. I rarely share any of my zines pre-1997, and I never share any pre-1996, because all my zines prior to that are filled with embarrassing t(w)eenage rants and bad computer clip-art and Wingdings. (Anyone remember Wingdings?!)
What’s a zine? A zine (pronounced zeen, short for ‘fanzine’) is sort of a cross between a magazine and a short book. Some of them are more like magazines, some of them are more like books, it all depends on the content and how they’re bound together. They are usually made inexpensively, using whatever tools the creator(s) have on hand, and can range from something as simple as one sheet of paper folded into eighths and written on with pen, to something more like eighty pages of text and artwork, with vellum covers and hand-sewn binding. They are usually printed either at home or with the help of a photocopier, and then stapled or hand-bound, though some people (especially those who do larger print runs) may send them out to a printing service for printing and binding. They are sometimes made by just one person, and other times made by a team of people. Similarly, sometimes all the content is written/drawn/photographed by just one person; other times, one or more people act as editor and include writing and/or artwork by a bunch of people.
There are as many types of zines as there are people who write them. There are science fiction fanzines (the sci-fi fandom of the ’60s is really where zines as we know them today began, but I digress), punk zines, hip-hop zines. There are fiction zines, poetry zines, art zines, how-to zines, recipe zines. There are political zines and personal zines, and many zines are a combination of various content—you may find a story about the author’s childhood next to a couple pages of album reviews, followed by some photos they took at the skatepark and a recipe for vegan chili. The only thing that unites zines is Dr. Martens boots1 — er, I mean that they are done without corporate or institutional backing. (If your zine is paid for by a corporation, spoiler alert, it’s no longer a zine! It’s a magazine at best, and an advertisement at worst.) Because of this, most zines do not have ISSNs or barcodes, though there are notable exceptions—such as Razorcake, who are still very DIY and not-for-profit, but use ISSNs and barcodes so their zine can be sold in stores that don’t take things on consignment, and therefore reach a wider audience.2
And what’s International Zine Month? It’s this super-cool thing where every year in July, a bunch of people do a bunch of a zine-related activities. There’s even a poster you can download and print out, with ideas for ways to celebrate each day.
My favorite type of zine is the ‘perzine,’ which is a portmanteau of ‘personal zine.’ Perzines can include any type of content, but rather than just being a zine of, say, recipes or photographs or poems, that content is interspersed with stories and musings from the author’s own life. Other times, the author uses traditional fanzine ‘tropes’ to write about their own lives and feelings—for example: they write a film review that’s really about watching said film as a child, or they review non-traditional things like jobs they’ve had or shoes they’ve worn. And, many times, all the content is just straight-up personal essay or memoir, woven together around a theme or a particular span of time. I like perzines because one of my favorite things about zines is the chance to get inside the head of the creator(s), to walk around in their high-top Chucks or Dr. Martens boots. And because, since zines are DIY ventures without institutional approval or corporate funding, anyone can tell their stories in zine-form—and often times, the stories you find there are by people who would not otherwise be represented in more mainstream publications.
Certain zines have had as much impact on me and my writing as any mainstream or canonical work of literature I’ve ever read. There are zines I have read so often their covers have fallen off and their pages have torn. There are things I’ve read in zines that have etched themselves into my very marrowbones. What follows is just some of the zines I’ve collected over the past twenty years that have made such an impression on me.
Thirty-Six Snapshots, by Kat Case (c. 2001)
One of those zines that’s more like a book. 90 pages long, bound with staples and duct tape. Snapshots, vignettes: navigating the world as a young queer woman. Fitting uncomfortably (or not at all) into the roles society expects of you. Gender and sex, heartbreak and booze. And:
Joey Ramone is dead so we drive to a cheesy gay karaoke bar. There are all these straight yuppies singing Garth Brooks songs, and we are the gang of five, two fags kissing on stage screaming I Wanna Be Sedated like we need it. And I hump my friends’ legs because fuck the world, our history is disappearing while we watch. And so much of it makes me wanna kill, the soft colors and blond hair and all the gentle feminine expressions relaxing towards a dude who is crooning out soulful ballads. This white guy who probably sings for some frat funk band tries to give his gutted version of reggae to every easy listening song he sings. And all we can fucking do is scream, we belt out all the verses of that horrible song right along with them baby yr all that I want when yr lying here in my arms I find it hard to believe we’re in heaven. We’re in heaven.
