A zine is a tiny book that you make on your own. It can be about anything.
People capture the story of their lives in zines, little diaries and time capsules folded down the center. An abridged version of “magazine” or “fanzine”, zines have been reproducing the voices of people on the fringes since their punk-rock inception.
Some zines are the stories of moments and places that have swept past. Others are alternative histories or scrappy lifestyle guides. Some are comics or biographies of the imaginary. They are precious and messy, too much honesty and too few edits.
I can trace the story of my self with zines; their place in my life so profound, each phase of my life filled with memories of paper. Who ever thought you could dedicate so much time to these stupid, fake books, with a quasi-pronounceable name?
It is easiest to tell my life story through the story of zines and vice-versa. The paper cuts and torn edges are easy mistakes to learn from. It’s all those missing pages that really break your heart.
“IT’S PRONOUNCED ZEEN”
It’s hard to admit what makes you happy until it’s too late, until it’s already been snatched away or sullied by outside forces.
On February 8th, 2016, Kanye West said zine.
As far as Kanye-tweets go, this one was tame. The infamous, rich, crazy, whatever-the-fuck was on the cusp of releasing his second collection of confusing spandex at New York Fashion Week. Around the same time, Kayne’s twitter had been teasing his new album: dropping names, changing titles, leaking artwork. The Kanye-tension was reaching an all-time high. There was hushed flurry of “will he or won’t he’s”.
Before his fashion show, he tweeted, “Season 2 Zine pronounced Zeen short for magazine. A lot of people pronounce it wrong.” above a picture of a nude girl…on the cover of a zine.
If one of the most famous musicians in the world — or rather his interns— was printing a paper booklet for his fashion show, could it even be called a zine? What was the appeal of this strange word? Why was everyone embracing it now?
In the age of the screen, zines were having their moment. And I really loved zines. It seemed like nothing I loved was mine.
The Zine Library
An old punk sage once told me, “We write to remember things. But we also write so we can forget.”
I wanted to erase all the rotten parts, the things that made me feel unclean, but there is such honesty in the lack of editing. With their origins decentralized and their lifespan fractured, the history of zines was blurry — I didn’t know how to begin. Combing through notebooks, dusty Xerox, and library discards, the pages that remain are odds and ends. Some are dog-eared and coffee stained. Others pristine, as if eternally sandwiched between the pages of a book.
When at a loss, however, libraries are often the best place to begin.
UCLA is home to one of the handful of zine libraries within the academic world. Julia Glassman, the founder and librarian of the Powell Library Zine collection, is a bona-fide zine expert who defines the medium thusly:
“I’ve heard at least one person say ‘What isn’t a zine??’ When I describe it to people, I usually say something like a low budget, self published work of art or writing.”
Commonly a zine is A4 paper copied, folded and stapled in a do-it-yourself book. Zines support a thriving community of artists and writers beyond the mainstream publishing world. UCLA’s Powell Library is home to a burgeoning collection of zines, one of a handful of academic zine libraries in the nation. Founded in 2013, the collection “aims to promote student writing, pleasure reading, and self-publication, with a special focus on zines by UCLA students and other local writers.”
The diverse collection at UCLA’s Community Zine Collection has a selection of voices and subjects, ranging from activist essays to photographs, comics, DIY advice and more. A “Take a Zine, Leave a Zine” box nurtures a community of creators where people can share and trade new work.
“What’s interesting about someone like Kanye West publishing a zine is that he has the resources to be publishing anything he wants…I feel like zines have always been the vehicle of marginalized people or people that can’t get access to the mainstream. It’s funny to me that they’re cool now,” says Glassman.
Visiting the collection and peeling back pages evoked something sweet and familiar, but it didn’t completely scratch that itch. Mainly from the dawn of the 2000’s, UCLA’s collection focuses largely on personal zines and political zines. Relics like old issues of Punk or Factsheet Five weren’t part of the UCLA archives. I kept hunting, searching for something I had left in the past and I came back to my first encounters with punk. I dug back deeper.
Kid Stuff, Manhattan & Hermosa Beach
Each person’s journey to punk follows a similar recipe. Like so many weirdos, I found home in solace and obsession. I would let them consume me until I moved on. Immolated by passion, my interests usually left scorched earth and embarrassment.
