A Brief History of Zines
By Chloe Arnold
Zines have now become so mainstream that even Kanye West has one. In February 2016, the hip-hop artist tweeted: “Season 2 Zine pronounced Zeen short for magazine. A lot of people pronounce it wrong.” The tweet included a picture of the publication Kanye had made to accompany his second line of footwear for his brand, Yeezy. After decades of existence, zines are no longer strictly counter-culture, but they originated as small-scale DIY efforts—many with an anti-authoritarian message.
Most definitions of zines include the fact that they are small-circulation, self-published, and often inexpensive or free. That’s generally true, although these are more guidelines than hard-and-fast rules. The most important aspect of a zine is generally that the publication identifies as one. Many zine-makers will say zines are as much about the community as the product, and that identifying as a zine is what separates these publications from comics, literary journals, websites, and other types of independent publications.
The first zine is often traced back to a 1930s effort by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago. It was called The Comet, and it started a long-lasting trend of sci-fi related zines. The important sci-fi zine Fantasy Commentator began in 1943, and ran in various iterations (though not continuously) until 2004. One of the pieces serialized in Fantasy Commentator eventually became Sam Moskowitz’s book on the history of sci-fi fandom, The Immortal Storm. The interconnectedness of zines and sci-fi is reflected in the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) Hugo award for Best Fanzine, first given out in 1955 and still awarded today. (As the name of that award shows, zines were originally called fanzines, alluding to the fans who made them. Eventually, fanzine was just shortened to zine, and the range of topics widened to include practically anything.)
The relationship between zines and sci-fi deepened after 1967, when the first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, was produced. It gained plenty of attention, and the second issue included letters by members of the show, including writer D.C. Fontana and actors James Doohan, DeForest Kelley, and Leonard Nimoy. (The actors all wrote their letters in character.) In 1968, Star Trek was reportedly going to be canceled after two seasons, but a letter-writing campaign—partly organized through fanzines—that generated over 160,000 missives was able to help get the show back on the air for another year.
The technological innovations of the ‘70s made zines easier to create than ever. In particular, the rise of copy shops allowed zine-makers to produce their work cheaply and quickly. (Previously, zines had been produced using mimeographs, which push ink through a stencil to make multiple prints, but the process was impractical for large-scale production.) Steve Samiof, one of the people behind the popular punk zine Slash, told Dazed in an interview earlier this year that the copy shops of the '70s were “extremely inexpensive—you could pay under $800 for 5000 copies and that would be the actual printing cost.”
In the ‘70s and ‘80s, the main hub of zine culture became the punk scene in London, LA, and New York. Compared to the earlier sci-fi zines, punk zines had a grungier, DIY aesthetic that reflected the subjects being covered. Slash and other popular zines like UK-based Sniffin’ Glue covered seminal punk bands like The Clash, The Ramones, and Joy Division. The first issue of Punk, published in 1976, featured an interview with Lou Reed.
The first issue of Sniffin' Glue. Image credit: Wikimedia // Fair use
The dedication of the early punk scene allowed zines to get interviews with people who would go on to be big names before they had achieved fame. When punk started to gain popularity, many of the zines that previously helped define the scene shut down. Sniffin’ Glue ended in 1977 and in 1979 Punk followed suit.
In the 1990s, zines flourished again thanks to the riot grrrl scene. As an alternative to the male-driven punk world of the past, riot grrrl encouraged young girls and women to start their own band, make their own zine, and get their voices heard. Key bands included Bikini Kill, Heavens to Betsy, Bratmobile, L7, and Sleater-Kinney. By 1993, an estimated 40,000 zines were being published in North America alone, many of them devoted to riot grrrl music and politics.
But riot grrrl was more than just a musical genre, it was a feminist movement—though it was often difficult to pin down the specifics of that movement. As Max Kessler wrote in Paper, “Whatever riot grrrl became—a political movement, an avant-garde, or an ethos—it began as a zine.” Riot grrrl spread from its epicenter in Olympia, Washington to across the country and other parts of the world.
Many of the members of these bands also had their own zines. Bikini Kill ran a zine of the same name, and Tobi Vail, a member of the band, ran her own popular zine called Jigsaw. The zine Snarla was made by artist Miranda July and musician Johanna Fateman. Both Bust, first published in 1993, and Bitch, published in 1996, started out as zines connected to the riot grrl movement and have since grown into full-scale magazines.
Philipp Messner via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Today, zines are more diverse than ever. The rise of the internet has helped make the cost of production almost zero, and online zines such as Plasma Dolphin, Pop Culture Puke, Cry Baby, and Cherry have brought young artists together to collaborate. However, zines are also still sold in person through zine fairs as well as online via Etsy and Big Cartel. The internet has also made it easier for zine makers to connect and find community regardless of location.
While the zines of the past have been shaped by the predominant themes of sci-fi, punk music, and the riot grrrl movement, there have always been zines on a variety of subjects. Today, that diversity is reflected in publications like Home Zine, which invites artists to explore the concept of feeling at home; Filmme Fatales, which explores feminism in film; and Dad Tweets—a short, humorous collection of selected tweets from a real-life dad. There is even a zine about what plants are best for attracting bees and other pollinators. In fact, there is an entire magazine, Broken Pencil, dedicated to covering zines and zine culture. (In the 1980s and early 1990s, Factsheet Five, a zine of zines, performed a similar function.)
The usefulness of zines as historical documents is now being recognized. Many universities have their own zine collections and there are also numerous independent zine libraries both in America and around the world. It’s easier than ever to learn about zines first-hand. However, the best way to learn and be involved in the community is the same as always: start reading and then start creating.