Beyond the boundaries of mainstream publishing is an alternative world – an independent micro-economy replete with editors, artists, readers and dissemination networks. This is the world of fanzines – a self-publishing industry that operates “below critical radar”. Librarians, office workers, artists, musicians, students, journalists and other enthusiasts surreptitiously practice the production of these lo-fi items. The resulting publications rarely make an impression on the wider public consciousness, although there are a few notables that have achieved a mainstream crossover, for example British-produced The Chap and Butt (made in Amsterdam, London and New York).
Meanwhile, a growing community of like-minded individuals shares a desire to communicate with others. Whether as fans of celebrities (such as the UK’s well-established Exclusively Elvis for fans of the King) or as insatiable collectors of clip art (eg. Crap Hound from the US – an invaluable resource for any graphic designer), such amateur fan publications are forums for producers to share insights, interests and obsessions with their readership. They are publications every bit as diverse as their producers.
Conventions may be subverted
But what exactly is a fanzine? American science-fiction enthusiast Louis Russell Chauvenet first coined the term in 1940 to describe a ‘magazine for fans’ (he edited his own self-published fan magazine called Detours). The roots of fanzines can be traced back to early 19th-century ephemera including irregularly produced, non-commercial “little magazines”, which were spaces for experimental writing styles and featured relatively unknown literary figures in the US and UK. By the early 1930s, fan magazines had became mouthpieces for science fiction and comic book clubs in America and Britain, with copies distributed primarily among memberships. This allowed fans to sidestep the professional magazines (also referred to as “prozines”) in order to correspond directly with each other about their fan obsessions. More recently, the term “fanzine” has come to be defined as a do-it-yourself, amateur, independent, irregularly published production with a variable print run ranging anywhere from a few to a few hundred copies. The conventions of mainstream publishing and its established protocols of grammar, page layout, spelling, and punctuation may be subverted or ignored, and most fanzines use cheap production methods, such as photocopying, to keep the cover price down or make them available to their readers for free.
It was the short-lived punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue (1976-77), produced by Mark Perry, which became the model for music fanzines in the UK and beyond. Perry, founder of late 1970s band Alternative TV, took the title from the Ramones’ song “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”. His fanzine drew from the distinctive graphic language of earlier 1970s rock ’n’ roll fanzines such as Greg Shaw’s Who Put the Bomp! in the UK and Brian Hogg’s Bam Balam in Scotland. But Perry took this further and reflected the sense of urgency by developing an aesthetic involving indistinct photocopying, fuzzy photographs, swiftly and inaccurately typewritten texts (complete with mistakes) and cut-out-ransom-note lettering. This approach came to define a specific DIY attitude and aesthetic. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an expansion in the range of fanzine subject matter with numerous new fanzines emerging that reflected aspects of consumer and popular culture including sports, fashion, feminism, cycling, music, art and beer drinking. Advances in desktop publishing also meant that, for a while, the fanzine community saw a flurry of on activity, with the emergence electronic fanzines (e-zines) websites dedicated to fanzin distribution. (More recently, social networking sites such Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, have been used to disseminate information about fanzines.)
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By the turn of the millennium, it was possible to create fanzines in a variety of formats that could sometimes rival the quality of mainstream magazines. The square-bound Satélite Internacional (2002-03), from Portugal, featured illustration, comic strips and prose in a highly designed package. Other fanzines that took this route included Britain’s Headpress, about extreme film and transgressive culture. Founded in 1991 and still going strong today, it developed from a basic desktop-published format to glossy book form. Perhaps inevitably, recent years have seen a backlash against digital technologies, with fanzine producers making a feature of using hands-on production and binding techniques such as sewing, embroidery, printmaking and letterpress printing. There has also been an increase in fanzines that emphasise the “personal” in diary-like prose on topics relating to everything from do-it-yourself soap-making to wellbeing and community engagement.
This is hard-hitting and personal
Today, the “personal is political” is also a point of focus for fanzines. Fallopian Falafel: Eshet Chayil Zine, for example, is a pro-feminist, Jerusalem-based publication founded in 2007 by Hadass S Ben-Ari. Produced as ‘a free zone for expression by women’, it used well-known feminist symbol “Rosie the Riveter” in a defiant gesture on the cover image of its first issue. The picture has been modified to include, around Rosie’s arm, a set of tefillin, as worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayer. ‘I wanted a photo that brings together feminism and Judaism, and that picture seemed appropriate,’ says Ben-Ari. With articles such as “Reclaiming the F-word: Feminism”, this is hard-hitting feminism at its most personal.
