Zine Scene: Exploring the South Side’s self-publishing community

“Chris” is 37 years old; he’s a high school English teacher, a husband, and a father. And last month, he added one more accomplishment to this already rather impressive list: zine maker. Granted, on first glimpse it might not seem like an achievement worth meriting–after all, the idea that “anyone can make a zine” is widespread, and is in fact often touted by zine makers and their fans as one of its most appealing features. But if anyone can make a zine, it nevertheless takes dedication and effort to meticulously craft the self-made booklets and shop them around to distribution centers–especially when you live in the southern pseudo-suburbs of Beverly, far from the zine haven of Quimby’s and other North Side hipster haunts, as in Chris’s case. And even that says nothing of the intellectual and emotional hand-wringing that often goes into creating such zines in the first place.

Chris’s zine is called “Slightly Depressing,” and it’s true to the title’s word–it’s not the most pleasant read. Chris (who asked that his real name not be used) confesses that he was “really baring it all” in writing up the small sixteen-page publication. “Slightly Depressing” is a perzine, or “personal zine”: its pages relay how it feels to suffer from social anxiety and depression, and how it felt growing up with parents who used to “scream at one another night after night.” The tales take on the shape of conversations with an alien named 21.5, personal recollections, and poems; interspersed throughout are little vignettes such as “Why aren’t Hindus ever depressed? Because they have that Hin-can-do attitude”–small asides probably meant to lighten the mood, but which serve the curious counter-purpose of making the material seem that much sadder. Of course, lines like “why am i so scared” and “why am i so fucked up” don’t help much, either.

“Slightly Depressing” can only be found at Wicker Park bookstore Quimby’s, where it lies on a shelf in the “local zines” section next to countless other self-bound books of various sizes, with titles like “Phone Phrantic,” “Lion in a Teacup,” “The Dick Pig Review,” and “Sniffing Drainpipes.” They run the gauntlet of possible topics: the sixth volume of “Caboose” revolves around the theme of “Health and Recreation,” but next to it lies the first volume, from 2002, in which author Liz Saidel (now Mason) related stories of how she was known as “the barfer” and explained “how Breathe Right strips rock my world.” One zine, “AdHouse Trashcan,” doesn’t have any sort of story to tell–its pages display images of summaries of accounts, computer screen snapshots, advertisements, and other cultural riffraff, scribbled over and deconstructed in various ways. That’s all there is on every page.

As different as “AdHouse Trashcan” may seem from something like “Slightly Depressing,” both would probably fall under the “perzine” categorization. In fact, it would be difficult to definitively discern, but perzines most likely make up the majority of zines being published today–thanks to their ambiguous definition, any sort of “personal” statement, whether it be opinion or observation, anecdote, or even commentary on advertising culture (which “AdHouse” seems to provide) can fit the mold. But they are hardly the only type of zine out there. Next to Quimby’s local zine section lie the “fanzine” shelves. Fanzines, as the name suggests, differ from perzines in that they tend to focus around a certain subject or topic, of which the writers and readers are all fans. Their origin lies in an unlikely source: science fiction. As zine enthusiast and sometime Chicago resident Anne Elizabeth Moore explains in an article in the Fall of Autumn Quarterly, “When the genre first appeared in the 1920s, a group of people coalesced and something remarkable happened; either early science fiction was of such horrendous quality that it seemed instantly accessible to those who came across it, or it was an invention so late in coming that the audience’s personal abilities had surpassed it already. Regardless, science fiction fans started creating their own science fictions almost immediately, photocopying them, mailing them throughout the country, trading them with each other, writing each other letters, printing those letters with addresses in subsequent issues,” etc. etc. It was in one of these sci-fi fanzines that the name “fanzine” was first coined, by Russ Chauvenet in 1940. The name would eventually be shortened to “’zine” and, finally, “zine,” simultaneously expanding in breadth to include perzines and other types of self-made (and often self-Xeroxed) publications.

Today, fanzines are most often found associated with music, boasting long interviews and recounted experiences by fans and for fans. Some of the more well-known examples include punk publications “Maximumrocknroll” (started in 1982) and the recently-folded “Punk Planet,” which had been based in Chicago and co-edited by Moore. These also represent more typically magazine-like examples: full-sized, with professional binding, sometimes with glossy pages, etc. Despite the commercial appearance, however, they remain zines at their core: while the homemade aesthetic may be more prevalent, it’s the nature of the material and the process of creation that unifies them in “zine” status with their smaller, self-constructed contemporaries.

