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What We Have, We Share: Democratising Art in Zine Culture

I created this blog as a portfolio. That was the original goal. To have a place for my writing that wasn't just essays for uni. To write movie reviews and do blog challenges. I've done this in many iterations, making essentially the same blog over and over again. I made my first blog on Blogger, I want to say, around 2013, after reading about blogging in Shout magazine. I can't actually remember what it was called or what I put there because I deleted it out of embarrassment for my teenage writing which is a shame because it would have been nice to reflect on my previous work). From there, I posted poetry on YouTube, after being inspired by the online slam poetry community. I have since privated those videos because I think I have created things of much better quality since then. I write on Twitter and Tumblr from time to time, a form of micro-blogging that I have a love/hate relationship with. 
My point here isn't to show my plight as a writer but show the various ways that I have been allowed express my creativity, for free and with no bounds by any higher force. By becoming my own editor and creative coach, I have been able to write about whatever I want since puberty. For me, it was never really about others reading my work but expressing what I wanted to say. I make no money from this (though my Ko-fi is available for donations...), so I am purely doing this because I love writing. Which is not to say I never want to make money from this but that I never got into this with the idea that I could make a profit.

That brings me to zines. Whilst it is often decried that print is dead, sellers on Etsy and the punk scene know that making a zine and distributing it is one of the cheapest ways to get your voice out there. You want to make some art? Make a zine. You want to write your opinions on horror films? Make a zine. You really like a band? Make. A. Zine. I was listening to an episode from the podcast She's A Punk called (surprisingly) 'The Zine Episode' as research for this post and they asserted that people still do value flipping through a physical book. Blogging wasn't an end to zine production but rather an extension. Independent production is still alive and well. 

And I agree. As the Almost Educational podcast describes in their own episode about zines, the medium describes an independently made piece of literature, often made with a photocopier, with a small print run and made from other pieces of media, like magazine clippings and pages from books. They would be distributed between communities who enjoyed a similar subject and often be created by a singular person. They would often sell their works for a few quid and once they were gone, they were gone. There was often no digital copy because their heyday was the 80s and 90s, so the physical copy was the only copy.

A man is shown protesting. The text reads 'Homocore'
Homocore #2 (1988), created by Tom Jennings. Source: Queer Zine Archive

Like a zine, I make this myself. I use pictures from the internet in my posts. I post what I want to a very small audience. I have full creative control. I make this on my own schedule. And as stated above, I don't profit from this, and neither did many zinesters. Unfortunately, my internet legacy is going to be here after I am gone. Which is not to say that I have a massive impact but that even if I delete the more embarrassing posts from the places I've posted them, they can probably still be found somewhere.

When I began researching this topic, I wasn't sure what I was looking for. My fascination with independent media has only been recent and I fear I can come across as a bit judgmental. I choose to purchase from smaller creators and avoid that one website named after that one rainforest owned by that one billionaire named Jeff something as much as I can, but I don't want to project that onto other people. You do you. But it has to be said, the mediocre products pushed out by large corporations have me jaded about what it even means consume. Over the years, I have become angry in regards to injustice and this has pushed me further left. What that means is that capitalism makes me feel ill and I want it burned down. The fact that people can own products, intellectual property or even information is horrible. My move away from this has been motivated by the belief that the average person is more important than a billionaire and art should belong to the people. The people should have access to art and the ability to create. And that is what zines are all about.

To democratise a medium means to take away from the few who feel they are owed it and allow everyone to have access to it. Education and financial ability should mean nothing. Get some paper and pens. Create the thing. Photocopy it. Give it to your friends. Take it to a punk show and sell for a small profit. Anyone can do it. Everyone can do it, and that was the point. 
According to Stephen Duncombe, creating one's own material around a particular subject represented 'a radically democratic participatory ideal of what culture and society might be' and it was radical because the people making the zines did not need the 'approval of editors imposing standards of content and style'. Chelsea Lonsdale expands on this stating that it was wholly up to the writer to 'convince the reader to accept their thoughts and opinions using other means, such as self-disclosure, or aesthetic design'. 
Without the vetting by editors, what was left was often a collage of what could be thought of mistakes but eventually became part of the aesthetic. Susan E. Thomas highlights in particular that the deliberate 'cross outs' and 'cut offs' were signifiers of the artist 'perform[ing] on the page'. The fact that they were unpolished gave them a sense of authenticity, a radical way of publishing so different from the mainstream that it couldn't not be associated with punk, and as Thomas points out, it gave the audience a way to perform, similar to the musicians they were making the zines about in the first place. Melanie Ramshardan Bold says it best when she states that zine publishing turned 'passive consumers into active cultural producers'.

