Two of them do it in their bedrooms. Two others do it in an alcove. One does it in his living room and another in his glass-blowing studio.
Other people across the country do it in other spaces, but the point is, anyone can do it anywhere.
That is, create a zine.
Call them newsletters, periodicals or fanzines; by any other name, they are still simply zines: low-budget ruminations about what's on self-appointed editors' minds--music, sex, poetry, B movies, literature, comics, art, work, spirituality. The list is as long and varied as there are frustrated, creative personalities. The writing quality is mixed, as well, from stupid to prosaic to insightful to wickedly entertaining. But zines are not about promoting spotless, free-flowing text. They are crude tools of self-expression, a means of communication employing the most fundamental of mediums--the printed word. And the rules are easy: Anyone with the ability to use a Xerox machine, pound a stapler and lick a stamp can play.
Though zines have technically been around since the advent of the printing press (home publisher Benjamin Franklin started a hip one titled Poor Richard's Almanack back in 1732), the last decade has seen a proliferation of the do-it-yourself publications.
R. Seth Friedman is publisher of the San Francisco-based Factsheet Five, a 12-year-old magazine devoted to reviewing zines of virtually every description. He deals with more than 1,200 D.I.Y. submissions in each issue; the man knows from zines.
"They're along the lines of a publication that is the vision of one or two people," he explains by phone from Factsheet headquarters. "Typically, they don't make money and have a circulation of 1,000 or less with a local or national focus. They're nonprofit, obsession-driven publications."
He attributes the surge in zines to the "growth of computer technology, the dropping of copying costs and the fact that the postage rates have been kind of stable."
But Friedman sees zines as ultimately becoming much more than nifty, offbeat by-products of the obsessed. Forget about cable TV with 500-plus channels; forget about Internet and interactive video. According to Friedman, zines represent the mighty essence of human communication.
"People are always talking about the death of journalism, how everyone will be writing for news on-line and news on demand, but as far as I'm concerned, the future of journalism is zines," he states. "The future of journalism is a personal, subjective vision about life, and more people are going to be producing their own magazines. I don't think it's a backlash against technology; it's just a natural growth pattern based on the way people feel. They want to connect with other people, and zines are much more personal than those other kinds of artificial technologies."
And you don't have to be in some cultural mecca to take part in the revolution; the photocopy machines and mailboxes in Phoenix work just as well as the ones in Manhattan.
"I find some surprisingly good zines coming out of some surprisingly unlikely places--like, for example, Phoenix, Arizona--where some highly concentrated cultural areas like New York and L.A. are pretty devoid of a cohesive zine culture," Friedman says. "Arizona as a whole has a pretty sophisticated zine scene."
@body:. . . Season To Risk were crazy. The singer had his funky CB microphone hanging from the ceiling. Sometimes he sang through it, sometimes he used a regular mike and sometimes he used both making it double loud and obnoxious. Their feirce [sic], unstructured noise sounds like something that could only come from Texas, but they're from Kansas. Not far off. The guitarist had this really cool Velveeta hat and I saw that he let a girl wear it later that night. Man, if I had a hat like that, I wouldn't let it outta my sight.
--Excerpt from a review in Grind
"We were just so stinkin' bored, you know. You go to work, come home, eat, go to sleep. You need something else to do, something to keep you sane," says Sherri Butterfield, an inventory coordinator for a fast-food chain. Her antidote for insanity became a zine titled Grind, founded, edited and published with her husband, Jason, from a kitchen alcove in their east Mesa home. Both are in their late 20s.
Jason, a mail carrier in real life, says drudgery wasn't the only inspiration. "We just pretty much did it to get free stuff," he says. "We'd always heard people who did fanzines got a lot of stuff. And it worked."
As mercenary as that may sound, one look at Grind (Literary Noise for Punks & Drunks") reveals that this is much more than a cheap throw-off to scam promotional CDs. At 60-plus well-laid-out pages, complete with glossy cover, this zine seems pro enough to have "maga" in front of it.
Though punk rock is Grind's staple (album reviews, band interviews, live reviews), here's a sampling of other features from the latest issue, No. 5: articles on hangover etiquette, home beer brewing, a consumer-revenge letters page, reader feedback and--requisite for nearly all zines--a section reviewing other zines.
"I think we're pretty conservative compared to most zines," offers Jason. "Not that I really want to be, but it just kind of reflects our personality. We're not really vulgar or obscene people, so we don't publish stuff like that."
The writing, done by the Butterfields and a handful of unpaid contributors, is almost conversational in style. That's no accident. "We like to write as if people were our friends," Sherri says. "Tell them what's up, and tell them in words I would use if I were writing a letter to somebody."
