What is a “Zine” and Why do People Make Them?
People commonly ask me these questions when I mention zines. Though I’ve personally made eighteen zines over the past twenty years, I feel barely qualified to provide an answer. The short and very incomplete answer is that a zine is like a cross between a personal letter and an amateur magazine. The longer answer is that zines have been around since about 1930 as science fiction “fanzines” (Duncombe 11) and have evolved over time to encompass countless formats and subjects from punk to politics and just about everything else you can imagine.
Over time, a subculture has grown up around zines. Zine culture is highly creative, interesting, and democratic. It’s open to anyone to participate. Creativity and a DIY ethic are central to the culture from writing, copying, folding, stapling, and circulating, everything is most often in the hands of the “zinester”.
To find an answer to the questions, “What is a zine” and “Why do people make them,” I turned to author and zinemaker Davida G. Breier. Davida discovered the world of zines and independent publishing in 1994 and Baltimore’s City Paper awarded her with “Best Local Zinester” in 2000 and “Best Zine” in 2003. She won the Literary Death Match, Baltimore 3.0 event in 2011. She’s spent the last two decades in various roles within the book industry. Davida lives in Maryland with her family, a pack of wee rescue dogs, a rescue tortoise, and two companion chickens. She’s created numerous zines including Xerography Debt, Leeking Ink, Rigor Mortis, and The Glovebox Chronicles. She is currently working on the final revisions of her new novel Sinkhole, a coming-of-age psychological thriller that will be published by the University of New Orleans Press next spring. I reached out to ask her to share her more than twenty-five years of insight into zine culture.
What is a Zine?
Dave Combs: In your MetaZine: It’s a Zine About Zines you tackle the question of “What is a zine?” at length. Could you summarize how you explain zines to the uninitiated?
Davida G. Breier: Zines are commonly self-defined, but at their most basic level, they are an independent form of communication, usually printed and often self-distributed. In my eyes, zines are generally about sharing ideas or interests without commercial intent. Zinemakers often want to share – thoughts, experiences, art, music – without monetary gain as a driving factor. Bartering is common.
Why People Make Zines
Dave Combs: In the recent issue #47 of Xerography Debt, which has been described as the PBS of review zines, you explore the theme of why people make zines. What do you feel are some important reasons other people make zines?
Davida G. Breier: Communication, connection, and the desire to create. Zines often allow for fairly deep connections with other people, at least that has been my experience. I often know more about a stranger’s life in 36 pages than people I’ve worked alongside for five years. There is also value in sources of information that are wholly independent of traditional media. Of course, there is bias but you know that going into it. Unfiltered personal experience is unique to zines.
They are tactile and creative in ways that make them an enduring media. You don’t have to have a computer to create one, just a pen, paper, and some form of adhesive. Nor do you have to be a professional writer. Everyone can make a zine and it can be about anything – from your matchbook collection to political discourse to a trip to a flea market in Idaho.
Dave Combs: Why do you personally make zines?
Davida G. Breier: I make different zines for different reasons. Xerography Debt is a communal zine and it is meant for the larger zine community. I am but one of about 20 contributors. I just happen to be the one who organizes it. I’ve also written per-zines (personal zines) and I see those as letters to friends, sharing what I am interested in or thinking about – be that a travelogue or the mysteries of eels. I like to make things and zines became one of my chosen mediums.
Dave Combs: Can you tell us a little about some of the other zines you’ve made such as Leeking Ink and Rigor Mortis?
Davida G. Breier: Leeking Ink was my original perzine. I started it in 1995 and have published it sporadically the last few years. Rigor Mortis was devoted to zombies and horror and was something I started with some close zine friends. It only ran four issues, but I think that some of those issues are the best zines I’ve ever published.
In January, I started a daily photo zine, The Least I Could Do, but started struggling to keep it up as another project took over. I’ve been working on the final revisions of my new novel Sinkhole and that has been taking up all my time.
Characteristics of Zine Culture
Dave Combs: What would you say are some important characteristics of “zine culture” if there is such a thing?
