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The zine explosion.

For years, when he wasn't pushing paper as a government bureaucrat, John Marr combed San Francisco book stores for volumes on disasters and the B-side of American pop culture. Six years ago he decided he wanted to share his obsession with the outside world, so he launched a photocopied magazine dubbed Murder Can Be Fun, after a favorite Fredric Brown detective novel.

With it he joined thousands of amateur publishers whose homemade, often irreverent publications have become known as fanzines--zines ("zeens") for short. In testimony to the medium's growing visibility, Penguin Books recently published a bestselling zine guide, numerous newspapers and magazines have noted the phenomenon, and a zine review that died two years ago has sprung back to life. By one estimate, at least 10,000 zines--mostly haphazard mail-order products that are done for fun rather than profit--are now traded or sold throughout the world. Most have circulations of less than 500.

Marr, who sells about 2,000 copies of MCBF when it appears twice a year, is, at age 31, considered a zine veteran. Since its debut, MCBF has examined such unusual trends as killer postal workers (complete with graphs detailing how the deeds were done), chronicled every death at Disneyland since it opened in 1955, and reported on the Boston Molasses Flood of 1919, in which 2.3 million gallons of molasses deluged city streets, knocking over buildings and killing 21 people.

Marr says he spends nearly 100 hours researching, writing and producing each issue. Why? "Putting out the zine is sort of a rationale for doing all of these research projects," he says.

Fueled by the increased accessibility of inexpensive desktop publishing systems and the availability of photocopy machines, zines now fill most every niche, from politics to music to film to travel to offbeat or controversial topics that the mainstream press rarely addresses. One zine called IQ, for example, describes itself as "the sex zine for girls who like girls who wear glasses"; Red Heifer Offering targets Christian punk rockers; They Won't Stay Dead! examines what are known as "splatter-films" because of their horrific faux mutilations; and 8-Track Mind is for music lovers who profess devotion to the outdated audio technology.

"There are goofy publications in that subculture, but some zines are very serious, and on serious subjects," says Tom Trusky, an English professor at Boise State University who organized an exhibit of zines last fall. Indeed, says Mike Gunderloy, co-author of Penguin's "The World of Zines: A Guide to the Independent Magazine Revolution," zines are "so diverse as to be pretty much unclassifiable. The mainstream overemphasizes the wacky aspects, because they make good copy. But a lot of people are doing solid, useful work in niche markets that traditional magazines can never fill."

Sixty Years of Zines

Zines may be publications, but they can't be classified as periodicals, at least not in the usual sense. Publishing schedules are almost non-existent, and only the rare effort such as MCBF lasts longer than two years. In fact, many zines vanish after only one issue when the publisher loses interest or runs out of material. Geraldo Must Die!, a screed against daytime talk shows, folded after its debut, as did Hossatopia, a zine that paid homage to Hoss, the "Bonanza" character played by the late Dan Blocker, through poetry, art and reminiscences.

Zines that survive and thrive do so through mutual admiration. That's how editors trade or sell their work. Almost every zine includes reviews of others. Pick up one zine and you'll learn about dozens. And those dozens will probably note hundreds more.

Many readers, however, stumble on the "micro-press" by accident. USA Today media reporter Pat Guy discovered zines while interviewing a magazine editor for a story about gay publications. The editor had insisted his magazine was different from the gay zines that are being published. "What's a zine?" she asked. She got her answer.

Giving the zine scene its widest exposure to date, Guy devoted nearly a page to the publishing underground in an article last August. Zines are wacky, obscene, gross, tender and funny," explained Guy, who received unsolicited zines for months after her article appeared. "They generally flaunt an in-your-face attitude, plenty of four-letter words and a heavy dose of misspellings, grammatical errors and libelous comments. Some are primitive--mere sheets of paper, folded and stapled--others are graphically dazzling."

