Two weeks ago, SFU Woodward’s hosted one of Canada’s greatest annual independent cultural events: Canzine. Organized by Broken Pencil magazine, Canzine West (along with Canzine Toronto and Canzine Central in Winnipeg) is a full-day event dedicated to zine culture, independent media, and small press. With the exception of two major Vancouver groups, Geist magazine and Lucky’s Comics, Canzine West featured table after table of independent zinesters, illustrators, artists, and other independent media-makers from near and far, exhibiting their handmade creations.
There were well-established artists such as Colin Upton, who’s been self-publishing mini-comics since 1985, along with first-time tables like the ladies of Pizza Cola, a collective of young Vancouverites making zines about teen girldom.
“You are your own editor. You can have control of what you want to say in the work.”
In addition to the zine and small press fair on two floors of SFU’s School for the Contemporary Arts, Canzine West hosted four awesome events, including an hour-long talk by New York Times bestselling cartoonist Mimi Pond. Pond’s most recent work, Over Easy, was published this year by Canada’s own Drawn & Quarterly. There was also the highly anticipated Punch Book Pitch, in which locals were given two minutes to pitch their book ideas to a panel of judges, which included Broken Pencil editor Alison Lang.
When I caught up with Lang during the final moments of the event, we discussed the defining features of zine culture in 2014. “It’s events like this where people come together,” Lang said. Broken Pencil, which has been reporting on independent creative action since 1995, is another hub for zine culture. According to their website, “From the hilarious to the perverse, Broken Pencil challenges conformity and demands attention.”
At this point, some of you may be asking yourselves: WTF is a zine, anyways?
A zine (pronounced “zeen,” short for magazine or fanzine) is, first and foremost, a labour of love. Zines are self-published, hand-crafted works which often resemble a magazine or chapbook, although they are never confined by conventions. They can be folded, stapled, sewn, photocopied, drawn, cut, pasted, posted online, mailed, sold, traded, or gifted.
As articulated in The Book of Zines, zines and the artists behind them are “obsessed with obsession” — often embodying the fangirl-esque mindset of those who live and breathe things like music, books, sex, movies, politics, food, and civil disobedience, zines are the product of fanaticism. Zines are not made to sell, although when people help you cover the oft minimal cost of production, big ups to them. They are intensely personal accounts of those who are bored by the glossy, ad-ridden print publications surrounding us, and an outright rejection of storytelling within a capitalist framework.
So here’s the story
I’ve divided the story of zines into three waves in order to accommodate some trends that I’ve noticed in my research and in conversations. I’ve chosen to address this timeline as a “story” rather than a “history,” because I think that in most cases, zines have always stood in opposition to the patriarchal narrative: they aim to redefine, reclaim, and reject an oppressive, colonial presentation of history.
The first wave is what I’ll call the “pre-punk” wave. Before punk, zines can be traced back to traditions from the 18th century and before in the Western world. Pamphleteers, as they were called, would distribute their self-published works during times of political unrest. During the 19th century in America, hundreds of African-American writers and illustrators published their own pamphlets containing personal accounts of colonization, slavery, emancipation, identity and more.
Most historical accounts tend to attribute the birth of the zine to the beginnings of science fiction writing in the early 1930s. However, many other traditions that began around this time shared the DIY ethos of zinesters: pamphlets, broadsides, Dadaist art, mail art, minicomics, manifestoes, poetry chapbooks, and of course, fanzines. Another example is Russian samizdat publications, which political activist Vladimir Bukovsky described thusly: “I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and get imprisoned for it.”
Before the 1970s and the emergence of punk, zine culture was growing its roots as the centrepiece of the counter-culture establishment. According to writer Stephen Perkins, “Drugs, rock music, the war in Vietnam, and racial inequality were just part of the volatile mix that would alienate many from the dominant ‘establishment’ culture, into the search for and the construction of, a more authentic culture that reflected the concerns of this generation in revolt.” This culture gave way to a sort of pre-punk underground press.
In addition to the social-action ethics of many zinesters, 1960s-era counterculture saw the emergences of self-publishing art books (which challenged conventions of layout and design), and underground comix (which rejected the rigid censorship of mainstream comics).
“If you can’t find a zine that you want to read, write that zine. You can do that.”
And then punk happened.
This second wave of zine culture began in mid-1970s England, and saw an explosion of new zines, many of which became key anti-establishment resources. Zines had also become easier to reproduce, with newly cheap and accessible technology, such as photocopiers.
“The most basic ingredients of punk zines,” writes Perkins, “were the ubiquitous gig reviews, interviews with bands, record and tape reviews, personal rants, letters from readers and a healthy dose of undigested leftist/libertarian/anarchist tracts, manifestoes and pronouncements, all strewn together within a potpourri of collages, montages, ransom note lettering, and banal mass media images juxtaposed against assorted taboo imagery.”
The 1980s saw the first official zine-review publication Factsheet Five, as well as conferences on mail art and the amazing emergence of alternative comics publications such as Raw magazine.
This wave of zine culture is also characterized by the emergence of voices otherwise unheard: LGBTQ folks, women, and others who were sharing their experiences from a marginalized or minority group. The do-it-yourself ethos had, by this point, woven itself into the fabric of zine culture: mailing zines to friends, speaking out against violence and oppression within existing subcultures, and of course the pinnacle of zine culture’s second wave, riot grrrl.