By creating a space for independent production, those who had never had felt heard by mainstream society were able to give a voice to that which had possibly never been spoken before. Within the zine scene, the margins were the centre. In the YouTube video 'Riot Grrrl Activism through Art and Zines', they discuss the misconception that many of the people creating the zines during the punk movement of the 80s and 90s were white, cis middle-class women, highlighting that for many, zines were the only access marginalised people would have to queer culture, literature about sex work, literature about being a person of colour in the punk scene, discussions about mental illness, fat activism and a range of other social issues. The documentary $100 and a T-shirt (2004) asserts that zines were a place where the individual could interact with the news and important events in a lexicon that was actually understandable, with the creators offering their opinions of these events often in opposition to white, capitalist patriarchy. In a sense, zines were the first place people would encounter alternative thinking before the internet if they did not have access to formal education (e.g. university literature). 
It is important to note that this was not specific to the UK and North America. In Christina Noriega's article about the zine culture in Latin America, she states that zines became a 'non-official record of history', going on to say that they not only preserved the 'aesthetics of a place in time' but that they became the 'only lasting remnants of a social, political, or cultural movement'. Another example is this is one I found in the Women on the Line podcast episode titled 'DIY Culture, Zines and Print Production', where in 1980s Indonesia, LGBT zines were produced and distributed at a time homosexuality would be persecuted.

A yellow background with the symbol for femininity and the black power fist. The text reads 'Cowgrrrl Ink' 'A zine for the sauciest and rowdiest feminist iconoclasts that think patriarchy and misogyny really suck'
Cowgrrrl Ink (1994), Creator Unknown. Source: Queer Zine Archive

I often think about who I would be if I didn't have access to the internet. There is a chance I would be virtually the same but feeling unbelievably alone because I wouldn't know of people who felt and thought like me. I relate to the experience of not seeing anyone like you and trying to consume art that maybe connects you with others. If I had stayed in the small village I grew up in and never found other people like me, I honestly believe I would be a deeply unhappy person. What zines offered before the creation and widespread use of the internet was interconnectedness. Bold praises the 'participatory nature' of zines that often allowed 'communities to come together and form a strong, collective identity'. Furthermore, what this became was a hobby that you sometimes were paid for. Your identity became your connection to others and you were under no obligation to monetise this.

In fact, what Duncombe argues is that 'the very idea of profiting from a zine [was] anathema to the underground, bringing with it charges of “selling out”'. The only reason to create was to do it, to make a tangible thing, bringing you closer to your labour than your day job would ever get you. To spend a long time creating art for very little profit and to continue doing it is a transgressive act under capitalism, what Lonsdale argues was 'anti-establishment by nature'. The documentary mentioned early does somewhat agree with this, stating that making zines was not about making money and even arguing that some kind of criminal activity had to be involved in the production of the zine, usually by breaking into an office or library to use their photocopier. But what many of the zinesters go on to say is that it is actually impossible to sell out from making zines because there is not money in it. When you are part of a subculture, many attributes of that culture only stay within the other people you interact with. Zines would be swapped and exchanged with other people who made zines. It was unlikely that you would be able to make a large profit because they were cheaply made and often made for fun. The only notion of selling out that the documentary cites is the idea of the corporate zine, often made by a big company, as they go against the ethos of indie publishing and distributing.

When looking at the modern climate, I hear where the documentary is coming from but they didn't have the foresight to know the horrors of late stage capitalism. Whilst the need to create a piece of art, like a zine or a mini comic, that challenges the status quo still exists amongst independent artists, these still need to profitable. Many artists now are freelance and have been hit hard by the pandemic, so whilst I imagine some of them would love say 'fuck the system' and give away what they make for next to nothing, the economic system we live under still insists that what they make has to be profitable. It says 'if your artistic endeavours are not profitable, then why are you be pursuing them?'
The term 'side hustle' has been used to describe a type of work you do outside your main job, something that can still make you money. A lot of the time, these are taken on because your day job doesn't pay enough to cover rent and bills, but some of the time they are taken on by artists who wish to share their art with people, who know that selling their art will not be enough to sustain any kind of lifestyle.

