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What Are the Zines That Changed Your Life?

It’s difficult to pin down what a zine is, exactly. A vague, unsatisfying definition would be that it is a self-published endeavor with a relatively small circulation, little to no profit, and a handmade element involved (e.g., it’s hand- or typewritten). But what about the small zines that became big, like Punk Planet (RIP), MRR, Bitch, and Dig? The cheap cover ink might’ve still come off on your hands, but they were available at big box bookstores in modest cities and suburbs. In the mid-90s, zines were even seen as a possible threat to the magazine industry. Read “I accidentally made a popular zine” in Vice to get a sense of seemingly how easy it was to get your work noticed at the time.

Nowadays, you might have to do some digging to find good zines in your neighborhood. Both Barnard and NYU have zine libraries, and ABC No Rio is always an option, as are the number of stores offering new zines like Desert Island in Williamsburg. Here, you can find copies of current local favorites, like Jocko Weyland’s Elk and Aaron Lake Smith’s Big Hands. Or better yet, you could just make your own. Here’s a look at how we survived our formative years, along with some recommendations from a few of our friends.

Burn Collector by Al Burian

From Burn Collector #1: “I’ve got a backpack full of notebooks with phone numbers and addresses scrawled down, so many that it immobilizes me, and I just sit there and twitch and feel stupefied by the weight of a world that is really, really big.” Al Burian, the singer/guitarist of Milemarker, describes sleepless nights, bad relationships, and a serious caffeine habit in his zine, which began in North Carolina but continued when he moved to Chicago many years ago. (He now lives in Berlin.) Issues 1-9 are now available as a book, and this Friday Burian will be reading with Aaron Cometbus (below) at Chicago Zine Fest.

Cometbus by Aaron Cometbus

Despite Everything is a compilation of issues 1-48 of Aaron Cometbus’ musings on life in Berkeley and his travels beyond California’s punk scene. In the latest issue (#54) he goes on tour with Green Day, his old pals who were ostracized at 924 Gilman shows once they made it big. Cometbus describes the frenetic energy of their East Asian tour while being able to look back on their humble origins without seeming like an asshole.

I’m So Fucking Beautiful by Nomy Lamm

The ’90s was a sweet decade for identity politics. Lamm strutted onto the stage with a drawn-on moustache, a prosthetic leg, a fairy wand, and a whole lot of attitude. She was a staple in the Pacific Northwest Queercore scene at the time, and continues to collaboratively perform with singer-songwriters through her project “Nomy Lamm & THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD.” Lamm made it seem like anything was possible, and that you didn’t have to wear the right clothes or be anemic to be punk.

Jigsaw by Tobi Vail (of Bikini Kill)

Vail, the former drummer of Bikini Kill, writes about the first Rites of Spring album in Jigsaw #2: “So the best record of all time was made in 1985 by these four guys in Washington DC as part of some kind of major scene phenomenon called Revolution Summer. All I can say is if you haven’t heard it then you should check it out because this is exactly it. Exactly everything a record could possibly ever hope to be. They save your life, break your heart and kill the pain all at once.” Vail now blogs at Jigsaw Underground (as well as 10 other sites), and old issues of her zine are online here.

Hit it or Quit it by Jessica Hopper

Former Punk Planet columnist Jessica Hopper started publishing HIOQI back in 1991, and she frequently writes about music for The Chicago Reader (and DJs under the Jean Yanne-approved handle “Coco Le Rock”). Download her HIOQI podcast to see what you’ve been missing here. Also, Hopper just released her book, The Girls’ Guide to Rocking and is touring in support of it this spring.

Gabe Fowler, the owner of Desert Island comic shop in Williamsburg, has his own top 5:

Forced Exposure was fundamentally a music magazine, but that’s what I wanted to read as a kid. It folded the year I graduated from high school (1993), but I continued to read and reread the articles, interviews, and record reviews for years. Where else could you read Steve Albini mocking the Pixies after recording Surfer Rosa? Pure gold. Forced Exposure also alerted me to tons of art and culture that is still relevant today.”

Bananafish was the West Coast noise zine, and it came with a CD of freaky shit you probably never heard. The early issues came with 7″ records, and those were already hard to find by the time I knew about it. The letters section is a good example of the tone of the magazine: it was formatted like a normal letters section and had a few real letters, but included lots of ridiculous found texts from junk mail, notes from the landlord, and other hijinks.”

Various Small Fires and Milk is an artists book published by Ed Ruscha in 1964. Not really a zine in the sense of ‘little magazine,’ but still one of the most mind-blowing self published objects ever made. It looks like a real book with a spine, a little larger than pocket-size, and consists entirely of photos described by the title. Photographs ‘document’ a variety of small fires, including a gas range, a cigarette, a blow torch and a highway flare. The final photograph show a glass of milk. Why? It’s punk rock.”

Le Dernier Cri is a small publishing company, not a particular zine. But they have been making handmade screen printed books for 17 years by outsider and fringe artists from around the world. They basically make beautiful books of grotesque subject matter, and the sheer labor involved in producing these hand-printed objects over the years borders on the obsessive. So, not really a specific publication, but a mini-publishing movement unto themselves. Check out their insane website.”

Paper Rodeo, Arthur, and various underground newspapers: “Again, this is more of a category than an individual publication, but Paper Rodeo in particular opened my mind to the potential for cheap disposable newsprint as an amazing artists canvas. Working backwards, the history of underground newspapers in America is a ridiculously rich and rewarding history of the expression of unpopular opinions. Most of this material is hard to find, as it was intended as ephemeral in the first place. Beautiful stuff.”

Edie, a clerk at Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago weighed in as well:

Unlovable #1 by Esther Pearl Watson: “Based on the high school diary of Tammy Pierce which Watson found at a truck stop restroom, Unlovable is like a funnier River’s Edge, only without the whole murder thing, just the high school misfits and dingwads.”

Crap Hound #5 by Sean Tejaratchi: “I flip through my copies of this punker ‘clip art’ zine every morning while I drink my coffee. I think this issue, themed ‘Hearts, Hands, Eyes’ is maybe my favorite, but you really can’t go wrong with this title.”


Image via DCapistrano’s photostream

Fag School #1 by Brontez (AKA Junx from Gravy Train!!!): “Oh Gawd, this bossy, bratty, dishy, sexy Bay Area homocore zine reminded me that trash, cum, and glitter are the three most important mental food groups. I don’t know if it’s still ‘coming out,’ as it were, but Brontez has a column in Maximum RocknRoll and is/was in, like, a million bands.”

LTTR #2 edited by Ginger Brooks Takahashi, K8Hardy and Emily Roysdon: “This zine really made my heart flutter, LTTR was a really gorgeously, thoughtfully put together feminist art zine that always shaped itself to unique formats, included amazing artist multiples, and really felt like a great, queer-centric community building art zine that could somehow simultaneously operate ‘in the art world.'”

Do It Yourself Gynecology by the Hot Pants Collective: “Check yourself before you wreck yourself! This was the first DIY health zine I ever saw and was super empowering for me in terms of learning about self-care.” [Editor’s Note: Download it from the Community Health Online Digital Archive here.]