Riot grrrl was born between Washington, DC and the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver included!), and is characterized as an underground third-wave-feminist punk movement — its very manifesto was published in a zine called Bikini Kill and was written by members of the band by the same name. The 1990s saw zines published with such titles as Conscious Clits, Hangnail, Sissy Butch, Hit It or Quit It, Bitch, Unskinny, Slut Magnet, Bust, and Alphabitch Afterbirth.
The third wave of zine culture is the one we’re living in now, and it began with the popularization of the internet. E-zines began to surface and gain steam at the turn of the millenium, and brought with them a whole new set of tools to play with. Those privileged enough to have access to computers were able to reach people in remote communities through the world wide web. This wave has also fostered many academic examinations and theses on zines and zine culture.
Vancouver and the rest of the Pacific Northwest have been integral to the ongoing story of zines. One of the earliest bonafide zines I could find from Vancouver dates back to 1957, and is dedicated to folk music. For nearly eight decades (!) local artists and authors have been publishing fanzines on science fiction. In 1973, the British Columbia Science Fiction Association began publishing zines, and has put out nearly 500 of them since.
Some have even attributed the birth of riot grrrl to the formation of a Vancouver two-piece rock band, Mecca Normal, in 1984 — the band’s lyrics, written by frontwoman Jean Smith, were riddled with feminist and DIY attitudes.
Where to find ’em
After all that, you’re probably wondering where you can find zines in Vancouver, Salish Territories! Here are some of my personal favourite spots.
Lucky’s Comics: Located at the corner of Main and King Edward, Lucky’s is a haven for zinesters and lovers of comics, graphic novels, and other print oddities. This is the place to buy zines for your own collection, but be prepared to spend a great deal of time shuffling through the shelves at the back corner of the store.
Regional Assembly of Text: A stone’s throw away from Lucky’s, the Regional Assembly of Text is the shop with the typewriters in the window, and is owned and operated by two Emily Carr grads. Here you’ll find the lowercase reading room: a storage closet-turned-library that is home to hundreds of zines and art books. Also, there’s a free letter writing club event at 7:00 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month (free cookies and tea, typewriters galore) to stretch your mail art muscles.
Vancouver Public Library: That’s right! The VPL boasts a (pretty impressive) collection of zines at both their Central and Mount Pleasant locations. You can browse by topic and if you get inspired, plop yourself down on a computer, print your zine and photocopy it, all under one roof!
Spartacus Books: In the first year at its new home near Trout Lake, Spartacus Books has survived its renoviction from the DTES. Here you can find anything and everything radical: zines, anarchist books, comics, music, patches, and awesome people. It is a hub for alt culture and runs on a steady foundation of amazing volunteers who are sure to know their way around the zine scene.
All this considered, zines have never been confined to one postal code, and there are simply too many great organizations to mention them all here. If you are reading this on or near a web browser, though, I highly encourage you to check out the Broken Pencil website for its wealth of information, archives, and resources. Also, theQueer Zine Archive Project (QZAP) and their website is an amazing example of the work being done to support and maintain the amazing world of underground queer communities.
Zines are self-published, hand-crafted works which often resemble a magazine or chapbook, although never confined by conventions.
I also highly recommend checking out local zine fairs like Canzine or Short Run Festival. Getting out there and seeing zines, meeting zinesters, trading, chatting, laughing, and learning is the best way to get involved. During my time at Canzine West, the founder of Vancouver’s own paper innards distro, Sarah Thompson, gave me some solid gold advice: “If you can’t find a zine that you want to read, write that zine. You can do that. You can be a part of that conversation.”
If you’re not already armed with scissors and glue, then here’s some more advice from some of the best and brightest in the Vancouver zine scene.
Stacey Bru (Queer Fudge): “I really love zines because they don’t have to be edited. It’s a really true representation of what I want to make and the things I like to write about. Zines should be unedited accounts of who the person who’s making the zine is and what they want to share with the world.”
Heather Joan Tam (Ballast Canting): “I choose a different type of paper or colour to be able to present the mood or the topic or what the story’s about. Some of it is nice, printmaking paper and sometimes it’s just office supplies, so just whatever I find and can run through my inkjet printer.”
Ho Tam (XXX Zine): “You are your own editor. You can have control of what you want to say in the work.”
Shane Lange (Skyscrapers. . . All on fire): “You’re connecting with people on the basis of not only the work that you’re putting out, but the fact that you’re putting it out in this format.”
So by now, you’re probably totally excited to get started making zines of your own — here are some basic tips on where to start.
Step 1: Find your voice. What matters to you? Are you telling fact or fiction (or a bit of both)? Some common starting points for zines are to write a story, start doodling, or brainstorm a topic and send out a call for submissions to your friends and circles.
Step 2: Find your tools. Is your zine going to be online or print? What do you want your zine to look and feel like? For print zines, I recommend starting off with some basics like scissors, writing instruments, images/stickers/colours to collage with, and paper. The first thing to do is map out how your zine will be assembled. Will it be bound by staples, thread, glue or consist of one sheet of paper? My first zine was a no-staple mini zine with eight pages out of one sheet of printer paper. This is an excellent place to start!
Step 3: Find your audience. You’ve completed your first zine — props! Now it’s time to get it out into the world (if that’s what you’re into). One way is to make bunch of copies at your local photocopier, then number the copies and give or mail them off to friends, strangers, distros, libraries, tuck them under doors, or host a table at a zine fair.