In a very big way, that's exactly what zines are. The editorial ethos of the zine world is to convey information in a manner both informal and entertaining--to get across all the poop that fits, almost like a phone call through the mail. People involved in this subculture seem to be friends, or at least they are familiar with everybody else's paper. They run ads for each other, review each other, even reprint articles from each other. A brotherhood in the name of Kinko's.
Grind's history is typical--a mixture of no money, no experience and loads of desire. The Butterfields moved from Seattle to Phoenix in 1989, became bored, hatched publishing plans in April 91, and by that September, had 1,500 copies of Grind sitting in their living room. Which, of course, sounds a lot easier than it was.
"We did it on nothing," says Jason. "We just laid the issue out--I took about ten regular sheets of paper, folded em in half and stapled em, then started gluing things on. Then I'd take the staples out and figure, well, page two will go with page 39 or whatever. Then we saved enough to get it printed."
The couple began dropping off the free paper at local record stores and other heavily frequented hip spots, but now sell most of their 3,000 copies of Grind on consignment to distributors in the States and in Europe. (Out-of-state readers pay $2 per copy. And although the zine is supposed to be published quarterly, deadlines can be somewhat organic; in one instance, ten months separated issues.) "I've found that people who get it locally for free don't respect it as much as people from around the country that buy it," says Jason. "One of our distributors is based in Texas, and we get a lot more mail from Texas than we do from all of Arizona."
Sherri adds, "We get mail from other countries and all over the United States, but we never hear from people here."
Thanks to ads placed by record labels--from majors to independents, the music industry is keenly aware of the growing zine demographic--the couple say that Grind actually breaks even, a rarity in zinedom. And unlike many of their peers, the Butterfields have dreams of reaching into the unheard-of realm of profit. "We're not counting on it," Jason admits. "But it'd be nice. I don't want to be a mailman for the rest of my life."
Paid advertisements? Profit margins? International distribution? Aren't those notions suspiciously mainstream for an underground publication?
Sherri cites the L.A. zine Ben Is Dead--once humble but now $4 a pop and circulating upward of 20,000 copies--as an example of what not to do. "We totally admired them, but now they're so commercial they've lost everything they set out to accomplish. You start depending on that money coming in, and then you're afraid of saying what you mean. I don't want us to be some big ad for corporate rock."
Though financial Armageddon is always around the corner in some form, the passion-over-profit zine ethic stands true. "Overall, it's totally worth it," Jason says. "I just think, what would I be without the zine? I'd just be working, probably ten years older than I am, I'd be just like everyone else my age. I don't think I'd trade it for anything."
Sherri puts it in simpler terms: "We still don't write worth a shit, but it keeps you busy."
@body:THE IDEAS OR OPINIONS EXPRESSED HEREIN ARE NOT NECESSARILY THE IDEAS OR OPINIONS OF THE EDITORS OR CONTRIBUTORS OF WIDE AWAKE: IF YOU DO NOT LIKE IT THEN PLEASE DO NOT READ IT . . .
--Disclaimer in Wide Awake
There are two rooms on the second floor of Blake Ford Hall's mother's house in Phoenix, and to call them untidy would be like calling Hitler a jerk.
One is a bedroom--there is, in fact, a bed among the debris. The other room contains, among other things, a legless kitchen table, an ancient Apple computer with a keyboard missing the number 3, mounds of paper, a battered copy of the Rolling Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request and a book titled Shamanism and the Esoteric Tradition.
This is Blake Ford Hall's office.
These two rooms are the nerve center of a zine titled Wide Awake, and though they might seem too chaotic to produce anything more than grime and headaches, to Hall and his staff of five, they are a yeasty bog of creativity.
Hall, 25, is a student, a fully ordained reverend in the New Age Community Church of Phoenix and self-proclaimed "Editor and Nocturnal Emissionist" of the three-year-old publication. The zine is 600 photocopied issues strong each quarter--the biggest readership being out of state--and is filled with information on topics from paganism, sex, psychedelia and music to New World Order and conspiracy theories.
Where some zines are fairly linear in their subject matter (guess the thrust of San Francisco's Taste of Latex), Hall tries to cover as many bases as he can. "I may look like a hippie or whatever, but I've got a mind, and I feel that most of the people in my age group do, and a lot of zines aren't supplying what we want," he explains with the kind of zeal that makes for a fine reverend.
"Granted, the sexual stuff and the gory stuff is interesting, but it's being done everywhere. We wanted to put out a zine that treated the reader like they had some intelligence. I don't want to criticize other zines, but I feel they expect the reader expects the same old thing, so they do the same old thing."