She yells to me “what the fuck does that mean?” and repeats the lines with as much anger as we had when all we had was anger to get us through a world that transformed us into nothing but the hunted. We scream every word like we’re death metal but serious but we’re not serious at all, we are crying up tears of regret and sheer insane power as we shake each other’s shoulders and yell along with every fucked-up love ballad they shove at us and when it was our turn to sing for Joey we knew what to do: I flipped the fuckers off at the end of the song and we left.
So yeah we drove by the punk rock record store and yelled Pet Sematery and Sheena Is A Punk Rocker for the dyke bar but really we just sang I Wanna Be Sedated over and over and we’re lucky the man didn’t find us and make an executive decision that we should get what we asked for.
[from “Good-Bye Joey Ramone”]
Sadly, it’s impossible to find any recent writings by Kat Case, or any further information about her. (Believe me, I’ve looked.) For a while (from 2003-2005 or so), she wrote a column for Maximum Rocknroll, and a lot of those issues have been scanned and uploaded to Archive.org, so you may want to go poke around there if you’d like to read more of her stuff.
War Against the Idiots #27: Life On The River, by Liam ‘Idiot’ Warfield (c. 2003)
A lot of writers, zine or otherwise, come across one way in their writing and then you meet or talk to them and they’re nothing like you’d imagined. Liam is the complete opposite of that. He writes zines like he writes letters like he writes songs, which is the way he talks in real life. Sardonic and off-beat, but no bullshit. I am the complete opposite; a poser until the end. Whatever. Full disclosure: Liam was a friend of mine, back in my Chicago days, and when I find myself nostalgic for that time in my life, I sometimes reread issues of War Against the Idiots. Not just for Liam’s excellent writing, but also because a lot of his stories are about people and places I once knew. In this issue, Liam writes about squatting in an abandoned bridge control building near the Chicago River (aka “The Bridgehouse”). A lot of my pals passed through there at one point or another, either staying there for a while or just dropping by to party. I used to go visit Liam there, and I’d spraypaint cryptic messages in red and gold, then sit in the tower room drinking whiskey and singing songs about hell and sailors while other friends did nefarious things in other rooms, running in occasionally to take sips off my bottle. And oh, the shit smell from the river, and the raccoons and rats… Anyway, I’ll save that story for one of my own zines. Yeah, this issue is about life on the river, about life in Chicago in general, hog-butcher-to-the-world, squatting and trying to earn a few bucks busking:
I’ve been doing occasional street performance again. I don’t particularly enjoy it, but it keeps me alive. It’s part of my new program: The NO WORK/NO PROBLEM program. I urge you to join. Instead of having a job, you just spend a few hours a week bullshitting. My personal brand of bullshit is street performance, but you choose whatever you wish. I’d advise against street performance, actually. It’s get[ting] worse out there for us streetcorner crooners. People are getting meaner, that’s one thing, and they’re also getting stingier. It’s the economy, it makes people tightwads. Everyone thinks they’re one step from the poorhouse.
I even got arrested for it. I had met this lovely girl named Amanda, who played old-time fiddle. We were a team, her and I. I was the brawn of the operation, strumming G-C-D until the cows came home. My stamina was heroic. Amanda was the brains and beauty both, and she lent our team a degree of legitimacy–this wasn’t bullshitting, this was Art! Anyway, we were arrested for playing in Lincoln Park Zoo without zoo permits. Actually, we were arrested because when the cop gave us trouble, Amanda called him a dirty name. Motherfucker, she called him. So much for being the brains of the operation. We spent eight hours in jail for that clever little remark. That was the last time I saw Amanda, the next day she left for Sao Paolo… now I’m supposedly banned from the zoo, for life! I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, what the world is coming to. You can’t have fun with policemen, you can’t sing in the zoo, and it’s getting much harder to make a living being a bum or a bullshit artist.
