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  • Why Zines Matter:Materiality and the Creation of Embodied Community
  • Alison Piepmeier (bio)

This is no substitute for envelopes marked with your location, sheets of stationery with your script scratching across parallel lines, feeling the back of the paper and an embossed pattern in the shape of every character formed (because maybe, like me, you press down with your pen, every letter a deliberate creation), the smell of your house on the paper itself.

—Marissa Falco, Red-Hooded Sweatshirt #3 (1999)

I became aware of the significance of the materiality of zines through my teaching. Every time I teach a class about zines, a significant percentage of the students begin making their own. Many of them have never heard of zines, but when I bring in a pile for them to flip through and take home, they become inspired. This doesn't happen if I require them to read a published anthology of zines such as A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World; getting their hands on actual zines is necessary to ignite this creative urge. They read the long-running zine The East Village Inky and express surprise and delight at the informality, the quirky portraits of zine creator Ayun Halliday and her family nestled in winding lines of handwritten narrative. They are fascinated with the different-sized pages (some a long, skinny 41/4 by 11 inches, some an almost square 41/4 by 51/2 inches) in Free to Fight: The Self-Defense Project and with the combination of collage art, comics, and scrawled stories on notebook paper. They gravitate toward zines that are visibly different from magazines and other mainstream publications, either by virtue of size or hand-colored drawings or their sheer unprofessional appearance. Many of them [End Page 213] seem to feel personally invited to enter into the zine discourse, as is evidenced by the fact that they begin creating zines of their own. I have at least a dozen zines created by students who have taken my classes in the last two years.

In an age of electronic media, when the future of the book itself is often called into question, and when the visual and textual landscape is dominated by an increasingly voracious culture industry, zines—paper documents, usually made by hand, without any financial incentive—endure.1 Zines are quirky, individualized booklets filled with diatribes, reworkings of pop culture iconography, and all variety of personal and political narratives. According to Stephen Duncombe, the author of the only book-length scholarly study of zines, they are "scruffy, homemade little pamphlets. Little publications filled with rantings of high weirdness and exploding with chaotic design."2 Because zines are ephemeral underground publications, it is impossible to determine how many are in circulation, but one scholar estimated 50,000 in 1997, and overflowing stocks at zine distributor Microcosm Press and bookstores like Quimby's in Chicago and Reading Frenzy in Portland testify to their prevalence today.3 Furthermore, they seem to instigate a kind of gift culture: little eddies of artifacts and detritus accrue around zines, circulating between zine readers and creators. Zines instigate intimate, affectionate connections between their creators and readers, not just communities but embodied communities that are made possible by the materiality of the zine medium. My students have been inspired to become part of the zine community because of physical encounters with actual zines, not by reading anthologized zines. In a world where more and more of us spend all day at our computers, zines reconnect us to our bodies and to other human beings.

I begin this essay with close readings of zines as visual and sculptural media. We cannot understand zines or the zine medium—cannot understand the community they create or why they continue to be created—without examining the physical form, the materiality, of zines. This is a necessary first step. For this reason I examine four zines—I'm So Fucking Beautiful, Fragments of Friendship, The East Village Inky, and No Better Voice—with attention to particular aspects of the medium each zine illustrates. When studying a body of material as diverse, changing, and elusive as zines, it is nearly impossible to make many...