Wide Awake offers anything but the same old thing. The ninth issue contains an interview with a witch, dense but thoughtful pieces on love and the politics of sex, plus poetry, album reviews and a run-down of Irving Wallace's book The Nympho and Other Maniacs. The few ads are for businesses with names like A Magickal Place and Lady Sprite's Cupboard.
The zine has the cut-and-paste look more common to the genre than the slick format of Grind; up until Hall's recent $200 score of the Apple relic, every bit of layout was done by hand.
But it's that homegrown quality that is part of the attraction, not just to readers, but to contributors. Most zines don't project the impression that a bunch of snobby editors are in charge, just aching to mail out rejection slips.
"Most people who have been our best contributors have been people who have been sitting on their writing or their art for such a long time because they thought there was nowhere they could get their own break," Hall says. "I think that's the big attraction--they know it's a smaller scale, there's more likelihood of being published and the people who put them out are on a more down-to-earth level; maybe just friendlier."
Freedom may be just another word for nothing left to lose, but to zinesters, it translates into the ability to publish the thoughts of the common man, unfettered by meddling ber editors and the politics of advertisers.
This fact is not lost on Blake Ford Hall. "Like with the Waco incident, a zine would take more time and give you the opinion of what people on the street think about the thing," he states, "whereas Time immediately gives you the big, evil messiah on the front page. Our propaganda, we'd rather it be true."
You seem like a pretty cool guy. I always look forward to Attitude Problem. Your religion issue is pretty cool. I personally don't have any reason to believe in God, simply because the world is terrible. If there is a God, I don't think he should be loved or worshipped because he doesn't love us. If he did there wouldn't be racism, poverty and starvation. Do you believe in God, Bandhu? By the way, I'm grounded right now, so write me.
--Letter to the editor of Attitude Problem
Behind the Calvary Bible Church in Prescott is a small building bearing a sign that reads "Salusa Glassworks." Yes, it's a glass-blowing studio, but it is also the home of the zine Attitude Problem. The editor, publisher and chief blower is a 34-year-old fellow named Bandhu Scott Dunham.
Attitude Problem (A Multipurpose Nonconformist Rag") has been around since 1987, perhaps not too long by mainstream standards, but eons in zine years.
AP is a truly impressive piece of work: 16 broadsheet pages, produced thrice yearly, of intelligent writing on music, other zines and political, physical and spiritual conditions of mind and body in general. March's issue, No. 16, contains (in addition to the standard music, skateboard and zine features) an extensive interview with a natural healer, an absorbing article titled "Scars, Heroes and the Meaning of D.I.Y.," plus poetry and short fiction. Though the publication has a few contributors, Dunham, who admits to being a "frustrated writer," does a major share of the work.
This zine is quite a project, and one that can't be done without funding. Dunham accepts many ads, but says they only "covered about half the printing expense of the most recent issue. It costs about $1,000 to print it; we printed up 6,500 last time." The zine is free in Arizona, $2.50 elsewhere.
Whether you put it down to zine-biz experience, life wisdom or plain love of the medium, Dunham is a living embodiment of grassroots zine idealism, a guru of doing-it-yourself to benefit everybody. Listen and he will tell you many things.
"This is the information age that we live in, and zines are a great vehicle of communicating information between people who are fringe," says Dunham. "The fringe of society is where any kind of growth happens; the core of society is kind of dead. . . ."
Though Dunham is no teenager, he sees his role--and the role of his zine--as a beacon to budding iconoclasts. "I see nonconformity as a central issue of modern life," he says. "Creativity is so stifled in this society, and the energy of kids is mostly about breaking out of that, which is something I like to support and something that I get a lot from. Nonconformity is about creativity; it's about moving forward."
What better way to move forward on the highway of nonconformity than in the vehicle of a zine--and Dunham has seen it work again and again.
"Zines are worthwhile if for no other reason than the fact that someone cares enough to stick their neck out and say what's on their mind," he offers. "A lot of them aren't very skillfully put together, a lot aren't even well-thought-out, but every now and then, you get some funky-looking zine, some kid in high school putting something out. There's a lot of brilliance out there, and a lot of people put it in zine form because no one else will listen to them. They try saying it to their parents or teachers or their friends and they just don't get it, but they put it in a zine and send it out and they get feedback. A zine is only one step above a note to a friend that you pass in class; if you make two copies of it and pass it around, it's a zine."
Any underground publication is, by definition, a labor of love. And Dunham wouldn't have it any other way; he takes great care to keep the ethics of Attitude Problem pure, and to keep commercialism at bay.