In “Hey Kidz! Buy This Book,” Moore writes, “Making your own book or zine is the only way to exercise true freedom of the press.” And surely this has been true–for many zine creators, self-publishing has been necessary to disseminate political views that would not go over so well with traditional media outlets. It also allows for the publishing of material that, for whatever reason, does not fit in with the traditional publisher’s profit-reliant layouts. Just ask the guys behind Lumpen and Roctober, two South Side-based zines that deal directly with these two issues, respectively. Lumpen, an eponymous long-running zine created by Bridgeport’s Lumpen Media Group, presents readers with a mix of culture and politics; its ardent left-wing perspectives would make it an unlikely candidate for the more PC, capitalist world of commercial publishing. Roctober, on the other hand, published by South Shore resident Jake Austen, offers a mix of underground comics and music coverage, much of it focused on obscure, mostly-forgotten bands and artists of past eras.

Started in 1992, when Austen was still a student at the Rhode Island School of Design, Roctober emerged from a very particular situation: Austen had recently conducted an interview for a punk magazine, but the issue in which the interview would be published was never to come out. “We had this great, great interview and we didn’t have a place to publish it,” Austin recalls. So he created a zine of his own; and after graduating later that year, he flew out to Chicago and brought the publication’s future with him. “At the time, it was a Xeroxed zine, and I wasn’t thinking about advertising or anything”–but Roctober quickly grew, as labels sent him promotional copies of albums, advertisers came knocking, and writers lined up to create stories and drawings for the zine. Austen soon found he could no longer manually create the zines himself–“once you’re doing hundreds of issues, to staple all those pages!” he laughs–so he turned to professional publishers, who helped him put together the tri-annually released publication. Now on issue 45, it costs a few thousand dollars to put together a few thousand copies, which are then distributed to a number of places throughout Chicago’s North Side, such as Quimby’s, Reckless Records, Loop Distro, and Dusty Groove America. With ad sales, he’s just able to cover the cost of printing–the profits are razor-thin, if they exist at all.

Still, Austen and his group of approximately sixty contributors continue to produce issue after issue. As he sees it, there are plenty of reasons to continue–and plenty to continue with the zine format. “The nice thing that you can do with a zine, [you] can make an article that’s ten thousand words [long],” he explains, describing an upcoming article about Sun Records’ former studio saxophonist, written by a music industry expert who’d once written a book on Elvis’ backing band. It’s the kind of thing that probably wouldn’t fly with professional publications, with more limited word counts. He also emphasizes the lack of deadlines, which are a boon for zine writers–usually, “you talk to someone just as long as you need to” in order to get the story done on time, he says of the world of mainstream publications. And, although he doesn’t sell to any places in his South Shore community, Austen doesn’t mind going where he needs to in order to find an audience (or, as economic circumstances dictate, a distributor). As he puts it, “It’s always been about going up to Wicker Park.”

But in today’s world, that isn’t necessarily the case. With the internet, a zine maker doesn’t theoretically have to go anywhere–he can just publish the material online. And plenty of e-zines do exist, of both the fan- and per- variety. In fact, zine review sites have even sprung up, such as www.zinethug.com, in which Portland, Oregon’s Marc Parker, a zine maker in his own right, writes short paragraphs describing the good and bad of the zines that he’s been reading lately. The catch? He’ll only review paper zines–wrap your head around that one.

But as bizarre as it might seem to start a website dedicated explicitly to reviewing only paper zines, it does say something about the value of the tried-and-true paper publication. As Austen profoundly puts it, “There are certain situations where reading print is superior…[such as] reading while you’re sitting on the toilet. That’s a way people read zines.” Potty humor aside, plenty of support still exists for the paper zine, from anti-technology DIY groups to those who like to lie down and read in bed without a hot laptop burning into their chest. And, as the Hip Lit Fair at the Museum of Contemporary Art proved on May 17, the paper zine allows for the building of a community among writers and readers that just isn’t possible when dealing with strangers online. Packed into a small backroom on the first floor of the building, zine makers and independent publishers gathered with fans to mingle and spread their wares as a DJ innocuously spun tunes in the back. As Austen puts it, “You can network easier with MySpace now but you don’t get the deep bonds” that come with constructing actual material pieces and sharing them with actual people.

And yet, a community isn’t necessarily needed to validate the efforts of the zine maker. Chris was not one of the writers in attendance at the MCA’s Hip Lit program; “I don’t really fit in with the hipster scene,” the high school teacher admits, and he might not have wanted to take credit for his creation even if he did. “The zine I recently made and the one I am working on now are incredibly personal,” he confides. “High school parents don’t always take that the right way.” But he is pleased with his creation nevertheless: “When I was younger, I wanted to write poetry and fiction, but depression and anxiety issues fizzled away any talent I might have had. Zines represent a way to publish, to tell stories, without having to go through the agony of writing a book. At this point in my life, a zine is doable; a memoir is not. I wish it were, of course. [But I] wanted to have a product–a piece of my own writing I could touch, I could look at…Actually having a copy of it gives me a feeling of accomplishment.” And perhaps that’s what zine culture is all about: not a matter of what’s being said, or who it’s being said to, but simply being able to go out and say it.