My Ten Favorite Contemporary Zines

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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
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.

Fashion Projects
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


The famed political
journal was recently relaunched and uplifted from Chicago
to Cambridge.
It is very much a journal, but camefrom 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.

Duplex Planet
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. 

Flop Sweat
As far as I can
tell, Flop Sweat is among the only recent comedy zines besides the Lowbrow
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

Galactic Zoo

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
book, Galactic Zoo Dossier, andthe Minus Times
all share a publisher: Drag City, the Chicago
record label/publishing house/film company/etc. Long before the Lowbrow
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
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

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.

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
forwardin 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.

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