Anatomy of a zine

What exactly is a “zine”? Think back to American history and Thomas Paine’s famous publication, Common Sense. Paine’s words challenged the British monarchy and reverberated within the hearts and minds of the American people. Common Sense exposed revolutionary ideas that would not have been accepted by American mass media — had it existed at the time.

Today, zines function similarly. Covering topics that range from politics to sex, these homemade magazines are self-published and have minimal distribution, but are an important outlet for their writers. Zines are equally beneficial for their readers, who, through these eclectic and alternative magazines, become exposed to subjects that normally don’t see the light of day in mainstream media.

Common Sense aside, the earliest form of a zine was the fanzine, or mini-magazine that die-hard fans of science fiction films created in the 1930s to publish information about their fandom, according to North West Zine Works. Today, the subject matter of zines has grown tremendously, as have the nicknames for the phenomenon. These include perzines (personal anecdotal-magazines), punk zines (referring to the musical genre and surrounding culture), and webzines or ezines (those published online).

The creation of today’s zines began largely with the
do-it-yourself (DIY) movement of the 1970s, fueled by the fervor of feminist and political organizations that had an agenda of reaching the public through alternate means of publication. Back then, underground zine culture was rooted in the support of one another, and that tradition has continued into the present. Zines often run advertisements and information about other zines, and editors help in the distribution of peer publications.

Zines can be free, but typically run from $1 to $5, depending on length and design. (For example, zines published in colored ink tend to cost more than black-and-white copies). There is no particular process for creating and distributing a zine. Most of the zine culture is underground, welcoming anyone to create his or her own homemade zine, which can then be distributed to friends or left in piles at local coffee shops.

Although many zines cover serious topics, some are created by high-schoolers desperate to let out their teenage angst, and others are written just for fun. Take Thrift Score, made by Al Hoff, who wanted to create a more practical zine. Thrift Score informs thrift store shoppers of alternative places to buy their clothing. “I guess I instinctively knew there was a subculture [in thrift store shopping] to be tapped. Now, I know that for sure,” Hoff said, as quoted in an interview on zinebook.com. “Starting the zine was also an excuse to do more thrifting for ‘research’ and whatnot.” Some zines have the sole intention of finding and reviewing other zines, such as Factsheet Five. Created in the 1980s, Factsheet Five grew to become a nationally distributed magazine and is now published bimonthly.

Because of their small distributions, zines may be difficult to find for those who don’t know where to look. The DIY magazines are most commonly found at coffee shops, thrift stores, music stores, book stores, and concerts. Additionally, students majoring in one of the social sciences might also be interested in looking at the various zines focusing on civil rights and alternative forms of government. The socialist Against the Current; In These Times, a leftist zine; and Dollars and Sense, which focuses on the economy, are all zines available both online and in print.

Zines can be found all over Pittsburgh. For a quick read close to the Carnegie Mellon campus, Kiva Han offers free zines, and the Caliban bookstore sells zines, including Encylopedia Destructica, an art zine created by Carnegie Mellon students. The Pittsburgh Zine Library and Archive, found at The Big Idea Infoshop, located at 504 Millvale Avenue in Bloomfield, has about 3000 zines organized by category. According to its website, “[The Big Idea Infoshop] is dedicated to the active promotion of radical/alternative cultures through community networking and the distribution of literature. We hope to create a safe and accessible space for people to take part in an open and empowering community.” Completely run by volunteers, The Big Idea Infoshop promotes alternative literature, including, but not limited to, literature that is woman-positive, queer-positive, and class-positive.

In addition to The Big Idea Infoshop, much of the city of Pittsburgh supports independent media, particularly through the Pittsburgh Indymedia center, which broadcasts events neglected by mainstream media in Western Pennsylvania. “Pittsburgh has a rich ethnic history and a small-town big-city feel, and a really strong underground punk population where most of the zines are coming from,” said first-year art major and Pittsburgh native Robin Scheines. “Pittsburgh is also very artistically inclined. All of these factors create a strong zine presence in Pittsburgh.”

The Internet has given zines a new look. Webzines, or ezines, have become immensely popular because there is no cost for printing and distribution and the Internet allows exposure to more readers. Websites have also given zines a classier, more polished look. While the cost of color ink drives the price of zines sky high, on the Internet, the design and layout can be as garish as one likes.

In the age of technology, many argue that print media will soon be extinct. However, for true zinesters, this is not a concern. Because zines began in the form of print, some argue that there will always be hardcopy zines. After all, print zines offer a homemade appeal, not to mention portability. Though not always as revolutionary as Common Sense, the zine will always be an important and fundamental form of self expression for artists, poets, and writers.