Guy's report and others like it, along with the release of Gunderloy's book, have introduced the zine scene to many people who never suspected anything without a glossy cover could be entertaining or informative. Recently National Public Radio, Newsweek, "Entertainment Tonight" and major dailies such as the San Francisco Examiner, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and St. Paul Pioneer-press have discovered and reported on zines.

The medium, however, has been around for at least six decades. Originally called fanzines (from fan club culture), the zines had their roots in science fiction pulp magazines. The earliest ones--Comet and Time Traveller--have been traced to about 1930. In 1932 they were joined by Science Fiction, published by Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster, who would later create Superman.

One of the first serious observers of zines was New York psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, who discovered the publications in the early 1940s while studying the links between psychology and literature. "Gradually I became interested in them as a phenomenon and started to get some myself," he recalled in his 1978 book, "The World of Fanzines."

Like many others who stumble across the scene, Wertham tried to determine what motivated their publishers and, at the same time, examine why he was so interested in their novice work. The psychiatrist decided that he treasured the "aliveness and naturalness" of zines and "appreciated that they are unmanipulated" by owners, publishers or advertisers.

"Having seen, in my years in psychiatry, so much of the general flaws in our human relations, I was attracted to something that was so positive and was not acknowledged as such," he wrote. "I felt that [the zine culture] was essentially unpolluted by the greed, the arrogance and the hypocrisy that has invaded so much of our intellectual life."

Mike Gunderloy says zine editors are largely motivated by the "passionate, and probably pathological, need to spread one's opinions about the world." James Wallis, who introduced the literary zine Sound & Fury, is a case in point. "Every so often I get a strange concept that tucks itself away in a corner of my mind and like a magnet begins to attract ideas to it," he once wrote. "After a while it's attracted so much that it gets too big and begins to clutter up the space that I use for thinking about my other, paying projects, and I have to do something to get rid of it." Another zine publisher, Robert Howington, a government clerk who created Experiment in Words, has said that he enjoys the "wonderful power that an editor or publisher commands. I'm the man, the bottom line. Me. Only me. The prose stops here.... After sending a copy of my [submission] guidelines to a writer, she wrote back that I come across as a tyrant.' I basked in glutinous glory all day."

Factsheet Five

Zines covering a variety of topics have been traded over the decades, but the movement exploded in the early 1980s after Gunderloy launched a magazine that attempted to catalog the thousands of publications circulating through word-of-mouth or notices in other zines. He called his creation Factsheet Five, after a science fiction short story by John Brunner. Each issue described more than a thousand zines and listed their prices and addresses. His effort quickly grew to become what many considered the center of the zine universe.

Gunderloy says he began F5 in 1982 as a two-page, typed letter to friends. In it, he offered reviews of the sci-fi publications he read. Over time, his listings expanded beyond sci-fi and word spread among zine publishers that the way to get noticed (and deluged with inquiries) was to be reviewed in Gunderloy's rag. By the late 1980s, F5 was appearing bimonthly with nearly 140 pages of tightly written reviews. Its circulation had grown to 10,000, but Gunderloy gave away as many as half in trades.

Gunderloy's policy was to review every zine he received (except those that were overtly racist or encouraged violence) and provide free copies of F5 to publishers who shared their zines. Many readers were critical of this method, saying it encouraged shoddy, slapped-together efforts just to get a free copy of Gunderloy's magazine. Critics say the policy flooded the market with lackluster material and lowered standards.

While Gunderloy's decision may have contributed to slipshod efforts, F5 and its large and diverse readership also guaranteed customers for nearly every type of publication. The satanists had Brimstone, drug-testing opponents had the Urine Nation News, and those into celibacy had the short-lived Virgin International Contact Zine.

Not all zines have a quirky edge, however; those that do just seem to get the most attention. Many zines are published by hobbyists who use their publications to network. Serious bird-watchers, for example, wouldn't miss an issue of Dick E. Bird News, which includes a "birdhouse of the month" and pictures of birds and squirrels taken by readers. Another zine, SOS, is the organ of the Secular Organization for Sobriety, which offers alternatives to religion-based recovery programs.

