By Malcolm Fraser
Despite their steadfast self-imposed underground status, zines sometimes enjoy occasional spurts of “next big thing” media hype.
Sometimes, zine makers even come together to celebrate themselves.
Such was the case last Sunday at Canzine, an annual zine fair, held at Symptom Hall in west Toronto. When I arrive, the fair is in full swing, with zinesters chatting and shopping and dozens of tables set up, maze-like, inside the hall.
“There aren’t very many people,” remarks Stacey Case, publisher of Rivet. I looked around the packed room, but Case assures me that it’s mostly the zine publishers rotating between each other’s tables. Case heads up a rival heads up a rival zine fair, the bi-annual Cut and Paste, but he has a point. It’s a particularly self-contained community; almost every zinester I talked to heard about the scene through word of mouth, and aside from these conventions, most zine-makers communicate only through trading zines by mail.
“There’s probably a zine for every topic imaginable,” muses spikyhaired Cory Ferguson, co-creator of Punk Fiction. Amanda Kelly publishes Little Trany Fanny, a comic by, about and for transsexuals. A pair of cartoonish hippies sell The Rolling Papers, a drug culture zine. A smiling women offers several booklets and cassettes on the subject of menstruation and alternative feminine hygiene. Then there’s Renèe Desjardins, who says of her zine My So called Sex Life; “It’s just about sex.”
Specialty publications aside, certain styles predominate in the zine world. The blanket term “zine”—broadly defined as “an independently published periodical that represents the personal vision, interests and voices of individuals”—also includes comics and poetry chapbooks.
The zine proper is a mishmash of opinions, anecdotes, plundered graphics and text, interviews with indie bands, and reviews of whatever cultural matter the creator wishes to trumpet. The style is minimal—descriptions are straightforward and interviews tend to be presented in verbatim transcriptions—and the look is often on the extreme end of low-budget, with hand scrawled text and seemingly random design.
At Canzine, people are abuzz with talk about a certain Hal: “Where’s Hal?” “I sent Hal an E-mail and he never replied!” “Ask Hal when gets here.”
Hal is Hal Niedzviecki , Canzine’s organizer and the editor and publisher of Broken Pencil , Canada’s zine bible. Bespectacled and mop-haired, Niedzviecki is mellow in the face of extreme stress, wandering the fair to ensure things are running smoothly. I follow him to the basement and begin chatting with the zine publishers.
Stuart Ross, 38, is a good fifteen or twenty years older than the majority of the Canzine participants; he’s been self-publishing for years.
Ross says he’s inspired by the zine kids, even to the point trying his hand at the style: “I got tired of sitting in front of my computer,” he says. “I Just threw a bunch of random shit together, and I’ve got a real good response.”
Ross enjoys the democratic feel of the zine fairs—“there’s very little separation between author and audience”—and claims “I can’t even see myself not doing this.”
Ross began self-publishing in the late seventies, when the zine scene started up in the glory days of Toronto punk. Like many, Ross claims that punks were the first zinesters, but a little-known secret of the genre is that it was actually begun by a much less hip cachet: Science fiction buffs. The term “zine” is short for “fanzine,” itself an abbreviation of “Fan magazine,”and the fans in question were Trekkies and Star Wars aficionados.
The geeky spirit still remains among many young zine publishers. Scott Simpson found out about zines from a girlfriend, and started up his own zine in the hopes “that I would be as cool as her.”
Cygnals was a zine devoted to a particular rock band, but Simpson realized after two or three issues that “nobody cares about Rush.” Undaunted, writing about midget wrestling, but nobody cared that either.
Cygnals continues as a general interest zine but Simpson’s goal is yet unattained: In fact, he says “half of what I write about is not being cool.”
Simpson is not alone. Most of the male zinesters are self-deprecating, writing and drawing about their hapless love lives and other failures.
Then there are the female zinesters. A great number of zines are produced by teenaged girls of a certain stripe: both their look and their work might be described as unbearably cute. Listing trivia about cute-boy bands and handing out andy or brightly colored stickers with their zines, they are practically their own sub-genre.
Other girl zinesters eschew sweetness and light and concentrate instead on political rants and feminist revenge fantasies in prose, poetry or comics.
The looming shadow of the mainstream, which every so often dips into the zine world in the form of an article in a newspaper or a spot on the local news, is a constant concern. Any zinester who ventures outside of the circle such as the comic artists whose work appears in the hip music monthly Exclaim, risk bad-mouthing from their wilfully obscure brethren.
In fact, the subject of the mainstream is deemed important enough to merit a panel discussion at Canzine, with four fringe-culture figures discussing the topic “The cost of Indie success: How should we respond to mainstream feeding on the carcass of the underground?”
The panel gets bogged down in a debate over whether this feeding is actually taking place, whether it might not in fact be the underground that feeds on the mainstream, and whether it’s appropriate to refer the underground as a carcass.
A request for audience input is met with shouts of “There’s people wearing Speed Racer shirts who’ve never seen Speed Racer!” and “Hey! We have a zine here written by a three-year-old!”
Hal Niedzvicki sits by the stage, nodding at the panelists and giggling at the inanities of the eccentric crowd members. “Everything’s going great,” he says joyfully.
I sense it’s time to split: tables are being packed up, bands are setting up for the night’s concluding concert and the three-year-old author stumbles around the room, exuding a sense of impending bedtime.
In 1995, Adam Sternbergh, writing in This Magazine, criticized zines of poor quality, self-obsession and exploring mundane minutae. He concluded: “By the time you read this, the zine revolution may be over.” Although his criticism of zines are hard to argue with, his doomsaying was wrong. The supportive, self-sufficient zinesters chug away, oblivious to mainstream hype or distraction, everyone expressing themselves and enjoying the fun of community gather.