November 16th, 2010


On Paper

In the mid-90's, when I was publishing a comics anthology zine called "Don't Shoot! It's Only Comics," I was asked to be on a panel discussion at a library. I don't remember what the point of it was, but there were a handful of us zinesters there, explaining what we did and why we did it. I remember someone in the audience offered an almost hostile line of questioning. Basically he asked, "aren't you all doing what you are doing out of vanity?" which I guess is true on some levels but totally irrelevant (what's your hobby, asshole?) but more to the point of this this post, he asked "why aren't you publishing your zines on the internet?"

At the time, the internet was pretty new, and had a relatively small population of mostly upper middle class people. The internet is still largely a place for the privileged, but at that time it was inescapably so. Zines are populist, and they reach out to the disenfranchised and the marginalized. Using an elitist technology ran counter to most zine publishers' sensibilities.

Also, when I answered, I pointed out the awkwardness of the interface, particularly when compared to a comic book or a magazine. I used what became my standard refute for this challenge: "you can't take a computer into the bathroom to read it." Laptops, netbooks, and smart phones have made that into an absurd statement.

So now, 15 years later, why don't zinesters simply publish on the internet? I went to the Papercut Zine Library to donate lots of my zine and comic collection, and found myself wondering why zines still exist. The librarians there said they were hoping to plan more, smaller zine fairs soon in the future. That's great, I said, but in the back of my mind I wondered who the fair would be for; who finds going to the photocopy machine a more rewarding and less expensive exercise than simply banging away for a few minutes on a computer and getting feedback emailed to them? I mentioned the two zines I used to do, and that I no longer put out The Urban Pantheist in print, but that it was now online only. (I didn't tell them that it was a daily exercise that has largely become my identity more deeply and broadly than when it was a print zine.) They were visibly disappointed, not, I'm sure, because they were fans of my zines, but because I was a member of their culture who had left it behind.

I became sheepish, and mentioned that I'd had some photographs up in an exhibit--they were paper. That's cool, one guy said without looking at me. I started to try to think of a zine I could do, some worthwhile contribution to a culture I belonged to for over a dozen years. But everything I could express that way could be done here more quickly, reaching more people, with much better options for including photographs or links to other resources and related topics. I do like the idea of having a real printed product of my own in my hands, but at this point in my life, why not a book? None of my ideas are so counter-cultural that The System would refuse to publish them. (Many of the counter-cultural ideas that zines used to be the only source for, like veganism, animal rights, car-free culture, gay civil rights, polyamory, transgender issues, and so on, are pretty much acceptable topics for mainstream publishing and, dare I say it, websites). If I had the ambition and the connections I would be aiming at the book world with my ideas, not the zine world. (I just want to pause to acknowledge the role that zinesters played in bringing those issues out into public discussion. I feel like people in zine culture were behind important changes like what happened in Massachusetts in 2004.)

So who are the people still making zines? People who love paper, people who love print, love getting things in the mail. Probably still some people who feel marginalized, that even with the internet and the limitless landscape it represents that there is no place for them, no community. (Or people who are denied access to the internet? For whom photocopying and postage is still a more practical process?) I heard a technology reporter yesterday say that Apple and Google were competing to "deliver the consumer to the marketplace" with their products. That phrase alone made me contemplate making my own paper out of compost and dropping off of the grid, for fear of being "delivered" somewhere against my will. I strongly object to being viewed as a "consumer," as if my only value was that I have money to give to someone to keep me fat and quiet. So I guess I kind of understand: the culture is still marginalizing people, the Capitalists are still the enemies of progress and ideas, and zines are probably the purest way to get your message out. If you don't have a Livejournal account (or compatible log-in), there is an ad on this page. (What is it? Just curious.) As the internet get easier to use and harder to escape, zines will probably have another huge resurgence.

I look forward to the next zine fair, to see what ideas are out there, and to see what people who value print and paper have created and produced. They're still out there, right?