And like so many teens aimless with hormonal ennui, I found punk and for me, zines and punk were inextricably linked
My affluent hometown butted up to Hermosa Beach: a single square mile of beach equipped with a picaresque pier, soft sand and legends of punk glory from the 80’s and 90’s.
Though most of the scene’s charm had faded, there was something ripe in these folktales. The golden years of Hermosa were epic and influential. Bands like Black Flag and the Circle Jerks called Hermosa home and a distinct style of California punk and hardcore was forged.
But just as most grow weary with time, the punks of the South Bay grew up and moved on. Milo went to college. The Minutemen couldn’t jam anymore. Pennywise would always suck. The leftovers were beach burnouts and yuppie wannabes.
So this was the punk that surrounded me, something soggy and masculine. It had been diluted to a soundtrack and was claimed by teenage boys. Even the high school quarterback had a Black Flag tee shirt. Even the “real” punks were amateurs. Mostly identity-hungry brats searching for meaning through folklore that was revered as history, the patches on their jackets a little too fresh, the denim too clean. It was somewhere around my early teen years, I met zines.
Photocopied and doodled flyers for local bands were dutifully collected as I curated favorite bands by the severity of crushes I acquired. But these carelessly copied slips of paper couldn’t even match the photos I’d seen of Black Flag flyers and Descendents covers hand drawn to advertise house shows or concerts in the park. (The concert in the park series still exists, although the last time I could hear it down the street from my parents’ house a Jimmy Buffet cover band was crowing.)
Life dragged on. The Ramones turned into Can. PiL was now more interesting than the Sex Pistols. Beefheart records blared. We found acid. Finished community college. And moved north like strange folk tend to when they flee LA.
Berkeley was far from the wacko paradise I had imagined. I was thick and uncomfortable in my body. The theory I was digesting seemed to undermine all of the art and anthropology classes I took at home. People dropped names that begged for reference. My insecurities flared and there is no other way to describe the feeling but drowning. I was simply out of my depth.
Berkeley has about five main streets and my then-partner worked at a record store on the infamous drag of Telegraph Avenue that sits in front of the University. A destination for street kids and panhandlers that lived parallel to frozen yogurt and frat houses.
Books about the hippie generation beamed about the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam protests with glossy essays. Berkeley smelled dirty, like wet concrete. What happened from 1970 on was a mystery few acknowledged.
My inquiry didn’t get me far, but I found another history waiting: The history of Berkeley and Oakland punk.
Aaron Cometbus & East Bay Punk
“I don’t know if I could defend this in a thesis,” Aaron Cometbus coughed, “but Punk is really the origin of everything.”
Aaron Cometbus is the kind of obscure legend that punks both love and hate. His eponymous magazine became a quintessential document of East Bay punk with its literary voice and anthropological intensity. As a member of Berkeley’s influential 924 Gilman punk scene, Cometbus’s magazine was required reading. I bought my first issue from the disgruntled owner of Oakland’s Book Zoo. Issue #51 was about the bookstores on Telegraph Avenue, a street I walked on every day.
Cometbus’s words were electric but he rejected publishing deals, favoring the autonomy of self-publishing instead. He spent his time reading and researching or hawking books alongside the weirdos of downtown Berkeley. When things got boring, he skipped town. His was the freedom of having no obligations. His handwritten, cut-and-paste booklets captured punk essence from an insider perspective.
“Punk always had a strong sense of story, an oral tradition passed on and passed down which shaped the way we talked about and thought about ourselves. Strangely, the music itself never really reflected that. The songs were part of our life, but not visa-versa.” (Issue 45, published 1998)
With close to 60 issues and over 25 years since its inception, Cometbus and his magazine have had an enduring presence in a punk media. My friend Allison Wolfe — a punk legend in her own right — pulls some strings and gets me his phone number.
When I talk to him, Cometbus comes off as more of an academic than an anarchist.
“How we write history is a good question because for some reason, history always seems to take away from the excitement of the work. It takes away credit from the people who were doing the most interesting things.”
Cometbus’s writing reflects this inclination towards excitement and his connections to alternative histories runs deep. He focuses on the margins, drawing a connection between his work and the 1960’s underground press that thrived in Berkeley during the free-speech movement.
“Punk zines come from the tradition of the sixties underground… Punk gets looked at as just music and the underground publications see themselves as culture, but If you look at Punk #1, there’s a little bit of music but it’s really about the anthropological. What rules do we enjoy breaking? What are we trying to make here? I don’t make a strong distinction between the punk scene and the stuff that came before it. Just something shifts a little bit.”
