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What is a Zine? from Metazine

People like tidy explanations. They like definitions. These tend to give people frames of reference and superficial context. Urban legends and water cooler gossip thrive under these conditions. These are commonly held beliefs about zines:

  • Zines are rooted in science-fiction fandom
  • Zines are a byproduct of punk
  • Zines are purely a modern phenomenon

There are shreds of truth in each of these statements, but none are wholly accurate.

Not long after I began publishing my zine review zine, Xerography Debt, I started running a regular column on the history of zines. There have been some quality columns over the years, including articles on conscientious objectors' prison zines, gay porn zines, Mussolini's newspapers, Valarie Solanas, non-racist Skinhead zines, the closing of Tower Records (by their main zine buyer), and Turkish zines. The idea that there is one definition of what a zine is or that the history of self-publishing can be summarized by a single era is anathema to many of us.

In my opinion zines have been around for centuries and "zine" is just a current term for a self-published works, published more for passion than profit, with a goal of communication and connection. Zines tend to be part of a barter culture, where ideas and expression become the commodity. Many zines believe in freedom of expression with at least a modicum of rebellion against established media and corporate culture.

Zine makers have a desire to communicate and create something tangible. In the pre-internet days, when being read meant being printed, zine makers self-published because what they had to say and how they wanted to say it was of little interest to mainstream media sources. Individuals wanted to connect and for introverts and obsessives zines were paradise. In addition to be a creative outlet, zines functioned like a social network long before Mark Zuckerberg conceived of Facebook. Furthermore, zine makers seemed to instinctively know that they were providing documentation for events and subcultures that would otherwise go unrepresented or be grossly misrepresented. It is and was very much an idea of media for the people, by the people.

As for the physical nature of a zine – they can be just about anything. The zine form most people are familiar with are photocopied letter-sized pages, saddle stapled and folded or full-size pages saddle or corner stapled together. There is no clear definition about what constitutes a zine – it is more an ethos than a final product.

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