The Revolution Will Be Photocopied

A trip to the Underground Publishing Conference reveals that America’s alternative press is livelier than ever


| September/October 2001


I wonder what Detroit airport security workers thought when they went through my bag as I headed home from this year’s Underground Publishing Conference. After all, I was hauling an interesting load of printed matter.
QUIZ
Match the zine with the publisher’s day job Zines: Big Questions
Ten Page News
King-Cat Comics
Ker-bloom!
Drinking Sweat in the Ash Age
Assassin and the Whiner
Day Jobs: librarian
caretaker/dog nanny
cook
substitute teacher
health food store worker
math teacher
(So you can't cheat, the answers can be found in a sidebar on the next page!)
Their search un-earthed part of a cache of magazines, tabloid papers, and tiny photocopied tracts with titles such as Popular Power, Black Sun, Boy-Girl, Jane Doe at the Justice Front, La Lucha, Chain Reaction, World Domination Through Dumpster Diving, When Punk Turns Thirty, Plea for Peace Magazine, Wonka Vision, The Urban Pantheist, Angst and Daisies, Rocket Queen, Fun with Zombies, Flotation Device, Exit Babylon, Nothing to Do, Drinking Sweat in the Ash Age, and Tricks of the Tradeless. Good thing the security crew was just snooping for a pocket knife I’d stashed in a bag and then forgotten. If they’d been interested in finding subversive literature, I might still be in Detroit. ORGANIZED BY Clamor magazine co-editors Jen Angel and Jason Kucsma, the third annual Underground Publishing Conference (UPC), held in Bowling Green, Ohio, in late June brought together hundreds of editors, writers, artists, activists, teachers, librarians, and people interested in alternative media. Besides dozens of tables where publishers sold, swapped, and gave away their publications, the event featured workshops on topics ranging from polyamory to do-it-yourself book touring, zine distribution to homemade radio production. Considering their low visibility, "underground press," isn’t a bad way to describe the movement of zines and self-published minicomics. Their existence, unlike that of commercial magazines, isn’t predicated on selling products. Although they rarely reach more than a few thousand readers, what they lack in size they make up for in fierce independence. With no corporate or institutional control over what appears on their pages, they relish publishing dissident, unusual, and thought-provoking ideas.
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Karen Switzer has published the bimonthly Ker-bloom! for five years in Oakland using a letterpress located in a friend’s barn. A substitute teacher by day, Switzer likes printing presses so much she’s had an image of one tattooed on her right tricep along with the words "The Tyrant’s Foe, The People’s Friend." Two recent issues of Ker-bloom! featured graphic writing about a bloody (and subsequently successful) attempt to remove a sebaceous cyst with just a sharp blade and a bottle of whiskey, while previous editions have covered matters from "why I don’t blow things up" to a solo bike ride across Ohio. John Porcellino, creator of King-Cat Comics, is a gentle-mannered self-described recluse more eager to discuss albino squirrels than to talk about his work. (He’d seen a white squirrel in Bowling Green.) Remarkable for its careful prose and spare, Zen-influenced drawing style developed over 59 issues, King-Cat relates anecdotes from Porcellino’s life while managing to tell bigger stories about life itself. Personal expression is also the forte of Carrie McNinch, whose painfully honest autobiographical minicomic Assassin and the Whiner (a.k.a. Ass Whine) seems to laugh in the face of pain as it confronts alcoholism and ghosts from the artist’s past. A sizable contingent of these underground publishers offered strongly political wares. Anthony Rayson, for example, copies and distributes prisoner/anarchist publications via his South Chicago ABC Zine Distro (Box 721, Homewood, IL 60430). And one of the conference breakout sessions focused on how zines can be used to document and supplement political action. It was especially heartening for me to connect with librarians in Bowling Green. Salt Lake City Public Library periodicals librarian Julie Bartel and her colleague Gentry Blackburn talked about a successful campaign not only to acquire zines at their institution, but also to publicize them and organize related programs. Striving to bring in new users, they even provided underground publishers a tip sheet for finding allies who work in libraries.
ANSWERS
(to the above quiz)
Big Questions ( cook ) Ten Page News ( math teacher ) King-Cat Comics ( health food store worker ) Ker-bloom! ( substitute teacher ) Drinking Sweat in the Ash Age ( librarian ) Assassin and the Whiner ( caretaker/dog nanny ).
Another librarian, Greig Means, helped staff the table of the Independent Publishing Resource Center (www.iprc.org), a zine library and do-it-yourself production facility located above Reading Frenzy bookstore in downtown Portland, Oregon. Opened in 1998, the center offers members access to a photocopier, small letterpresses, bookmaking tools, and other equipment. And then there was archivist Julie Herrada, who provided a little historical context on this latest wave of underground publishing with a slide show about the Labadie Collection of anarchist and radical history located at the University of Michigan. Some of the 100-year-old publications in the collection —bearing titles such as "Jesus Was an Anarchist" and produced with covers made of colorful wallpaper—looked remarkably similar to Karen Switzer’s little letterpress Ker-bloom! THE CONFERENCE as a whole was a happy venue for cross-fertilization between creative and engaged people of different generations living in different places all around the country. It was with this sense of connection and camaraderie that I headed out of Bowling Green en route to Detroit with Alex, a writer for Blu magazine who was on his way to San Diego for a biotechnology protest. He schooled me on the emerging field of nanotechnology, the reshaping of organisms at the molecular level, and how development of this technology is being controlled by corporations and the military, a conversation that reminded me that the world of the alternative press isn’t all personal expression and ego. An article in the Spring 2000 issue of the Canadian magazine Broken Pencil suggested that zines are dead, arguing that they are futile and unfeasible. Alex and a couple hundred other people in Bowling Green put the lie to that supposition, with an energy that was uplifting.

Chris Dodge is Utne Readers librarian, and the instigator behind the alternative press Web Site: www.streetlibrarian.com.

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