Sometimes even editors are surprised by the number of orders they receive for their ultra-specialized and often very personal works. Among them is a man in Austin, Texas, who published Raised By Wolves, in which he anonymously told his tale of childhood sexual abuse. He explained that the zine was cathartic for him, and he didn't expect many readers. Those who did order a copy got fair warning: "What I have done here is staple together a bunch of poems, artwork and essays that I have been writing recently, in a marginally successful attempt to cope with some horrible stuff that crawled out of some dark and ugly corner of my memory totally uninvited."

Graphic and frightening, the zine became more popular with each issue and the editor got dozens of letters from other sexual abuse victims who wanted to share their stories. The Harvard Medical School also wrote, he says, asking to use the zine in psychiatry classes. He agreed.

While F5 connected survivors of abuse and helped zine publishers, it also provided free publicity for kooks. A self-proclaimed Brooklyn psychopath named Frank became semi-legendary in zine publishing when he claimed in his surprisingly popular Singin' Dose Anti-Psychotic Blues that he was going to kill at least two dozen people in a massacre.

Frank's thick publication consisted of his essays and copies of newspaper stories about mayhem around the world. He began publishing in 1987 but stopped three years later, after, he claimed, the FBI began investigating him. What sparked the feds' interest, according to Frank, was a lengthy essay he published called "Handy Hits for Messier Massacres: A Guide to Maximizing the Mass Murder Count."

Soon after discontinuing Singin', he returned with a new zine called Livin' in a Powder Keg and Givin' Off Sparks. He now required his readers to sign a disclaimer, pledging they weren't law enforcement officers or informers. Further, would-be readers had to explain why they wanted to buy his zine. Frank, it seems, was soliciting psychotic confessions.

Then, in the summer of 1991, Frank disappeared without warning (or providing subscription refunds). He has been heard from only sparingly since. Many who corresponded with him now believe he actually was a federal agent, using his zine to serve as a "psychomagnet" by gathering names and confessions from potential serial killers.

While Frank's zine and hundreds of others vanish every year, new titles replace them. One recent addition is the Sabot Times, published by three disgruntled newspaper reporters in Seattle who, using pseudonyms and a postal drop box, encourage journalistic sabotage. In their first issue, they explained their motivations: We're tired of being fucked over by small-minded, vicious editors and publishers whose only pleasure in life is making journalists squirm in fear and sweat for their lousy jobs, which are ruled by these unbreakable commandments: Do it cheap, do it quick and don't offend any advertisers. We say it's time to fight back."

In their six issues to date, the ST staff has offered tips on fabricating quotes ("Don't make your fake quotes too articulate"), on how to behave in staff "mission" meetings (murmur about our responsibility to the citizenry,' then continue to write stories like Oh, the Joys of Asparagus!"), and on how to operate a personal business on the side ("Don't hesitate to steal staplers, manila folders, reams of copy paper and electric pencil sharpeners").

In a mail interview, Editor Lois Lane explained why she and her two colleagues launched Sabot Times: We just got fed up and tired of bitching about our jobs. We see ST as a form of action, admittedly not as efficacious as looking for new careers, but one that lets us hold onto our self-respect and sanity in a corporate world. Besides, it's fun as hell."

So far, their identities remain unknown and they still have their jobs.

A New Discipline?

Like USA Today's Pat Guy, Boise State's Tom Trusky, 48, discovered zines after overhearing the term two years ago. The professor bought an issue of Factsheet Five and spent at least $500 sending off for some 300 titles.

"I was overwhelmed," he says. "The publications were tributes to a belief in freedom of the press, the power of the individual, the value of diversity. They forced me to rethink my diagnosis of the national psyche."

Determined to spread the word, Trusky set up a month-long exhibit of 80 zines this past October at the Boise State student union. Not everybody found charm in the display--zines with names like Taste of Latex, Queer City, Pills-a-go-go and Slut Mag generated controversy. The college admissions director protested that prospective students and their parents would be frightened away. A religious group that held services in the student union also complained, but the exhibit, Trusky says, drew record crowds.

