I came of age in the ’90s, and a few tenets of my personality will remain forever locked in those heady, angsty, dress-and-combat-boot-wearing days: Reality Bites is still one of my favorite movies (yes, I realize it doesn’t hold up), I owe much of my psychic makeup to Bikini Kill, and I take great comfort in the whir of a Xerox machine and the methodical thump of a stapler — in other words, zines are my happy place. I read them, I made them, I even fell in love with a boy based on nothing more than the black-and-white, saddle-stapled pages he created (RIP, Frolic).
So I am thoroughly relishing the new age of zinedom that’s flourished in the past couple of years. Articles on the rise of photocopied content have appeared in the UK’s Independent, Time magazine, and The New York Times; zine libraries are popping up around the country; and a simple search for “’zine” on Etsy garners nearly 67,000 items. Of course, this analog form of communication never really went away. And zines were ebbing and flowing in popularity long before I discovered them. According to Time, they first emerged in the 1930s, when “science fiction enthusiasts began to self-publish and trade their own volumes of fan fiction.” These fan magazines (aka “fanzines”) took on a whole new meaning in the ’70s when punks used them to spread the love of their favorite bands (e.g. Sniffin’ Glue, which was inspired by the Ramones).
The rise of zines in the ’90s was inarguably linked to the Riot Grrrl scene, but feminism and female-fronted punk weren’t the only subjects zines of the era covered: topics ran the gamut from a person’s crush history to their anarchist political leanings. A recipe for vegan cupcakes or instructions for DIY deodorant could be found as easily as the recounting of a sexual assault or the painful disintegration of a relationship. At the time, zines offered a bit of intellectual voyeurism before the narcissistic beast of the Internet made looky-looing at others’ lives so readily accessible. We had to type out our feelings and mail them to one another because there was no other way to do it.
Nowadays, rather than being a necessary means of communication, the movement seems to be spurred, at least in part, by our culture’s reaction to the digital era. People eschew the keyboard functions of cutting and pasting for the actual act of taking scissors to paper and applying glue. “I think that many people miss the idea of this tangible piece of art you can carry around with you and seek inspiration from,” says Los Angeles-based Yvette Shoemaker, whose Band of Outsiders offers exactly that. It’s a zine “for those who have grown up feeling like a weirdo for not conforming to society’s idea of the ‘norm,’” she says, featuring content on veganism, feminism, anarchism, music, DIY, film, and art. Despite its contemporary creation, Shoemaker’s zine obviously evokes the ’90s ethos, perhaps because she discovered zines by way of Riot Grrrl. “It boggled my mind that you could create these mini magazines that were all you,” she says.
Zines of the ’90s also influenced Basic Paper Airplane-creator and Ms. Valerie Park Distro co-founder Joshua James Amberson, who picked up his first zine as a teen in 1995. Though sales have certainly increased in the last year or two, he says, “It’s hard to say how much of it is us just growing as a business and how much of it is a general upswing in zine popularity.” But his reason for starting Ms. Valerie Park Distro in late 2008 — because “there was a community of creators that needed a way to get their art into the world and it seemed like a natural solution” — speaks in and of itself to zines’ recent re-emergence.
Not all of today’s zine-makers had early experiences with Xeroxed treasures. Portland-based artist Jacqueline Bos considers herself a latecomer, getting into zines about five years ago. The themes of her mini creations range from succulents to the Golden Girls. For her, the inspiration has less to do with moving away from the computer and more to do with putting her art out into the world. “It’s a way to reach out to people who enjoy your work in a way that’s inexpensive for them to have, and for you to produce,” she says.
Of course, reading and making zines is only part of the appeal. In the ’90s, meeting the person who wrote your favorite zine, or making that long-distance connection via an envelope and some stamps, was just as important. And despite the speed of the Internet, and the rapid-fire “friend”-making social media allows for, that’s one thing that hasn’t changed. “I love everything about zine culture,” says Shoemaker. “It’s so welcoming and accepting of people and their differences. It’s just this amazing sense of community that you find with other people who share your passion for creating.”
Want to make a zine of your own? There’s a ’ine for that. Not sure what to write about? There’s a zine for that, too. Get right into the fray by hitting up a zine fest; they take place annually all over the country, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Brooklyn. You might be surprised to find that such a small, unassuming item can exact a huge influence on your life.
Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor soaking up the eternal sunshine in Los Angeles. When she's not on the hunt for the latest and greatest in girl culture as the West Coast editor of BUST magazine, she's flea marketing, taco trucking, and generally raising a ruckus.