Reading zines is like searching for pearls at an oyster bar: It can take a long time to turn up a gem, but there are all kinds of tasty samples along the way.
The explosion of zines over the past decade amounts to a pro-democracy movement in the media. Anyone can be an editor and publisher, and any topic that grabs someone’s imagination qualifies as newsworthy, including body hair, the drug war, being bisexual, Dean Martin, temp work horror stories, and decorating tips from the suave ‘70s. Thanks to the infinite potential (and minimal cost) of photocopiers and desktop publishing, anyone who can find his or her way around a keyboard can now become a press baron, even if it’s only for a few dozen friends and fellow zine aficionados. Journalism—if that’s what you call this mode of writing—has never been so personal and idiosyncratic. People usually edited out of mainstream media—kids, gays, low-wage workers, and obsessives of all stripes—can sound off in zines on any subject they like.
At the same time, though, many of these writers have nothing more interesting to say than a loudmouth at the local tavern who’s enraptured with the sound of his own voice. Too many zines are long on attitude and shock appeal and short on insight. As Chip Rowe, creator of the celebrated Chip’s Closet Cleaner, admits in the introduction to his anthology The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe (Owl/Henry Holt, $14.95), “Most zines suck. There’s no nice way to say it.” But what doesn’t suck can dazzle, challenge, inspire, and entertain. The best of what zines offer has found its way into Rowe’s worthy anthology and the equally interesting The Factsheet Five Zine Reader (Three Rivers/Crown, $14) edited by R. Seth Friedman, “head honcho” of Factsheet Five, which has been described as the Utne Reader of the zine world. Each book is packed with excerpts, cartoons, and graphics from a wide selection of publications—Verbivore, Diseased Pariah News, Peaches & Herbicide, Hermenaut, Hip Mama, and How Perfectly Goddamn Delightful It All Is, To Be Sure—along with intriguing background about the zines and the characters who create them.
The range of material in these books is impressive: covering everything from an interview in Stay Free! with a supermarket Pillsbury doughboy (who dissed the Keebler elves this way: “They’re a little small and they get underfoot”) to a phone sex gal’s memoir in Snevil (“You had to say you were tall and blond—no black girls, no Spanish girls”) to an account of Boston’s Great Molasses Flood of 1919 in Murder Can Be Fun (“It took a week just to recover the bodies of the 21 victims”). Sex, pop culture, and perverse turns of the zeitgeist are favorite topics. Both first-person accounts and well-researched chronicles are presented with an admirable degree of historical and social context. The writing is mostly quite good, full of laughs and rebellious sass.
Zines reflect the fierce individualism always afoot in American culture—in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, the ACLU, and the Merry Pranksters as well as that of Ayn Rand, the Libertarian Party, and Bill Gates. The Book of Zines and The Factsheet Five Reader, and the tidal wave of titles from which they are drawn, don’t point us in any particular direction for a more promising future. There’s little in these books about spirituality or politics, and no expressed belief that collective action offers hope of improving anyone’s lot in life. But they do give us a vivid, truthful sense of where our society stands right now—and that’s important.