Although zines cite a number of lineages, punk energy vibrates throughout the genre because of the projects’ do-it-yourself ethos and outsider mentality.
Perhaps unknowingly, Cometbus has become a definitive punk historian. He handwrites letters to musicians, artists and writers across the globe, keeping the DIY spirit alive while capturing the stories of bygone scenes.
“My friend from London does a fanzine called Defiant Pose that’s run since ’79 and he’s like a missing link between worlds. He talks about Rough Trade [Records in London] having the copy machine in the back of the store. And they would [tell people] give us your originals, we’ll make two hundred copies of it and give you thirty or however it worked.
Most of these early punk fanzines weren’t xeroxed– a lot of things were offset printing. Suddenly Punk #1 comes out and there’s like one hundred fan zines within three months. There’s this real burst of energy that I’m not sure there’s another flare-up we can compare it to.”
It’s difficult for Cometbus to come up with a fixed definition of the genre. It seems that zines are often defined in opposition to the mainstream, more defined by the qualities the two do not share.
“It’s like [Justice Potter Stewart’s] famous pornography quote… You can tell when you see it. They have a feeling… Small press is only necessary because the larger press — I don’t even know if it’s the mainstream — is just shockingly inept at finding the things that are most exciting and true in the world. [The Mainstream] is only picking up the most like trite, fearful, scary, boring parts of life…
It’s weird that we have to defend the underground. No one is defending the mainstream… I foolishly kind of think that the underground and the mainstream are flirting with each other and they need each other though.”
He’s right. The alternative only exists in opposition. In the years since his youth, Cometbus has seen the fringes of culture tumble inwards. You don’t have to crawl through crates of vinyl at a record store, the music’s already curated. You don’t make your own Crass patch, you buy it from the mall. Punk isn’t edgy, it’s marketable.
“But I’m not gonna change a damn thing,” he laughs.
He gives me a list of reading and we get off the phone. I scribble pages of notes and find a stamp so I can send out a letter tomorrow.
I go back to my writing from punk world, trying to recapture the spark that Cometbus remembered. The feral ecology was distant, but still familiar.
The thing you have to believe is some punk operates in its own world. It runs on its own schedule, with its own economy, and own vocabulary. The world was peppered with idiosyncrasies.
In cities with a thriving punk scene, houses are the infrastructure of the DIY community and in Oakland these houses were king.
Punk houses were a really dirty co-op. But our style of communal living meant we shared food stamps, amplifiers and partners.
It was years since I had left, but every detail of that house is cemented in my mind. The shit green facade stood up three stories and sunk into the ground as you walked to the overgrown back garden. People were crammed into every inhabitable corner, but the giant front room was left open, save for drum kits, speaker heads and a collapsible card table. In punk world, music was everything. The walls were a gallery of smattered marker drawings, found photographs and beat up canvas experiments. Art was even higher than music — it was God.
Zines fit the ethos of this lifestyle. They were the literature of our strange world. They documented our thoughts, feelings, obsessions. We scammed free copies from the local colleges and kept rumpled pages in our bags, not wanting to miss the opportunity to trade.
We played music in each other’s living rooms. These gatherings were the rabid offspring of a concert and they were ground zero for the type of punk culture these zines reflected.
A night as an Oakland punk would go like this: To end up at a show you either had to be in the know, or find your way from a dog-eared Xerox flyer. The black and white quarter page declares “Show at 7, Bands at 8. NO PUNK TIME.” This means don’t be late.
It also says “Bring $$ for touring bands” and “NOTAFLOF” — shorthand for “no one turned away for lack of funds.” Ideally, this is a gesture of communitarian goodwill saying “everyone is welcome.” In actuality, it means cramming the house with nearly 100 strangers who bitch about giving three bucks of gas money to the band from Olympia.
The flyer doesn’t have an address. The location just says “ask a punk”. This secretive arrangement was mostly to keep the cops from visiting, but also gave the world an air of gritty exclusivity.
Despite everyone’s best wishes, the show begins on Punk Time™. 7 o’clock passes without notice. By 8 the friends of the band join and by 9 PM enough people finally show up for the first band to start their set. They’re bad so you time things strategically and by the end of the first song you’re lighting a cigarette in the backyard.
