The conventional wisdom is that the "zine explosion" of 10 years ago ended with a whimper. Review zines, word processors and — above all — cheap photocopying drove the underground publishing explosion that began in the late 1960s and churned out tens of thousands of passionate, self-made, low- and no-budget publications on obsessive topics ranging from tedious Maoist politics to the ins and outs of being a dishwasher. The scene hit its zenith around the mid-'90s, challenging that day's increasingly stodgy and unimaginative "periodicals." In a market choked with pap like Newsweek and Marie Claire, readership of these obscure journals, crisscrossing the world via post, was estimated in the millions. But by the turn of the century, widespread Internet access had siphoned off a lot of that energy. Only a few zines had gone glossy, national or alt-weekly, and savvy publishers cherry-picked what they wanted of zines' style, bringing the graying print media world up to date. In fact, by 1999, John Marr, a seminal San Francisco-based zinester who had published Murder Can Be Fun since 1986 opined that zines were dead.
But if zines are dead, why do we still get dozens of them sent to our office each year? (Though surely half of them are Detroiter Yul Tolbert's comics about his pet fascinations: Star Trek, Esperanto and tall women with long toenails!) Ten years after their media close-up, zines aren't dead so much as they've changed. The Internet has drained away a lot of the low-wattage chatter, and zinesters are getting craftier, embracing the tactile, personal nature of printed objects. And publishers — some grizzled, some young — are commited to the zine ethic locally.
Teenager Julia Fitzgerald is practically a zine poster child. Living in semi-rural Emmett — out in the boonies of St. Clair County — she looks anything but country. The 16-year-old pulls back her My Chemical Romance hoodie's top to reveal green bangs — soon to be purple — hanging over her flashing brown eyes. She's like the archetypal teenager whose life was saved by punk rock. The high schooler says she discovered Black Sabbath in the sixth grade and grew into the MC5, the Stooges and Bowie. But without a musical bone in her body, the talented writer and ferocious reader (she says she read Catcher in the Rye 16 times last year) has translated the punk attitude into a zine, Psycho.
Julia first got the bug two years ago. Although it took her four months to line up contributors and publish the first issue, she's more than 52 issues in now. The broadside's top press run has been 93. She jokes, "My friend wallpapers his room with them."
Her considerable energy is undeniable. The zine, originally sparsely written and slapped-together, is now dense with handwritten text sniping at blind conformity, mindless authority and other idiocies.
Obsessively, Julia writes it by hand and lays it out sitting on her bedroom floor at home. "Work is an excuse to be antisocial," she says "I consider myself a nerd." After printing it, she folds it up and passes it out in the hallway at school, where she says officials "have been trying to shut us down." She was ordered to "cease and desist" in August after "sitting quietly in gym during an assembly with stack of Psychos." And one of her paintings was vandalized on campus.
In addition to being harassed by authorities and sniped at by a competing paper at school, the paper has been a money-loser. "I've lost $800 in printing and supplies. ... but I write a lot anyway, and the paper has helped a lot."
Who gets the zine, outside of Julia's school, anyway? More than a dozen copies of each issue get mailed off, locally and as far away as Albany, N.Y., San Antonio, Texas, and Sydney, Australia. Even John Holmstrom of PUNK magazine fame is a subscriber.
For Julia, "kicking it old-school" with print offers some things the Internet doesn't. "It's more tangible, there's the physicality. If I put my writing online, it's not as satisfying. You can carry this around," she says, adding, "I love the smell of hot toner. I've come to equate it with power."
Not all the faces in Detroit's zine mini-renaissance are new ones. Steve Hughes, 40, looks like a grown-up punk, with thick-framed glasses and an easy smile. As he fingers old issues of Stupor at the Belmont bar on Joseph Campau, the Hamtramck father of three says, "I spend a lot of my time sitting on my porch watching my kids ride their bikes back and forth." But between 4 and 7 a.m., he steals away to work on his zine, Stupor, a collection of stories people tell him in bars. He's been doing it since the mid-90s, but fell into it by accident. When he was living in New Orleans, his friend bought an offset press, but wasn't sure how to use it and wanted "practice." Seizing the opportunity, Hughes laid out his first issue of Stupor in an hour. He published four issues in six months. Soon, he found himself with thousands of free copies to distribute, driving from coffeehouse to record shop, leaving a couple dozen everywhere he could.
When he moved back to Detroit, his free printing was gone, and he'd pay hundreds of dollars to print an issue, but with beautiful results. The 17-inch-by-5-1/2-inch journal was printed in vivid colors of ink, an attention-getting design that was rare in the photocopy-heavy genre. Hughes jokes that the odd-shaped zine was designed to "sit on a toilet tank perfectly," with stories that can all be read in one bowel movement.
The stories Hughes retells are often gritty, seamy tales people tell with alcohol-loosened tongues. Far from the sort of overly "workshopped" writing MFA grads churn out, Hughes' stories seem tough and authentic. Turning drunken ramblings into compelling literature is no easy task, he says. "The stories comes to me in a skeletal form and I put skins on them. ... In the end, the characters are the people who are telling the stories. And I love them. Even the despicable ones — I love them especially."
In fact, while he sits at the bar, one of the many folks whose tales he's published walks up and talks with him for a moment before she steps away happily. Her story was evidently a controversial one. "I thought she was going to punch me!" Hughes says with relief. "I never talked to her about it or anything. I don't think she reads the magazine. But if she did, I think she'd know."
Ypsilanti's Mark Maynard and his wife Linette have been publishing the long-running zine Crimewave USA for 13 years. That's an eternity in zine time. (Linette even teaches a course on zines at Eastern Michigan University.) The thirtysomething couple's zine went on hiatus while they raised their daughter, now 3. Plus, their distributor went bankrupt, owing them a hefty sum. "You never expect to make money to begin with," Mark says, "but you don't expect to lose $1,000 an issue!"
The couple's also helped co-found Ypsi's Shadow Art Fair, a DIY craft fest of "stuff that people make" that includes a mix of zines among the scores of vendors. The fest, which has run for two years now, draws thousands of visitors twice a year. Mark says he and his friends "started it for all the reasons we got into zining. The idea behind the zine and the fair was to bring together a lot of people doing creative stuff who had dead-end jobs."
Why do zines in the Internet age? Maynard hits a familiar refrain. "There are tangible things about it: You can leave them anywhere; you can print up a bunch, put them in a backpack and leave them around all day. And it's like throwing messages in a bottle and seeing what comes back. You can do a blog and get instant feedback and that's great, but you don't get that kind of long-term feedback that you do with zines. ... I have people write me about an issue from a few years ago." When you've had the same P.O. Box for nine years, "mail filters in."
Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about Psycho, see myspace.com/psycho_zine. For more information about Stupor, e-mail email@example.com. Purchase such zines as 9th Floor, Fauxbia and Stupor at the Shadow Art Fair, noon to midnight on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Corner Brewery, 720 Morris St., Ypsilanti. For more information, see shadowartfair.com.