PRINT October 1997


'zine anthologies

WILLFUL OBSCURANTISM, the elevation of the banal, and the ironic appreciation of trash culture are guiding principles of most ’zines. ’Zine pioneer Candi Strecker, ruminating on her own fascination with beer-can hats, eloquently identified this tendency in her Sidney Suppey’s Quarterly & Confused Pet Monthly all the way back in 1982. “Something has made our vision of the world go a bit askew,” she writes, “and instead of accepting the satisfactions that derive from being players in our society, we create our own amusement by examining the output of that society.” The average ’zine editor and reader, she says, is a “Self-Amusing Personality.”

SAPs experience modern life with a sense of “amused horror,” and desperately seek out other SAPs with whom to share their wry observations on consumer culture. These “culture artists,” as she calls them, populate and perpetuate the ’zine underground to this day, and their obsessions with the banal (and each other) are largely responsible for their marginalization. Wondering aloud about the creation of a true community of SAPs, Strecker identifies the inherent contradiction of the ’zine—or any—underground: “What if an organization could make contact with the SAPS in all the fandoms and pull them together into one big network? Once organized, would we look at our organization with amused horror?” While the answer to Strecker’s question was murky in 1982, when ’zines received no notice from the mainstream, today it is a resounding Yes, given the appearance of numerous books anthologizing or critiquing ’zines.

Contemporary ’zines are, by definition, small, arcane, and culturally coded for inaccessibility—America’s nearest approximation of Soviet samizdat—so it’s peculiar, if not downright contradictory, to see their contents lovingly excerpted, spell-checked, and reformatted into legible fonts and justified margins for mass consumption. Yet that’s just what trade publishers have done with The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe (Henry Holt) and The Factsheet Five Zine Reader (Crown). Both books anthologize the “best” writing from the ’zine underground with gushing introductions from respective editors Chip Rowe and R. Seth Friedman. (Refusing to be scooped by the big boys, RE/Search’s V. Vale has rushed out his two-volume Zines!, a higher street-cred compendium of interviews with ’zinesters.) The editors perform a useful service for the uninitiated, but for those who gauge their enjoyment of a publication by the amount of ink it leaves on their fingertips, there’s something missing in this upscale treatment of a decidedly downtown medium.

McLuhan’s shopworn adage “the medium is the message” was never so apposite as in the case of ’zines. A medium that includes a cardboard box, containing a dead locust, with a cassette glued onto it, does not lend itself easily to the format of Big Publishing. Part of the charm of ’zines lies in their proud amateurism and their scarcity in the marketplace. Finding a gem of a ’zine after hours of browsing through culture-industry garbage (mainstream and “alternative” alike) is akin to receiving a surprisingly eloquent message in a bottle, or discovering a thrift-store item that’s worth more than its weight in kitsch. The pleasure of ’zine browsing (or thrift shopping) is as much the result of the search as it is the value of the discovery—you have to do the work to get the frisson.

That said, both books do expose some undervalued writers and rarely explored topics to a more general audience. Paul Lukas’ dogged quest to excavate the secret histories of banal consumer products in Beer Frame: The Journal of Inconspicuous Consumption makes a deserved appearance in both anthologies (canned pork brains in one, “toasting” bread in the other). An excerpt from Jeff Koyen’s misanthropic Crank outlines the pleasures of trepanning (drilling a hole in one’s head for enlightenment). Jim Hogshire does his homework on Robitussin abuse in a hilarious bit for Pills-a-Go-Go, wherein he describes his “reptilian brain” after ingesting eight ounces of DM cough syrup. April Miller (from Fat Girl) compares the various methods of “packing”—placing a phallic object in one’s knickers for visual (and self) stimulation (“soft packing” simply creates the appearance of a penis, “hard packing” allows for penetration, with the added benefit of clitoral arousal). And Rod Lott (from Hitch) unearths the “homoerotic subtext” in the children’s video Real Life Giant Construction Equipment for Kids (Featuring Hard Hat Harry) by quoting the talking machines as they court one another—Concrete Pumper: “I’m going to pour my concrete into your rear hamper. Watch my chute come out. Ready, aim, fire! Then the concrete worker pulls my snaking hose. When he gives the signal, I take a deep breath and blow that concrete out at a stupendous rate!” Paver: “Ah, just the way I like it: hot and wet! Between two to four inches is the ideal depth.”

