'Zines: The Very Small Press
Zines: where the action is: the very small press in America.
by Mike Gunderloy
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
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, WER 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, it's, 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 2[st 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
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
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
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