Liam’s music is pretty great. Anti-folk-ish stuff. You can buy it on Bandcamp. And apparently he’s one of the editors of the brand new book Queercore: How to Punk a Revolution: An Oral History. I didn’t even know there was a Queercore book out, let alone that one of my old zine pals had a hand in it, but it’s now on the top of my Books to Buy When I Have the $$ to Spare list.
Songs About Ghosts #1, by Jasmine Dreame Wagner (undated)
I could tell you about reading this zine in a bar on New Year’s Eve, 2003, and the encounter I had with someone who would, many years later, become a good friend of mine. I could tell you about the time Jasmine was on tour with the Perpetual Motion Roadshow and she and her tourmate crashed with me and my partner-in-crime at the punkhouse where we were living at the time. But I am trying not to make this already-long post even longer. (Maybe I will write a zine about my memories of these, and other, zines and the zinesters who wrote them. A perzine about perzines! Meta AF!) For now, I’ll just tell you that, out of all the zines I’m highlighting here, this is my favorite. Truly, it is probably my all-time favorite zine ever, and has had a huge influence on my own writing. This book-length zine is full of gorgeous prose, stories of New York City and other places. Summertime, dance parties, sad nights in winter, friendship and romance, love and loss and so much more.
I have no control over my memories. They are always here, shifting inside of me, resurfacing. They return as dreams, as nightmares, or in recollections of a face. I write them down in the attempt to harness them. I channel them into words, adjacent lines of text like grooves in a vinyl record, patterns of symbols that cover an allotted amount of space. They move through my hands and into my fingers. I display them on a screen, then print them on a page. I mold them into something I can hold. And yet even as I grasp them by the margin of their printed page, they contain me. Under their pressure, I fold. I never know which one will surface next. They are in control.
Jasmine is a fucking rockstar, by the way. She writes poetry and lyric essays! She makes music and films! I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do, artistically. Her website is here. Go check her stuff out, I mean it.
Emergency #4: Monsters, by Ammi ‘Emergency‘ Keller (undated)
If Songs About Ghosts #1 is my all-time fave, Emergency #4 is a close second. I’ve read this one over and over, and even unbound and re-stapled it several times so I could make copies to send to friends who needed it. Monsters is another almost-a-book-length zine, which tells the story of a group of people traveling across the country to deal with the aftermath of a friend’s suicide. It’s about the complicated ways we deal with grief, about the complicated ways we deal with life:
It was all rather pointless, I guess, but curious just the same. Putting paper doll cut outs of myself in different lives, classes and careers. Stepping delicately in those silent Keds so as not to disturb the liquid surface of the visions. So as not to confront the fact that I can’t actually be anywhere but right where I am. That I can’t and won’t ever be anyone but me. The monster that made a million in new media and used the money to circumnavigate the globe is a fantasy. As is the hobo version of myself, the one that leaves and stays gone. At this point I seem to be doomed, and grateful, to live inside my own skin.
I sat on the deck at night and listened to the birds, huge pelicans with the sentience of cats or bears. Big brown animals with wingspans the size of mine. They swooped between the masts and pilings, squawking, until you followed. They’d lure you out to the edge of the dock, then glide off towards the open ocean, leaving you staring lovestruck at the blue water. Porpoises—which might as well have been unicorns for their seeming impossibility—arched their rubbery backs over crests of white foam. The moon nested in the waves, and inside the folds of living bodies. Each silver spray, each burst of water and light, would become Sera, and then not-Sera. The birds plucked up souls as though they were fish. I wrote in my notebook: It is easier to live when you’re already dead. Did Sera know this? If so, she had an unfair advantage.
Though Emergency is long-defunct, Ammi is still writing, as well as editing and teaching. You can find her website here.
