Two French couchsurfers stayed at my house a few weeks ago, and left me with a rare gift: a zine (pronounced “zeen”) called Les Enfants Francais that they had made during their time in Halifax. It is a beautiful 14-page black-and-white piece of art, partly in French and partly in English. It contains poetry, drawings, rants, and stories, and it is even interactive; on the last page is a blank space that says, “act on this page.”
This is one example of what one young couple did with their zine. However, zines can come in many forms and many topics. A zine is an amateur, self-published document, usually photocopied, and distributed through friends and – in the olden days – by mail order. The whole idea is that zines are a form of self-expression, so by their very nature there are essentially no set rules. One unspoken rule is that they are not a profit-driven medium; zines are sold “at cost” because the idea is for them to be read by as many people as possible.
In the mid 90s, zines were ever-increasing in popularity, and may someday have even challenged traditional media. This art form’s decentralized and creative approach to the dissemination of thoughts and ideas was unique at the time, allowing anyone to broadcast him-or-herself to the world in print.
At the height of zine culture’s popularity, disaster struck. More and more houses were wired to the Internet; suddenly, zines were not the only way to “Broadcast Yourself” – this was the dawn of the YouTube generation, and zines were quickly driven obsolete. By 1998, the already-subterranean medium was driven further underground.
YouTube is, in a way, almost like a zine library: everyone can contribute, (from each according to his ability, right?) resulting in a diversity of topics that collectively make up something of an encyclopedia of human procrastination. There are videos on just about anything that can be filmed, and some on things that shouldn’t be.
What is lacking, however, is the tangible beauty of a zine. You can’t flip through the pages of that video of the girl getting knocked over by a closet door, and you can’t keep the Numa Numa Guy in your keepsakes shoebox. In the same way that emails can never really replace letters, a YouTube video or channel is unquestionably not the same thing as a zine.
At the same time as the Internet may be taking away from zine culture, it is also giving it a new home. Sites like wemakezines.com and brokenpencil.com are communities for zine makers (known as “zinesters”), where people can exchange zines, post reviews, find zine libraries in their communities and set up events. A zine without a community is like a message in a leaky bottle; no one’s going to read it.
The Internet is doing for zines what it has done for so many fringe groups, by giving people with common interests a place to find one another.