What defines a fanzine today is perhaps less chaotic design and more the producer’s intention to communicate passions to like-minded individuals. As a result, many are morphing into scaled-down format versions of mainstream magazines, while still maintaining a decidedly personal and obsessive fanzine approach. This trend has been exemplified since 2009 by Fire & Knives, a print quarterly (there is no online version) for new writing about food, founded and edited by London-based journalist Tim Hayward and art directed by Rob Lowe (aka Supermundane). Lowe’s visual palette maintains a hand-made quality in the use of illustrations and the likes of article titles rendered in hand lettering. Now on its sixth issue and finding its own voice among other food magazines, this is obviously a publication written and produced by food lovers.
‘We gave a simple brief: write as an amateur about something you love’.
As Hayward explained in his editorial to the first issue: ‘We gave our writers a simple, one-line brief: write as an amateur, about something you love.’ It is this fanzine-like approach that has attracted not only a steady stream of new food writers, but also submissions from established journalists and British critics including Tom Parker Bowles and Matthew Fort.
Contributors are not paid. Or, at least not yet – Hayward has a system of payment planned for the time if/when the publication makes a profit. At the moment, the fanzine is financed by readers’ subscriptions and features no advertising – apart from retro ads for food, cookware and kitchen fittings. Hayward has commented that, ‘The idea of ad funding seemed a limiting strategy to me, and readers seemed happy to pay. So the idea of a totally subscription-based print object seemed an obvious route.’
An antidote to celebrity content
Fanzines have long been able to generate content from seemingly mundane aspects of our daily lives. Karen, for example, is a very successful current example – a UK fanzine about simplest and smallest of real life stories. Named after maker Karen Lubbock, the fanzine carries no advertisements and claims to be an antidote to the celebrity-driven content of today’s mainstream media. While Karen’s look consists of a simple, bold combination of photographs and typography, its downbeat nature and its focus on the minutiae of everyday life is what marks it out and makes it special. Pages feature photographs of everyday objects (slippers next to a door, details of light switches in a recently cleared-out flat), letters, and do-it-yourself “For Sale” advertisements as found in shop windows. In early issues, Lubbock reinforced the personal connection to her readership by signing each copy.
The relationship between fanzine maker and reader was key to Maximo Tuja’s Algo Sobre – a Spanish fanzine simply about people that the designer knew. Each issue was devoted to a friend and designed to let their personality to shine through. For example, his friend the DJ Meli-K was an email fanatic and so, to capture this, the issue was designed using only texts from her emails juxtaposed with self-portraits taken in different locations in Barcelona. It is here that Tuja is based – a city which, he says, is witnessing a ‘rebirth of the fanzine movement’.
Fanzines today exist in rude health both in print and online. As the mainstream media becomes more consolidated and corporate, fanzines remain a liberated space where anyone can exploit the freedom to play – and produce some of the most exciting print literature of the moment in the process!
The psychology of self-publishing
We all engage in a certain amount of self-publicity in our daily lives. While this tends to be localised and occurs among people with whom we interact from day-to-day, the internet has given us tools to extend this activity to a global scale if we choose. Through websites, blogging, micro-blogging (or ‘tweeting’) and online social networks we can reach out to as many people as the mainstream media. And while such tools can become extensions of our social lives, they have also enabled us to become publishers in the way we traditionally associated only with the major mass media. If self publicity in the form of alternative publishing has, courtesy of tools such as Facebook and Twitter, become widespread, its origins can be found in fanzines. Traditionally linked to subjects of personal, shared interest – such as a celebrity or public figure, a sports team, an entertainment genre or a social movement – they define specific communities and provide platforms for members to write about their focus of interest knowing that their words will be published and read.
Fanzines often have poor production standards, but to their producers and followers this is unimportant. What is critical is that they exist and place on record their observations and opinions about the one thing that may interest them above all else.
Engaging in the production of printed amateur publications can strengthen an individual’s sense of identity. It can also produce real-life social contacts. And, unlike with online self-publicity networks such as Facebook, a much tighter definition of ‘friend’ prevails.
Getting your name in a fanzine can further cement relationships with others while granting contributors a degree of social status that may be absent in other parts of their lives. They also gain a status – be it ‘publisher’ or ‘author’ – that would be denied them in the mainstream media, where gatekeepers such as editors and art directors maintain these platforms as the preserve of professionals.
For many self-publishers, keeping it small is important – going large may be seen as joining the mainstream. Offline self-publishing, unlike its online counterpart, is not about scale but about quality of relationships. It is alternative publishing performed by alternative groups that seek to retain their non-conformist distinctiveness.
Expanding the membership too far could reduce the sense of camaraderie and broaden the range of opinions introduced. Self-publishing is as much about meeting key social needs as it is about putting viewpoints in the public domain. Although differences of opinion can emerge, these occur within a tolerable range and, for the large part, these self-publishers seek to have their own views (and through this their own identity) confirmed by others who think like they do.
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