Lumiere #3, by Andrew (undated)
I had some friends that briefly had a zine library in their warehouse space, but when they moved out of the warehouse, they had to get rid of the collection. So they gave me some boxes full of zines, and told me to take what I wanted and give the rest away. I came across Lumiere #3 in one of those boxes, sat on the floor of my then-apartment and read it cover-to-cover, and fell in love. Pocket-sized and short, full of Beat little ramblings about wandering cities and romanticizing everything. This is another one that greatly influenced my own writing.
After all, nothing is wasted when imagination is experience… I love the silver cars retreating down the laneways, I love the wires above the cars and houses, I love the flux of people going home, I love the front stoop of someone else’s building at midnight in the washed-out blackness of someone else’s neighbourhood… I love the whole city…from here to the outer wasteland of gas-stations, parkinglots & hi-way interchanges, wandering in a medicine psychosis – a sugar-frenzy of luv & black-outs, daydreams of jittery mornings, gruesomely pale dawns kicking along the trash-strewn gutters… Let us go: to bed among the rooftops, a cloud-cushion of smoky air for our heads & a deep breath to usher in the morning.
I’ve never been able to find any other issues of this zine, or anything else by the author (it’s difficult to look someone up when you only know their first name). I did, however, scan and upload the entirety of this issue a number of years ago, so others could experience its particular magic.
Cometbus #52: The Spirit of St. Louis, by Aaron ‘Cometbus’ Elliott (c. 2009)
Well, I mean, it’s Cometbus. Cometbus is one of the longest-running zines ever (if not the longest?!), and Aaron Elliott aka Aaron Cometbus is pretty much the ur-zinester. Like, Dear Mr. Elliott3, sometimes I just wanna quit making zines because I know I’ll never be as good at it or as well-known as you are. Anyway. Each issue of Cometbus is different—some are collections of interviews, some are more fanzine-style compilations of material by many different people, but my favorites are the ones that tell a story. Because Aaron writes a damn good story. The one in this issue is brutal. Hell, the alternate title of it is How to Break Your Own Heart, a tragedy in 24 parts. It’s about a scene falling apart, and everyone’s lives falling apart with it.
Why even try to put a positive spin on the story of our lives?
Everyone we’ve ever loved has been wounded, and everything we’ve ever cared about has been turned into a joke.
I’m not bitter about it, I’m pissed.
This issue seems to be out of print, but you can find newer issues of Cometbus pretty much everywhere zines are sold, and there’s also a Cometbus book that collects some older issues all in one place.
Ghost Pine #13: Boys, by Jeff Miller (c. 2014)
I’ve been reading Ghost Pine since the late ’90s, when it was still called Otaku, and from the very first time I read it I have been a fan of Jeff’s vignettes about misspent youth (and misspent not-so-youth, too), about travel and music and activism and relationships and everything. I’ve also always admired the note he used to put in every issue: All stories true. I wish I were brave enough to state that so boldly in my own zines, rather than adding disclaimers about names being changed and details being fictionalized. But enough about my fears of getting in trouble (an honest zinester is always in trouble). Every issue of Ghost Pine is tied together around a loose theme. The theme of this issue is Boys, and within that broad topic, Jeff focuses in on friendship and loss, punk and tattoos, searching for alternative models of masculinity, and growing up (sorta).
After the Lumpy and the Dumpers show at S.H.I.B.G.B.’s, a Toronto all ages venue, in the basement of a building used for light industry, we went back to Adam’s and had another beer.
The beer is good these days and Adam had gathered a fridge full of the best of it. As we sipped, he played his favourite d-beat songs off a Bandcamp page. It’s not exactly the behaviour you’d expect from two men in their late thirties, but this is all we’ve got.
Most of my friends’ lives haven’t turned out the way we expected. One of them is a rock star, sure, but most of us are trying to make ends meet in jobs that are just sort of meh. Not boring jobs, but like jobs that used to be done exclusively by twenty year olds. Not having money is a bummer for a lot of reasons.
My friend Streeter summed it up best when he told me that most of his friends have moved beyond pursuing plan B to trying something more like plan F these days. My friends are in the same boat. No one’s really getting anywhere, and everyone feels bad, like it’s their fault and not the economic crisis and bullshit austerity, but a personal failing rather than an economic one. That’s how it feels, anyway.