Although everyone is totally there for the music, the backyard is always more full than the front room. Even on a cold night, certain bodies would stay outside all evening, chain-smoking and laughing.
You wander back inside for the second band. People are drunk, loud and social. A two-piece fumbles through their set while the guitarist uses more distortion pedals than chords and the drummer thumps with Paleolithic rhythm. Fifteen minutes feels like five epochs.
There’s lots of crowdgazing to do. The people around you wear a melange of alternative aesthetic: freak, punk, goth, queer. Imagine less spikes-and-studs and more crazy-aunt does ketamine for the style. Sure, there were lots of monochrome menfolk but art school had influenced bursts of colorful jackets and genderless skirts with very complicated haircuts to match.
A friend of a friend walks between people passing something out. Their hands are full of a green paper bi-fold with the words “Ghost Town” written on the front. Eager to share her latest creation, she passed out zines to friends and strangers who often left them trampled underfoot. You fold one into your pants pocket to add to your collection.
Now after midnight, the last band is up. The house has no ventilation so the front room has become a steamy box. Half of the band is bald and they all wear aloha-style shirts. Surprisingly, everyone sings along with the punchy screeches of the mustached vocalist. People are crunched shoulder to shoulder but with no stage, the push and pull of the crowd becomes keep the tense the same throughout a singular wave of bodies.
The set ends and people slowly filter out. They smoke more, but eventually go back to their own homes. For the dense and unwelcome stragglers, the house residents would clean up loudly, gathering beer bottles and clacking them together. Half-hearted and task half-complete, you recede to your room and pass out before you could take off your clothes or brush your teeth. Night after night. Again and again.
It began to take its toll.
Leaving Punk, 2014
In Oakland, I let the bad things pile up and was drunk on deluded anti-establishment confidence. Life in a vacuum can cause poor judgment and strange decisions. I stopped taking my medicine. Things spiraled downward.
I had a manic episode and fell in love. I don’t remember much about that time. The world tasted like sunlight, blinding sensation. We ate roses in the kitchen and biked everywhere. I stuffed my bag with poetry zines to pass out and trade. My sunburnt back was crossed with a tan-line from my camera strap. Everything was perfect.
Six months later I had another break, this one way worse. Ending up handcuffed to a hospital bed wasn’t even the half of it. I packed up my books and headed home with my loose ends tethering down the coast.
Leaving punk felt like leaving a cult. I was shamed on all sides. Stupid for buying into the utopian anarchy. Ashamed I wasn’t strong enough to maintain that life.
I came back to LA broken and small, pretending to be an adult. A second-tier fashion magazine mistakenly hired me. I was out of my depth again, loudly hiding from the fact that I was totally crazy and totally damaged and totally not capable of the job. But I wrote and I get yelled at and fashion-hazed.
A week into work, I got a call from an ex-friend. First I ignored it but he calls back, so I step outside.
“Mick is dead. He jumped off Kaiser Hospital. I thought you should know.”
And just like that, Oakland was dead to me. The kind of dead you mourn for with bruised bones and crashed cars.
The reality of everything didn’t face me until then.
The year I left punk, zines were the only thing that kept me together. When I felt homesick, I went hunting for bookstores that might have something like a zine. Something precious and paper and strange that makes me feel alive again. I found the UCLA library and began to sulk around there. I wrote letters and poems and short stories and essays trying to repair myself.
I crash and burn several times over until I can’t take it anymore. I stop working for the magazine and take a job teaching. I go back to the doctor. I get back on my meds.
Even with its mess and chaos, I wanted the punk world back. I was determined to recreate the best parts of this place, scrubbed from the drama and instability wed to my formative years. I didn’t have the stamina to run a collective or play music again.
Channeling my creativity into paper one fold at a time, I thumbed through printed photos, reviewed the piles of show flyers and stacks of zines until it struck me. It was bigger than just any one book. It lasted longer than a night of music. I was going to start something myself, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen.
I applied to grad school for journalism, patching my writing resume together with these dumb books and organizing my art squat as experience.
I worked more than 60 hours a week teaching, trapped behind lesson plans and papers to grade. The semester wraps up, and I get into grad school. My ears pique when they tell us we get free copies in the school’s media center.
Back at university I felt like a punk in sheep’s clothing, hiding in plain sight. Hoofing it to a class about non-profits, I tried to explain the strange art I loved to a room full of studious musicians.