While the anthologies present some fine examples of ’zine writing in easily digestible, one-stop-shopping packages, the bulk format is not kind to the notion of ’zines as a bottomless font of undiscovered talent. Too often ’zine pieces are poorly written or obsessed with kitschy fluff or childhood nostalgia like The Brady Bunch and Hello Kitty. In her appropriately titled ’zine You Sank My Battleship!, “Coochie Galore” introduces herself: “Hi, my name’s Coochie (Chorus: Hi, Coochie!) And I’m a Hello Kittyaholic.” Sampled in small doses, this can be quite entertaining. Swallowed whole, it’s cotton brain-candy mildly nauseating in its relentless barrage of “Isn’t this cool?” or “Isn’t this weird?” Coochie’s obsession evidences a trend: the assumption in cultural criticism that the detritus of history is the only game in town.

’Zines have a long and noble pedigree, arguably beginning with the revolutionary pamphleteering of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, and coursing through the politicized nonsense of the Dadaists, Surrealists, and the comic strip détournement of the Situationist International. ’Zines came of age, and found their name, in the ’30s, when a community of rabid science-fiction fans started publishing “fanzines” to network with other fans, and critique the sci-fi of the day. The saga continued in the ’60s, when underground newspapers emerged to document the growing counterculture and foment political un-rest. The most recent ’zine revolution—the one that formed the template for ’zines to this day—occurred in the late ’70s, when enterprising punk fans decided to do for their subculture what the underground newspapers of the ’60s had done for psychedelia.

The slippery politics and insoluble contradictions of underground culture are examined through the lens of ’zines in the relatively highbrow Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (Verso, 1997). A “radical scholar” and former punk musician and ’zine editor who claims to be “of the world [he] writes,” Stephen Duncombe brings neo-Marxism to bear on the thorny issues of purity versus sellout, withdrawal versus action, and accessibility versus insularity. Highly sensitive to all sides of the various debates, Duncombe tangles with the tar baby of bohemian politics, and emerges with some useful observations on the intolerant, elitist myopia of ostensibly egalitarian subcultures, the enforced banality of originality for its own sake, and the “We’re all individuals!” paradox of iconoclastic communities, exemplified by the tail-chasing arguments over self-definition in the punk and riot-grrrl “scenes.” Unfortunately, Duncombe is so sensitive to all sides that he becomes a master equivocator, demanding that the ’zine community make good on its counterhegemonic culture-mongering by actively engaging in political revolution on the one hand, and admitting that utopia is a lie but ’zines are a nice, small step toward a better world on the other.

Duncombe’s most serious flaw is his assumption that the majority of ’zine editors want anything to do with politics, macro or micro. While radically political ’zines do exist (more from the Right than the Left, in fact), and the punk and riot-grrrl communities do wrestle with their own Spring 1995 maddening internal politics, Duncombe asks too much of his subjects, who, at best, embody the personal as political, and are more likely to encourage withdrawal from dominant society than its revolutionary overthrow. More often than not, ’zinesters are nothing more than Strecker’s Self-Amusing Personalities, content to mock the detritus of a spectacular society in which they have no voice, and share their ironic observations with a small, like-minded community. If this community were to become too big, or as Duncombe seems to advocate, dominant, it would not only regard itself with “amused horror,” it would, as he admits in conclusion, cease to exist. Indeed, one of his most resonant observations is also his most depressing. Noting the historical symbiosis of underground culture and consumer capitalism, Duncombe explains how the underground needs the Man to define itself against, while the Man needs the underground to create new trends for the marketplace. For all of Duncombe’s hand-wringing, his book (and the ’zine anthologies) is part and parcel of this unspoken Faustian pact between the underground and the mainstream—a two-headed beast locked in the eternal tango of consumption.

Andrew Hultkrans is a frequent contributor to Artforum.