A zine is an independent publication produced by an individual or collective on a low budget and distributed on a small scale primarily for personal, artistic, or social aims rather than for profit. Because zine communities arise outside of mainstream media systems, they represent ways in which people understand and engage with media that diverge from consumer capitalism. While there is some question as to whether modern self-publishing can foster social change, scholars (as well as zine producers themselves) have observed that many common practices of zine culture are guided by democratic ideals of expression, inclusion, and participation.
The term “zine,” an abbreviation of fanzine (itself a contraction of fan magazine), refers to printed work typified by idiosyncratic themes and noncommercial motives. Individual zines might cover a wide range of subjects – music, politics, culture, sex, travel, work – or focus on an esoteric topic such as thrift shopping, baseball nostalgia, conspicuous consumption, or eight-track tapes. Popular articles often discuss publishers’ daily lives and comment seriously or humorously on social trends, offering perspectives from anarchists, obese women, feminists, HIV-positive men, senior citizens, and other underrepresented groups. Well-known zine titles include Ben is Dead, Bunnyhop, Chickfactor, Cometbus, Dishwasher, Fifth Estate, Giant Robot, Hip Mama, Maximumrocknroll, the Realist, Rollerderby, and Temp Slave.
Some zine creators are accomplished writers and designers with a professional attitude toward publishing, while others take an amateur approach. Zine production techniques range from low-tech (hand-writing, typewriters, cut-and-paste, office paper) to sophisticated (desktop publishing, offset printing, binding, specialty stock). Many zines are photocopied, folded, and saddle-stapled as a booklet. Titles such as the Baffler and Bust, rooted in the zine movement, physically resemble traditional journals and magazines. With a few exceptions, zines are made in small quantities on an irregular schedule, sold and traded through local venues and mail order, and publicized through word of mouth and independent publications.
Zine producers situate themselves in the tradition of American revolutionaries who printed Common Sense and Poor Richard’s Almanack, of Dada and surreal artists who self-published manifestoes in the early twentieth century, and of the countercultural press that developed in the 1960s. The first zines appeared in the United States in the 1930s when science-fiction enthusiasts mimeographed original stories along with readers’ letters and addresses, which encouraged fan networks to develop. Several influential, long-running zines grew out of the 1970s punk-rock scene that glorified do-it-yourself, or “DIY,” culture.
In the early 1990s, zines emerged in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain as a distinct cultural form. Their presence and popularity exploded due to the convergence of several favorable factors. Production became cheaper and easier as desktop computers and copy machines proliferated. Many young people unfulfilled by temporary or parttime employment devoted time and energy to such projects. The Riot Grrrl movement linking feminism, music, and politics also encouraged DIY publishing as a means of empowerment. Zine editors and readers (often the same people) connected with each other through Factsheet Five, a comprehensive guide that reviewed and promoted zines through the 1980s and 1990s. Book retailers became interested in distributing zine titles, and national news media spotlighted them. While underground circulation is difficult to determine, estimates place the number of zines being published in the United States between 10,000 and 50,000, with a total audience in the millions.
The print phenomenon of zines boomed prior to mass adoption of the Internet in the late 1990s, when e-zines (electronic magazines, a format akin to web pages and blogs) emerged. Some online publications – for example, BoingBoing.net or Pitchfork.com – sprang from the same underground community that produces print zines. The term “e-zine” denotes the technological form of a publication and does not necessarily connote the independent context of production associated with zines.
Communication scholars have explored the roles zines play in sub-cultural communities and the reasons for which people publish their own social messages. For instance, Duncombe (1997) describes how zines fostered oppositional identities, utopian goals, and alternative practices without challenging or changing mainstream culture. Other work shows how gay men published zines that celebrated their lifestyle and marginal status during the early AIDS crisis (Long 2000; Brouwer 2005).
Several studies focused on how self-publishers responded to the Internet’s emergence as a medium for producing and distributing zines. Smith (1999) argued that online fanzines can build and maintain sub-cultural communities, transcending geography. Cresser et al. (2001) discussed how female authors of e-zines created a space for political discussion online that neither marginalizes nor liberates women and girls. Rauch (2004) concluded that many editors of printed and handmade zines are ambivalent toward web publishing because they derive pleasure from the social interaction inherent in physical circulation.
A sign of zines’ enduring significance is that major institutions such as Barnard College Library, the New York State Library, and the Salt Lake City Library have built diverse zine collections to secure these primary source materials and document popular culture (Bartel 2004).
- Bartel, J. (2004). From A to zine: Building a winning zine collection in your library. Chicago: American Library Association.
- Brouwer, D. C. (2005). Counterpublicity and corporeality in HIV/AIDS zines. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 22, 351–371.
- Cresser, F., Gunn, L., & Balme, H. (2001). Women’s experiences of online e-zine publication. Media, Culture and Society, 23, 457–473.
- Duncombe, S. (1997). Notes from underground: Zines and the politics of alternative culture. New York: Verso.
- Friedman, R. S. (1997). The Factsheet Five zine reader: The best writing from the underground world of zines. New York: Three Rivers Press.
- Gunderloy, M., & Janice, C. G. (1992). The world of zines: A guide to the independent magazine revolution. New York: Penguin.
- Long, T. L. (2000). Plague of pariahs: AIDS zines and the rhetoric of transgression. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 24, 355–356.
- Rauch, J. (2004). Hands-on communication: Zine circulation rituals and the interactive limitations of web self-publishing. Popular Communication, 2, 153–169.
- Smith, M. J. (1999). Strands in the web: Community-building strategies in online fanzines. Journal of Popular Culture, 33, 87–99.
- Vale, V. (ed.) (1996). Zines! Vol. 1: Incendiary interviews with independent publishers. San Francisco: RE/Search.
- Wright, F. A. (2001). From zines to ezines: Electronic publishing and the literary underground. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Kent State University.