"I have a business that I make my living from," says the glass blower. "I don't want to make my living off the magazine. That's when you start feeling pressure to be an asshole, that's when you're really in danger of losing a certain edge. . . . I have a certain sense that human beings should be not so selfish, and not so materialistic and self-indulgent, and I put that in there in language that people will find more interesting than if I was some Bible-pounding lunatic."
@body:Judging by Brian Marsland's zine, Things, he is in no danger of feeling pressure to be an asshole. Unlike the above-mentioned periodicals, his contains no advertising at all. There are no reviews of anything, no articles, no poetry, no editorials. But so what? The only rule in the zine world is that there are no rules.
Things is a small, unscheduled chapbook of Marsland's comics and art--simple, bold, funny stuff that owes as much to the stick-figure school as it does to the economical work of painter Paul Klee, one of Marsland's influences.
"One reason I do it is just for fun, and also so I feel that I have a showcase for pictures I draw," he says, surrounded by his paintings and cats in his Tempe apartment. "It's like making my own art books, and I just can't see ads in it. You wouldn't have ads in an art book."
In one respect, Things serves as a great big plug for the work of its creator; Marsland has sold paintings through interest sparked by the zine (music fans may recognize his work on the covers of the new CD and single by the band Beats the Hell Out of Me).
But this is no stuffy "Art" project. He recently put out a short pamphlet titled Hooker, available, like Things, at area record stores and through the mail. It contains large, mutant figures accompanied by text loosely based on the William Shatner TV show T.J. Hooker. On page four, you'll find a crude drawing of a head sprouting wings with this scrawled observation: "Everybody's trying to come to terms with their sexuality and Shatner's just there to set the pace . . ."
Marsland's only explanation is, "I liked it [Hooker], so I milked it for all it was worth."
He earns his living making prescribed paintings for an art factory in Phoenix. Not the most stimulating work, but Things and the art it pushes are what matter to Marsland. "The stuff I do for them I would never do myself," he shrugs, "and they would never take the stuff I do, anyway."
@body:CP: Favorite veggies?
J: Oh most of them except for corn. Corn really sucks.
M: Green peppers.
CP: Favorite cooking shortening?
K: Olive oil.
--Excerpt from Cactus Prick's interview with members of the band Janitor Joe
There is a twentysomething guy reclining on his bed in his room in Tempe, sipping a beer he made himself. He leans forward and picks up a copy of Cactus Prick, a zine he made himself. He wishes simply to be called Melmo.
From a glance at the cover, you can see that the overall design is ransom-note-derivative, a cut-and-paste orgy of drawings, lettering and photos of rock n' rollers taken by Melmo himself. You can read about groups such as Pain Teens, Jack Germond's Third Chin, Janitor Joe, House of Large Sizes and other bands and CDs inside, because the underbelly of the punk scene--mainly local--is what drove Melmo to create Cactus Prick three years and seven issues ago.
At $2.50 per copy and $3 post paid, he makes barely enough to cover mailing and distributing the 300 copies per printing. So what?
"I have no ads at all. I'm anti-ad," he says. "I'm not here to make any money off it; it's a hobby. I'm anti-break even. I've got other things going on in my life. I like to have fun, and I'd hate to be strapped down to this little bastard. . . . I think if your life revolves around a zine, perhaps something's wrong."
The bedroom is tidy; there are framed band photos and posters on the walls and the obligatory computer stationed on a desk. Cactus Prick may not be his life, but it certainly seems more of a consuming hobby than, oh, collecting barbed wire. Melmo even started Cactus Prick Records about a year ago as a result of "a positive cash flow" from his real job as a software writer, and the label has released three vinyl singles, with another on the way. Once again, strictly local stuff, strictly because he digs it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The zine's masthead lists 12 contributors (folks like Bugeater, Ratboy, Angel Mark, and T.A.R.D., who "lifts heavy things for cash"), but Melmo maintains a serious, hands-on policy. His initial salvo to readers in the latest issue is a bitingly honest open letter describing what's been up in his life since the last publication date, almost a year ago. He got his master's degree, split with his girlfriend of three-plus years, went camping in Utah.
You won't read an editorial like this by the editor of U.S. News & World Report because he's not allowed to write one, and that's the beauty of zinedom: It's one big, happy family. "It gets me off, clipping and pasting and associating with other people who do zines," says Melmo. "There are some people who I feel like I know who I've never seen before. It's beyond pen pals."
The cosmic message of the zine revolution is not that, as a reader, you'll necessarily glean stuff more intelligent or perceptive than you might get from a mainstream paper, or even from an alternative rag like the one you're holding right now.
What you will get are unfettered opinions, gloriously whacked nonsense, a different viewpoint. And it may be coming from a bedroom in the house next door.