When the exhibit ended, Trusky says its 50-page guest book was filled with comments. He found them so fascinating that he plans to publish them in September as a zine called Guest Book.

Gunderloy, meanwhile, called it quits in late 1991 after finishing his 44th issue of Factsheet Five. As the zine scene exploded exponentially, the effort to keep up became overwhelming. He says it took as much as 15 hours a day to review all of the publications that were pouring into his mailbox in upstate New York. "I've reached the point where I can no longer invest my entire life in this project for the low [financial] returns it has been giving me lately," he explained on a computer bulletin board used by many zine publishers.

Gunderloy sold F5 to Hudson Luce, an unemployed Kansas chemist who claims to be distantly related to the late magazine mogul Henry Luce. But Luce too found the project too big to handle and sold it after one issue. The new editor, former computer consultant R. Seth Friedman, 30, recently released issue No. 46 and has won raves for organizing it by subject and providing an index, something neither Gunderloy nor Luce had attempted. Friedman says he's sold 8,000 copies and that the next issue is due out soon.

Even with the return of F5, it's questionable whether anyone can review every zine sold or traded through the mail. And many aficionados say the genre doesn't need a market square to thrive; zines appear to have a firm standing as a bonafide noncommercial vehicle of expression.

"There are always going to be passionate people, disaffected people, and people with agendas," says Trusky. When there aren't, that's the day zines will die."

These Are a Few of His Favorite Zines...

As editor of Obscure Publications, James Romenesko has read thousands of zines. Here are a few of the best:

Psychotronic Video

The first zine that evolved into a retail store, Psychotronic Video debuted a dozen years ago as "New York's weekly guide to television movies--especially forgotten junk." Editor Michael Weldon has moved the zine from a handwritten photocopy to a respected, exhaustive guide to low budget flicks. "Psychotronic films range from sincere social commentary to degrading trash," he explains. "I love inept, badly made movies as well as effective well-crafted ones." Weldon recently opened the Psychotronic Store in New York City, where he sells movies, magazines, rare posters, fanzines and videos ($3 from 151 First Ave., Dept. PV, New York, NY 10003).

Wind Chill Factor

This anarchist zine "for ideas, action, news, anger, creativity and more" is evidence that some youths still have a streak of rebellion in them. WCF rails against recists, homophobes, the government and others. It encourages readers to tie up 800-number lines of anti-abortion groups and offers tips on everything from retrieving unlisted phone numbers to manufacturing a "harmless bomb." The editors have an anti-copyright policy and encourage readers to "steal, plagiarize, reprint, copy and riot unreservedly" ($1.50 from P.O. Box 81961, Chicago, IL 60681).

The Optimistic Pezzimist

A nicely designed publication for Pez dispenser collectors, OP has everything from Pez trivia and history to profiles of dispenser collectors to dispenser auction results. (A Bullwinkle head dispenser recently sold for $122.50.) Editor Mike Robertson is a Pez fanatic and it shows ($3 to P.O. Box 606, Dripping Springs, TX 78620).


Self-dubbed "the voice of rock out censorship," this zine targets Tipper Gore and her Parents Music Resource Center as its worst enemy. Although its tone is somewhat alarmist, ROC is worth the two bucks for its in-depth interviews with musicians and other artists whose works have been attacked by conservatives ($2 from P.O. Box 147, Jewett, OH 43986).

Voices from Spirit

The highlight of this modest four-page zine is the "celebrity interview" with a well-known person from the past. Through channeling, Editor Rev. Speaker Gerald Polley draws out intriguing tidbits from his subjects. In one issue, Polley asked Merlin the Magician--a friend of King Arthur--if Camelot was as wonderful as people believe. Merlin's response: "Hardly! It was a simple fortress of wood and earth, not even a castle, as people consider them now. But it was comfortable for its day." In a recent issue, Marilyn Monroe told Polley that she didn't like the tabloids suggesting that she was murdered to protect John and Robert Kennedy. "I wish I could curse the people that write these stories like others have done, but I do not have that kind of thing in me," Polley says Monroe told him. "I can find it only in my soul to pity them, for I know that some day they will pay a bitter price for their crimes against the dead" ($1 from P.O. Box 5155, Ellsworth, ME 04605).