On our second beer in Adam’s living room he tells me about the small victories: gardening, quitting smoking, jogging. One song follows the next, blown out, distorted, angry. Five years ago we were exploring, listening to dub reggae and David Bowie rarities we got out of the library. But as the future progresses and it is revealed to actually be NO FUTURE, punk rock, the latest iteration of fucked up sounds, is necessary.
Like the beer, the punk is good these days too. It’s self-aware, more willing to push into weird corners that defy genre, more willing to laugh at itself or, like always, just howl into the moonlit nothingness at the heart of modern life wearing a t-shirt with a garbage can on it.
And so we play one song after another on the Internet, our austerity blues, and drink craft beers that are too ridiculous, but also delicious. And that’s how we live now.
Speaking of All Stories True, there is a book by that title which is a collection of older issues of Ghost Pine. And if you want to see what else Jeff is up to, you can visit his website.
a light that never goes out, by Jonas and Julia Eff (undated)
Jonas and Julia just happen to be not only two of my favorite zine-writers, but two of my favorite people on the planet, so reading a zine they wrote together is a special treat. Though that seems a strange way to describe the experience of reading this zine, considering the subject matter. This zine, each half written as a letter to the other, is about feeling like you weren’t meant for this world. It’s about depression, illness, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. There are no easy answers in this zine, no “this is why I’m still here,” it’s more like “well, I’m still here, so…” It hurts to read, especially if you’ve ever experienced anything similar, but it also makes you feel less alone.
On the subway train, on the bus, at a station at a fest at a show, maybe I will see some kindred stranger with cuts along their arms, cuts with stories like tattoos. I’ll wonder whether they cut to feel something or nothing or anything else. A stab of pain to stop the rumination. A spoke in the wheel. Stop, stop for one fucking minute so I can not think. It’s visceral. It’s present. It’s real. The cuts say more than words ever could. Maybe that’s how ghosts speak, through those wounds. But sadly, every ghost speaks a different language. [from Jonas’ half]
Suddenly, you’re 21. You’re 23. You make it to 25. You wander dazed through 27 & suddenly 30 sounds plausible & you don’t know what to do; you can’t stop the bitter ugly guffaw any time someone talks about the future. You’re on a train you don’t know how to get off, you don’t want to be on, you can’t FATHOM being on, but you can’t force yourself to leap out the open door. Against your better judgement, you somehow keep waking up every morning. It baffles you. It’s a miracle. Someone alert the Enquirer. [from Julia’s half]
You can buy the zine here. While you’re at it, browse through the zines at Crapandemic and find some of Julia’s (and some of Jonas’s) other titles. Also, Jonas just re-released his book of short stories, The Greatest, Most Traveling Circus!, and you can buy that here.
Proof I Exist #28, by Billy McCall (c. 2018)
Oh, Billy. Billy McCall, Billy Smith, Billy Da Bunny, that “prolific and profound zinester” (as Chicago Comics once described him). Billy and I used to be great IRL friends, back when we lived in Chicago. We moved to the city right around the same time, and during our first autumn there, we’d hang out late at night, get coffee, go to the 24-hour Kinko’s to make some Xerox art. Oh, to be a young punk again, jacked up on caffeine and toner fumes… I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I promise that’s the last personal anecdote I will tell you in this post. I’ll save the rest for the perzine-about-perzines. So. This issue of Proof I Exist won Broken Pencil’s 2019 Zine of the Year award, and if you read it, you’ll understand why. In this lyric essay—told in a numbered list form, inspired by Maggie Nelson’s Bluets—Billy writes about his younger brother’s struggles with addiction, and everything around what it means to love someone who is an addict.
