Editor’s Note: Jay Ruttenberg is the founder and editor of the New York-based comedy journal The Lowbrow Reader. Dubbed “an excellent and actually quite high-minded comedy magazine” by The Village Voice, the magazine was born in 2001 when Ruttenberg realized that there wasn’t a quality publication devoted to comedy. Since its first issue in 2001, Ruttenberg and a small team of very talented writers and illustrators have consistently surprised readers and critics alike with their articulate defense and admiration for what many have dismissed as dumb humor. Ruttenberg recently edited a book of selected writings and drawings from the first eight years of the journal called The Lowbrow Reader Reader, available now on Drag City. An everlasting supporter of zines and zine culture, Ruttenberg recently shared with us a list of his current favorites.
Here is my personally biased, unapologetically subjective list of ten great contemporary zines. I applied both terms broadly: “Contemporary” extending to works that are still being published (however sporadically), even if their debut issue came out many moons ago; “zines” to describe independent print publications produced more for love than for profit.
I would be remiss if I neglected to point out that Fashion Projects is edited by Francesca Granata, who happens to be the more eye-catching half of my household. Likewise, I would be remiss if I failed to place said publication at the top of this list. Fashion Projects is a whip smart journal about arty fashion and fashiony art. On the surface, Francesca’s publication could not be more different from mine: Fashion Projects addresses Milanese designers and Parisian fashion critics, while the Lowbrow Reader features Adam Sandler idolatry and cartoons of people on toilets. Friends find it odd that both publications are produced in the same apartment. But to me, they are very similar. Both zines cover subjects that historically have been commercially vibrant yet critically disparaged. Nobody would mistake me for a fashionista, but through Francesca I have been introduced to some other noteworthy fashion zines, including Garmento and Vestoj. In any case, I enjoy everything about Fashion Projects except for the irritating fact that it is inordinately more popular than the Lowbrow Reader.
Henceforth, I proceed alphabetically….
The famed political journal was recently relaunched and uplifted from Chicago to Cambridge. It is very much a journal, but came from the zine world. I think a lot of people who now publish independent magazines got their initial kick in the rear from the Baffler’s original run. (I certainly did.) It was politically prescient and bred founding editor Tom Frank’s wonk-adored book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? To me, the Baffler is steeped in Chicago—you can smell the city just turning its pages. I am curious to see how the new editorship and New England headquarters will ultimately affect the publication.
Since 1979, David Greenberger has interviewed nursing home residents and published his transcripts in this slim, celebrated zine. Duplex Planet is kind of the ultimate zine—it deserves every bit of its renown. In limiting his focus to such a specific niche, Greenberger covers the world. Too many small publications do the opposite. The Duplex Planet has spawned a cottage industry featuring books, art shows, music albums, and more, but the zine remains its foundation. If Duplex Planet had started in the contemporary day as a website, it may have attained a similar popularity, but I guarantee it would not feel as special and enchanting.
As far as I can tell, Flop Sweat is among the only recent comedy zines besides the Lowbrow Reader. It has only published two issues, but both are winners: classy, funny, offbeat. I enjoyed Flop Sweat so much that I contacted the editor, Joe O’Brien, about writing for the Lowbrow Reader. His article, a defense of Chevy Chase, ran in our fifth issue (years before Chase’s resurgence in Community) and is included in our book. Although there has not been an issue of Flop Sweat for a few years, I really hope the future holds further editions. One little-noted advantage of zines is that they are not wed to strict publishing schedules. Without subscribers or demanding distributors, publications can take years between issues. All that is lost is momentum—which, of course, can be the silent killer.
At this point, zines about rock music seem redundant. The subject is so over-covered; as I write, aliens are no doubt spying on planet earth and plotting to kidnap our leader, Bruce Springsteen. Galactic Zoo Dossier, however, is startlingly unique, a rabbit-hole of obsession. Although it revolves around obscure corners of psychedelia, the real charm lies in the delivery. Each issue is beautifully hand-written and illustrated by Galactic Zoo Dossier’s honcho, a mustachioed man known as Plastic Crimewave. His world is inimitable.
Love Bad Movies
This smallish, newish zine is published by a young couple in New York. The premise is simple: With each edition, various writers contribute essays in praise of scorned movies. The issues come in loose themes. Had something like I Love Bad Movies been hatched 15 years ago, I suspect it would have trafficked in the irony of the era. As it stands, the zine is mostly loving and even serious. Nobody has time for bad novels or bad art—but for some reason, there remains something captivating about bad film. The publication taps into the phenomenon with gusto.
The Minus Times
Our Lowbrow Reader Reader book, Galactic Zoo Dossier, and the Minus Times all share a publisher: Drag City, the Chicago record label/publishing house/film company/etc. Long before the Lowbrow Reader was associated with the company, I was a Drag City enthusiast. The Minus Times is a lovely example of the aesthetic that defined the label’s early years. It is handsomely produced and rendered entirely on an old manual typewriter. The writing is top-drawer, with all-star contributors presented with an almost comical lack of fanfare. The Minus Times is proudly abstruse; its editor, Hunter Kennedy, always lets the reader come to him. (In September, Drag City and Featherproof Books are publishing a big Minus Times anthology, The Minus Times Collected.)
Show with Elliot Aronow
Whereas many successful zines ultimately transcend their format, breeding books and the like, the newly hatched Our Show with Elliot Aronow came into being in reverse, as the offshoot of its creator’s web show. The Our Show program is a kind of modern-day take on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party. As a zine, Our Show is entertaining and eccentric, examining the fussy tastes of its editor. It reads like an underground Monocle as conceived by a single aesthete.
Roctober recently published its 50th issue, which coincides with its 20th anniversary. It is a thick publication in an old-school mold, with gazillions of short reviews and compelling tales about fringe American culture. This was the template for sundry zines during the format’s heyday, but there is a reason why Roctober now stands where so many others closed shop long ago. The publication is written with lucidity and care, and will most likely be producing clear-eyed reviews come 2032.
There is no explicit mission statement behind this book-sized annual. Usually, lack of focus is a recipe for disaster. But Yeti, edited by Mike McGonigal, turns this into an advantage. Connections gel between the zine’s seemingly disparate passions: hoary gospel and folk music, contemporary art, literature, avant indie-rock. In the past, each issue came accompanied by a CD; moving forward in the spirit of Time’s Arrow, Yeti is upgrading to vinyl. In its diverse enthusiasms, the journal illuminates the pleasures inherent to being a good audience member. And I think this is the sensation that most unites all of these publications.
Read more about Jay Ruttenberg and The Lowbrow Reader.