“What can you do to help art make a better world?” the professor asked one day. Everyone else had their instruments, their orchestras and their archives. I guess I had zines.
At the next class, I presented a proposal for my small-press and zine library. Everyone else in the class seemed more organized, but I kept up and developed my project step-by-step. It would be called Thanagram Press — a combination of the Greek roots for “death” and “written”.
I came up with a mission statement and set off to bring my project to life.
Thanagram Press believes in the unique voice and perspective of all humans. Humans are storytellers by nature and our ability to perceive the world through story is part of our collective strength. Stories are the greatest tool for change in the human world.
Thanagram Press values the gravity of the physical; the queer relationship between an idea and its representation.
We believe physical, tangible press matters because it is exactly that. When we move from the world of ideas to the world of things we are investing in the life of narrative, placing a value on the perspective engrained within.
We believe in conversation, that the most beautiful things come from the spaces in-between words and in-between people.
LA Zine Fest 2016
In the five years since its inception, LA Zine Fest had grown into one of the most respected alternative press celebrations in the country. What began as a pop-up festival inside downtown LA’s Last Bookstore, had expanded into a culture of its own.
Although Zine Fest is always an important occasion, this year was particularly momentous because Thanagram Press would be debuting. Hours of drawing, cutting, folding and writing would all come down to this. My nerves crawled around my stomach and I did what comes naturally: I worried.
The ground level of the Majestic Hotel is packed when I arrive. The event doesn’t open to the public for another hour but all manner of weirdos and punks are milling about, scoping out each other’s wares. I try to work on some last minute details, but my stapler is acting up and our handmade sign keeps falling down. For some reason, our table drew a consistent stream of traffic. I steadily made change, chatted, folded. People cycled through and told me how much they loved my work. I saw people I liked, people I admired, and rivals I wanted to impress. The seven hour event happened in one smiling flash. At the end of the day, I counted my cash, folded up my French fry patterned tablecloth, and took a deep breath.
Behind the table, I had just experienced LA Zine Fest’s biggest year yet. Throughout the day over 5,000 people walked through the halls of the Majestic browsing, buying and trading these little paper relics.
“Zine Fest is honestly one of my favorite things ever and it’s so exciting. Each year just gets bigger and better. I make things all year looking forward to this.” said participant Dakota Wood.
Attendant Caroline Smart credits LA Zine Fest with preserving the art form for younger generations.
“You see little kids, like ten years old, here with their parents. Some people might call that selling out, but I think that’s cool. That kid is going to grow up and be inspired to make something themselves. That’s punk.”
LA Zine Fest has inspired pockets of zine culture through out Southern California. Now Long Beach Zine Fest, IE Zine Fest, OC Zine Fest, Blk Grrrl Book Fair, OC Anarchist Book Fair and L.A. Art Book Fair all support zines and small-press with their own communities and events.
In the Facebook group for LA Zine Fest, someone posts a call for an event late May that catches my eye. A new event, a new opportunity for things to keep getting better.
Zine Queens, Long Beach
It’s 8am and I’m waiting outside for the office store to open. I’ve got an hour and a half to get to Long Beach and of course I’m making last minute copies.
Organized by Darcy Crash Distro, Zine Queens was held on May 22, 2016 as zine fest exclusively for queer and trans artists. The fest was an intimate dinner compared to the crowded dance party of LAZF. People hugged, made friends and traded wares. By simply existing, Zine Queens had created a new community for queers and radicals to meet and share ideas.
“There are so many of us that are queer and it’s kind of unbelievable that we didn’t have a space to celebrate that before this.” said participant Missy Fuego, who teaches literature at UC San Diego.
Rows of tables lined up inside a Long Beach co-op called The Forest. I tucked myself into a corner that smelled vaguely cat-like and propped up a big blank poster.
Written at the top was “I love zines because…”. A pack of Crayola Markers invited people to chime in and by the end of the day the poster’s filled.
“Because they’re pretty” one message reads.
“They make art + culture + conversation accessible for everyone!”
“They’re an important part of LGBT culture.”
“They are an outlet for self-expression.”
“They keep me going!”
“You get to experience a little bit of the person who created it”
“ ‘It hurts so good’ ”
I didn’t know who wrote the last one, or what they were quoting but I couldn’t agree more. As I talked to people throughout the event, many said the same things.
Creating out of a place of sorrow is painful. But when you finally revisit those memories, it feels good to remember how strong you can be.