11. i often wished i was cool enough to do drugs. but i was afraid. afraid of all the things that might happen. it wasn’t the anti-drug campaigns at school, and it wasn’t those commercials. we all thought the ‘just say no’ thing was total bullshit, so don’t ever think that all that propaganda is what made my decision. it just wasn’t for me. i could tell.
everyone i knew, and everyone i know, have various types of drug habits. friends in high school, friends in college, friends now. some times my peers said they respected my decision, some times they said, ‘oh, okay…’ and then stopped inviting me to parties. much of my youth was spent alone, feeling like a total loser.
You can buy the zine here. And then type “iknowbilly” into your search engine of choice to find more of Billy’s stuff.
Wix #5: Ghosts, by Lee Pepper (c. 2016)
If you know anything about me, you probably know that I am obsessed with ghosts, both as possibly-real spiritual phenomenons and as metaphors. So of course I adore this issue of Wix.
Ghosts are an important metaphor to me because they recognize the way that an absence can feel like a presence. Ghosts are an acknowledgement of how permeable time is, how deeply enmeshed your past is in your present. Ghosts tell us that people and places are marked by things long gone. Ghosts tell us that places have memory, too. Ghosts affirm that our experiences carry weight. Ghosts tell me, yeah, fuck, of course you’re still haunted. Things don’t just go away, you know?
Unfortunately, this zine seems to be unavailable right now, but there are some other zines still available in Lee’s Etsy shop.
Antonia, by J.B. (c. 2019)
I’m a sucker for anything about place. Whether that place be the writer’s bedroom or their city; whether it be a place I’ve lived or visited or never even heard of—I’m here for all of it. This beautifully put-together zine is no exception. In a series of memoiristic vignettes, interspersed with photographs, maps, and excerpts from old newspaper articles, J.B. tells the story of Antonia—a tiny town in Jefferson County, Missouri—in such a way that you’ll feel like you’ve been there.
In a class called “American Identity” we are asked to write about our ancestors. Like a pop quiz I haven’t studied for, I stare at the page, write something vague about farmers in Missouri, Illinois. When we are asked to share our responses, other students mention the pilgrims, the Mayflower.
Outside of class, I work on a zine. I put my grandmother—a beautiful 1920s photo booth strip of images of her, she’s young, smiling, her hair is bobbed—on [the] cover of one of the issues. I use a photo of my mother at a high school dance on another. If you didn’t know that these women were related to me it might seem like I just like vintage photographs and not that I am making some sort of scrapbook, that far away at school in Massachusetts I am undeniably tethering myself to family, to home.
Buy it here.
Having thoroughly exhausted myself (and probably overwhelmed you, dear reader), and having used the word zine so many times it has lost all meaning, I’ll leave you here. Well, almost. Just a few more things:
- One zine I’ve read recently, which I didn’t mention above, because it’s not a perzine, is Liz Mason’s Most Unwanted Zine. Liz surveyed people to see what their least favorite aspects of zines are, and included as many as possible all under one (risographed) cover to make the most unwanted zine: bad poetry! photos of fire escapes! whiny rants! vegan recipes! cheesy clip art! and more! The whole thing is hilarious, but I think I laughed the hardest at the show review. Long live DIY yardcore.
- Some of my favorite places to buy zines are: Antiquated Future, Crapandemic, Portland Button Works, and Quimby’s. Now that you’ve caught the zine bug, you should take a look at their sites and find some things that interest you.
- Looking for virtual zine events to attend this International Zine Month? Check out Zine Club Chicago!
- Until I find a suitable hoodie or battle vest to sew it on, this patch hangs above my desk to remind me that I didn’t get into zines for the money, I got into zines for the babes.
- My next project for IZM is to make some magazine holders out of cardboard boxes, so I can finally display my zine collection instead of keeping it packed away in bins.
 Yes, that is a Young Ones reference.
 Another question I’m often asked is: “What’s the difference between a chapbook and a zine?” The answer is: not much. I could tell you “oh, zines look like this and and have this type of content, whereas chapbooks look like that and have that type of content,” but for every rule I came up with I could think of dozens of exceptions. The only real differences are the name itself, and that chapbooks tend to be more respected in literary circles, and therefore you can charge more for them. But a zine by any other name…would be a chapbook.