Davida G. Breier: I don’t think you can generalize zines, so I can only give you my perspective. For me, zine culture is supportive, independent, and accepting. At the same time, it can also be combative, rigid, and exclusive. It all depends on who you are and what you are looking for. It also depends on when you are talking about and who you are talking with. I’ve been involved in zines for over 25 years, so my perspective includes the early days of the internet and some of the boom period of the 90s.
It seems like every five years or so zines are “rediscovered,” when in fact they’ve been around in various forms for over 100 years. Zine culture is going to be self-defined by the people involved and the kinds of zines they publish. Is a hardcore punk zine going to see zine culture in the same way an off-the-grid herbalist does? Quite possibly, but I wouldn’t want to speak for them.
Zines in Popular Culture
Dave Combs: In the recent Netflix film, MOXiE!, a central element of the movie is a high school student making her own zine. If you’ve seen it, what did you think of the way contemporary zine-making was represented in the movie?
Davida G. Breier: I did watch MOXiE! and enjoyed it. While I had some criticisms, the overall message about empowering teens to speak out and support one another far outweighed them. There is still power in zines no matter how old you are. While social media is fast, it often lacks the substance of something you have to take the time to make and read.
Making Your Own Zines
Dave Combs: In MetaZine, you have a section on tips and tricks for making zines. What are a couple of the most important pieces of advice you can share with someone interested in making their own zines?
Davida G. Breier: Just do it. Don’t wait until it is perfect. Know that your first zine might be a bit awful and that is okay. Stellar first zines are like unicorns. Learn from the process. Then send your zine out for review and trade and meet some zinesters.
More Reasons for Making Zines
All this talk about zines and zine culture made me curious to know more about other people’s motivations for zinemaking. I asked around to find out why other people make zines and Ana Hine of feminist arts zine, Artificial Womb, said, “Personally I make zines because I feel a need to record the subcultures and scenes I’m part of. Many of the things we cover in Artificial Womb aren’t covered elsewhere and it’s important to me to print on paper that they happened and why they were important. I have this irrational fear that the internet will go down and we’ll lose twenty years of our history, making physical zines negates that fear a little. Of course, we still upload almost all our content online somewhere, but it’s the physical zine that’s at the core of what we do.”
Another response to my question of, “Why make zines?”, came from Jon Konrath, creator of zines including Mandatory Laxative, Metal Curse, Xenocide, and Air in the Paragraph Line who stated, “I started writing zines before the web was invented, because I wanted a way to release my writing to the world, without any barriers or constraints. Now that the web has become largely stupid because of money people, ads, and monopolies, publishing zines is more important than ever.”
So, What is a Zine and Why Make Them?
The best answer, in my opinion, suggested by Stephen Duncombe, author of Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture is to grab a stack of zines and decide for yourself what they are.
And to answer the question of why people make them, communication, connection, and the desire to create contributes to many if not all zinesters’ desire to make zines. And as a zinemaker myself, I have to add one more reason — that it’s fun. So if you’re curious about making zines, I’d highly recommend you try it for yourself. If you’re game, below are some online resources to help you get started.
Online Zinemaking Resources:
- How to Make a Zine from The Creative Independent by Rona Akbari
- How to Make a Zine from wikiHow Co-authored by wikiHow Staff
Making Stapled Zines
Next-Level Zine Making
- How to ZINE | miniseries | Ep. 5 – Making a Zine – Staple bound video by monkeymintaka
Duncombe, S. (2017). Zines. In Notes from Underground: Zines and The Politics of Alternative Culture (p. 11). essay, Microcosm Publishing.
Dave Combs makes, among other things, art, stickers, zines, books, and coffee. His most recent zine, This Zine Has Issues, is about breaking the stigma of mental illnesses while helping others know they are not alone and his most recent book is MOS TEF: Step into the O-zone with Belgian sticker artist, Kidzuku. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife Holly, his son Alden, and their two cats, Rey and Enid. His adult daughter Skye also lives in Indianapolis. For more information, please visit his website: davetoo.com.Enjoy this article? Share it on your favorite social site.