Zines, as well as mini comics, are very popular on sites like Etsy, an online seller that specialises in independent products, because they are relatively easy to produce and sell. An article written by Kathleen Davis praises the site for removing the hassle of starting a website and selling from scratch, 'offering its members exposure and support that for many would be otherwise difficult to find on their own’ at a ‘low cost of entry’. People who have skills they wish to make a small profit from are able to produce work and sell it through Etsy, removing the middleman of an editor and distributor, and receiving all the revenue from their sales. 
However, whilst I want to praise the site for a offering help independent creators, this comes with a big caveat. When you put all your eggs in one basket and give the power to one company to essentially form a monopoly in independent selling, it's going to rip a whole in that basket and all the eggs will end up on the floor. As I said, capitalism is the worst and Etsy exists under this system where it must compete for attention. Lauren Debter points out in her article in Forbes that Etsy requires its sellers 'to pay for advertisements on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and other platforms’ with the further cost incurred for the seller if someone clicks 'on an advertisement and ends up buying something within the next 30 days', highlighting that it's not 'necessarily optional'. She goes on to state the at in order to compete with Amazon, Etsy has been pushing its sellers to 'offer free shipping [...] putting pressure on small businesses to raise prices, absorb the cost or both.’  Whilst I can romanticise the idea of buying from an independent seller over a corporation, it's not perfect. I think the days are gone where people can just create for the sake of it.

But creating is human nature right? People are not going to stop doing it simply because it won't make them money, will they?

Various images of disabled people. The text reads 'The Adventures of a Mis/identified Queer Crip'
The Adventures of a Mis/identified Queer Crip (2015), created by Ashley Volion. Source: POC Zine Project
In researching this topic, listening to podcasts and watching documentaries, I began to make a prototype of what I would put in a zine. I just felt compelled to. I had a big stack of printer paper in the living room so I took about 8 sheets of paper and folded them in half to make a booklet. Then I began to plan, using the template of zines I had previously bought for myself: I knew that they had a note from the author, that they mixed between text and images and that they were made by hand. I decided to base it around horror films, planning out the different sections I would write. I got so into it that I even looked up printers and scanners on Ebay, just in case I actually wanted to start making it.
The people who create them were right though. It is the process that is more fun. Putting together art and articles about things you love is fun. What would not be fun is scanning, printing, setting up a shop, packaging and mailing out parcels. That sounds like a lot work. And you know what? I didn't even finish it. And I might never. But the fact that I could is really cool. I could just make something.

Duncombe documents how most media is produced for sake of money or prestige or public approval  but that zines are made out of love: 

'love of expression, love of sharing, love of communication. And in protest against a culture and society that offers little reward for such acts of love, zines are also created out of rage.’

When people are angry, they create and when they want to connect with others, they create. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown has changed a lot of people's minds about how we function. What are we outside of our jobs and what is the place of play in the adult world under a system that asks we make profit at all times? What is most radical about the production of zines is that it tears down the illusion that you have to be special to create a piece of art. You don't. We can connect on a human level with the desire to make something for the sake of maybe having a finished thing at the end. Of enjoying the process. Of experiencing labour that isn't soul crushing and isn't asking a lot from you. You can make it. And then, the rest is up to you.


Thank you for reading and hopefully enjoying this post. I made a short playlist of the videos I watched to aid this research, two of which I linked below. If you would like to watch them, I have left a link here. I would also recommend checking out the Queer Zine Archive Project and the POC Zine Project. I used some pictures from these two sources and they have down a great job of archiving the zines from history.


$100 and a T-shirt: A Documentary About Zines in the Northwest, dir. by Joe Biel and Phil Sano (2004)

Melanie Ramshardan Bold, ‘Why Diverse Zines Matter: A Case Study of the People of Color Zines Project’, Publishing Research Quarterly, 30 (2017), 215–226.

Kathleen Davis, ‘The 'Etsy Economy' and Changing the Way We Shop’, Entrepreneur, <[accessed 21 October 2020]

Lauren Debter, ‘Etsy’s Push To Compete With Amazon Leaves Sellers Squeezed By Rising Costs’, Forbes, <[accessed 21 October 2020]

'DIY Culture, Zines and Print Production', Women on the Line, <> [accessed 21 October 2020]

Stephen Duncombe, Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, (London: Verso, 1997).

Chelsea Lonsdale, ‘Engaging the “Othered”: Using Zines to Support Student Identities’, Language Arts Journal of Michigan, 30.2 (2015), 8-15.

Christina Noriega, ‘This Massive Zine Collection Is a History of Latin American Counterculture’, 

'Riot Grrrl Activism through Art and Zines | ALIEN SHE AT YBCA', Yerba Buena Center for the Arts,<> [accessed 21 October 2020]

Susan E. Thomas, ‘Value and Validity of Art Zines as an Art Form’, Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 28.2 (2009), 27-35.

Siobhan Woodrow, 'The Zine Episode', She's A Punk, <> [accessed 21 October 2020]

'The Zine Scene', Almost Educational, <> [accessed 21 October 2020]