Diseased Pariah News

This zine describes itself as a humor publication for people with AIDS. There are a few light moments, but most articles bite with anger and cynicism about how uncaring society is toward victims. Founding Editor Tom Shearer charted the monthly drop of his T-cells in the zine before he died last year. Other HIV-positive staffers have kept the publication going. A running series, called "How I Got AIDS," is an interesting autobiography by a onetime high school honors student named Scott O'Hara who became a gay porn star. This zine puts a human face on this awful disease ($2 from P.O. Box 30564, Oakland, CA 94604).

Crash Update

Jack Kerouac would appreciate CU Editor Miles Poindexter's publishing efforts. A young vagabond, Poindexter offers tips on how to travel safely and cheaply. He has set up the Crash Network, a list of people who will let you crash at their places as long as you open your pad to others. This friendly zine also treats readers to the editor's always-interesting travel diaries ($2 from 519 Castro St., No. 7, San Francisco, CA 94114).

Iron Feather Journal

IFJ is a computer hacker zine that offers how-to tips and contact names for hackers around the world. The publication also delves into other underground issues, including secret societies and sabotage. For the uninitiated, this is a trek through undiscovered and mysterious territory ($2 from P.O. Box 1905, Boulder, CO 80306).


One of the gentlest zines around, Opuntia is edited by a middle-aged tree cutter who chats with readers about his stamp-collecting interest and unusual goings-on at work. Although his life's not fodder for a made-for-TV movie, Editor Dale Speirs is able to turn daily doings into interesting reading ($1 from POB 6830, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 2E7).

Evil [R]

A gathering place for true-crime book fanatics, Evil [R] offers critical assessments of books and other materials on serial killers and crooks of many varieties. Editor Dan Kelly is a fan of mayhem with high standards. For example, he wrote in a recent isue that a set of serial killer trading cards simply wasn't up to snuff: "Misspellings, faulty grammar and downright erroneous facts abound. It's shameful!" Evil [R] succeeds in being obsessed, but not twisted ($1 from P.O. Box 476641, Chicago, IL 60647).

City Limits Gazette

Are there hidden messages in the popular and ever-so-wholesome Family Circus cartoon? This zine suggests there are, and its editors and readers closely monitor the meanings of the comic in a column called the "Bil Keane Watch." Why don't the utility poles have wires? Why does the ghost of the late Grandpa keep reappearing? Notice how Keane often draws pill-shaped split circles? The editors suggest that Keane wants to "remind us of what a bitter pill life actually is" ($2 from P.O. Box 390, McCleary, WA 98557).

Roller Sports Report

There are zines for even the most obscure sports, roller derby included. Editor Fred Argoff loves this sport and writes for others who share his passion. He packs each issue with trivia, gossip, scores, nostalgia and interviews ($3 from 1204 Avenue U, No. 1290, Brooklyn, NY 11229).

The Urine Nation News

This zine's slogan is "He who can protest and does not is an accomplice to the act." Thus, the editors are vocal about their opposition to drug testing in the workplace. They offer monthly reports on legal issues and controversies surrounding drug testing and other civil liberties issues ($2 from P.O. Box 2149, Roswell, GA 30077).

Sabot Times ($1 from 12345 Lake City Way N.E., Suite 211, Seattle, WA 98125).

Murder Can Be Fun ($1.50 from P.O. Box 640111, San Francisco, CA 94109).

Factsheet Five ($4 from P.O. Box 170099, San Francisco, CA 94117).

James Romenesko, a senior editor at Milwaukee magazine, publishes Obscure Publications, a monthly newsletter chronicling the zine scene.
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Title Annotation:amateur fanzine publications known as zines
Author:Romenesko, James
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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