It’s pronounced “Zeen”: the art of zines

During a recent visit to Chicago, my sister-in-law brought me to a small brick building on North Avenue sandwiched between a pasta bar and a barbecue restaurant. The windows, covered in stickers, displayed the words “MAGAZINES” “BOOKS” and “CURIOSITIES.” One step inside and any book lover like myself would immediately feel their heart melt in wonderment at the eclectic beauty of the shop. Most independent bookstores elicit a similar feeling of joy, but Quimby’s was unlike any other bookstore I’ve experienced.

What makes Quimby’s Bookstore so special is, in their own words, their “miscellany of the latest independent ‘zines.’” Besides the books and mainstream magazines throughout the store, various walls hold small, handmade publications called zines, which have become popularized in a colliding domain of art and journalism. They are self-published and cover a range of topics from collections of art, poetry, autobiographical writings and collages, to short stories, comics, and information about specialized topics.

Before my trip to Quimby’s I’d heard of zines and even made some myself, I but didn’t know there was such a large market for them. So I got to wondering: where did zines come from? And how did they get so popular?

Well, I did a little digging and found that the zine has changed significantly since its origins.

Though it would seem that “zine” comes from “magazine,” this connection is highly disputed and for some, borderline offensive. One zine publisher, Larry-bob Roberts, believes this association is mistaken because while a magazine is a commercial product, “a zine is a labor of love, producing no profit.” Zines are in some ways antithetical to the commercial magazine; they have no advertisers and their content is often anti-establishment and confrontational of mainstream media.

The true origin of “zine” can be traced back to the 1930s, when the “fanzine” became a slang term for the niche sensation of fan magazines. Fanzines were especially popular with fantasy and science fiction fans who were amateur writers.

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451 and other notable sci-fi novels, was among those fanzine creators who distributed the typically low-budget and ephemeral publications to the fan community.

It wasn’t until a few decades later that the zine was reborn out of a counterculture. During the sixties, the punk rock subculture of music, clothing, and attitude expanded into the world of zines. Zines became an alternative mode of creative expression, often exploring fringe subcultures and obscure trends.

Today, the types of zines are virtually endless, but the nature of the craft is inherently political and often ephemeral. The Riot Grrrl movement has distributed an extensive collection of feminist zines that helped popularize political zines.

The zine in its most modern form is the E-Zine. As technology has evolved throughout the last century, the zine has adapted; from doing everything by hand, to the lithograph, to the modern photocopy machine, and now to the internet, the art of the Zine has persisted, but individual publications are notoriously ephemeral. Most publications aren’t successful and those that are typically reach a small audience.

Shops like Quimby’s are a great means for creators to expand their readership, but the emergence of E-Zines has made a global impact. In the twentieth century, Zines were exclusively an underground art, but their influence has been impossible to contain. Recently, it’s reached the Triangle; earlier in October, Durham held its fourth annual Zine Machine Fest.

UNC alum Emily Yue participated in the first ever Durham Zine Machine Fest in 2015.

“I started making zines as a way to document and share my comics and artwork with my friends,” they said.

Yue’s experience at the Zine Machine Fest was especially positive. Their favorite part of the festival was the accessibility for both creators and visitors–much of the work is pay-what-you-can and creators are able to trade and connect with other local artists and art-lovers.

Yue became invested in zine-making after studying conceptual book arts at the Penland School of Craft, and they appreciated that zines are meant to be consumed or created by anyone without the barriers of cost or resources. The content matter of Yue’s zines include tales of their Tinder encounters, narratives of queer people of color, and made up backstories of found photos.

Yue, among many underground artists and writers, has high hopes for the future of zines.

“I hope more libraries expand and digitize their zine collections to preserve our voices and ideas,” they said. “And I hope journalism and print news can shift from paywalls and exclusively white, affluent, older audiences to covering stories of people who have taken documentation into their own hands with self-publication and zine circulation.”

Because zines have become a way for underrepresented artists to share their voice, it isn’t enough to just wish for such things that Yue mentions. There’s are endless ways to support zine creators and underground art.

Attending events like the Durham Zine Machine Fest, where artists and consumers can interact directly, is just one. Additionally, there are hundreds of online resources for finding zines and their creators. Even something as simple as following a local artist on social media can help their voices be heard.

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