Zines are part of a “war against mainstream,” according to Aaron Cometbus, long-time punk rock zinester. “It’s old news, but let’s remind ourselves why mainstream sucks.” This was his contribution to one of the round table discussions at this year’s Montreal Expozine. The established corporate print media empires are failing, but, contrary to popular belief, the problem is not just the arrival of the internet. Due to “greed and conservatism,” Cometbus explains, those outlets “keep out new voices and those who don’t adhere to mainstream world news.” As a result they are pushing homogenized advertiser-funded periodicals that “no one wants to read.” Zines are the alternative.
So what is a zine? The big idea behind zines is that someone with creativity, imagination, and something to say can make their own magazine. From photocopied, folded, and stapled fanzines to silk screened covers on special paper, stitched binding, and by-hand finishing touches, the appearances of zines can be as varied as the content.
Expozine, the annual meeting of zine creators and their readers, where zines are bought and sold, took place last weekend, November 16 and 17, in a church basement. Walking around the main convention hall you can see Cometbus’ point. There is a cornucopia of publications that you won’t find in a regular newsstand. There are feminists, anarchists, punk rockers, cartoonists, artists, and poets. Every group that turns to zines to express themselves ends up creating their own subgenre. The LGBTQ community took up zines in the 1980s, and, despite the limited circulation, those zines remain as some of the best self-created records of the scene.
Montreal-based artist Kerri Flannigan’s zine Nailbiter, winner of Expozine’s 2010 best English zine category, features stories from people coping with anxiety. Inspired by the sense of alienation the contributors felt about the existing resources, Nailbiter best represents the opportunity and potential the medium offers. Among her zines this year is “grandparents zine,” containing short pieces of writing about the contributors’ relationships with their grandparents alongside pen and ink portraits.
With such specific topics, can zines continue to flourish alongside the internet, while print media continues to threaten death? Expozine co-founder and zinester Louis Rastelli doesn’t seem at all worried. He gets asked about the internet every year, he explains. “First of all information is not the same as an artifact. Secondly the internet is ridiculously ephemeral.” Rastelli himself is attempting to ensure zines don’t disappear forever through his co-founded project Archive Montreal, a local organization that attempts to preserve zines from becoming lost and forgotten. Turns out that even the zine creators can be pretty bad at keeping copies of their own work.
But where can a newcomer to the world of zines start? Thanks to the internet, they may already have been exposed to them. A Softer World, from Toronto, began its life as a zine before becoming the popular web-comic that could still be picked up in print from the creator’s stall. For Al Lafrance, of Bloody Underrated, there is no substitute for coming to a convention, to “buy something random without even looking in it.” Among his own contribution to random zines that could be picked up was Pickles, Pickles (yes, it’s all about pickles), a four inch square booklet containing 52 illustrated facts and 1 recipe.
For those prepared to take the risk, the main attraction of the medium seems to be the unexpected discoveries. With recent technological developments, smaller creators now have direct access to industry quality printing; most of the stalls were selling books as well. The technical gap between zinester and major publisher is rapidly narrowing. Existing outside the mainstream is the raison d’être of zines, allowing for anyone with a voice to publish. But with so many zines available and yet still hard to come by, it can be difficult for the zine newcomer to know what to read. These alternative publications are always trying to find their readership, distributing copies not only at the annual Expozine but also online and in such zine-friendly outlets as the Concordia bookstore. The biggest sign of promise for the zinester’s future, however, is that they still seem to see a vast world of creative possibilities in front of them.