Columns

The counterculture zine

Derek Chezzi November 20 2000
Columns

The counterculture zine

Derek Chezzi November 20 2000

The counterculture zine

Columns

Derek Chezzi

A book and comic shop called The Beguiling is a counterculture respite from the onslaught of media giants. Independently owned, it’s nestled a few feet from Toronto’s bustling Bloor Street, between the huge kitsch-filled Honest Ed’s department store and the Annex neighbourhood, known for its hundred-year-old architecture and often left-leaning politico inhabitants. Browse the store’s two floors, and you’ll find comics by fringe artists displayed as prominently as any Superman comic. There are books by Marquis de Sade, magazines about B-film starlettes, and manga, a Japanese comic enjoyed by as many adults as children. It’s also a great place to find dozens upon dozens of zines by local artists and writers.

Zines are sort of a mini-magazine —self-produced, amateur publications on nearly any topic imaginable from political rants to band fanzines to comic strips with poetry. They’re the print equivalent of a garage band’s home recording, crafted with passion and a noticeable sense of uniqueness. Some have covers made of sandpaper while others are handpainted. But most are cheaply produced photocopies—sometimes run off on a photocopier at work when no one’s looking. At that level, they usually sell for 50 cents each. Whatever their content and form, zines are rooted in a philosophy of creation over mindless mass consumption.

Peter Birkemoe, co-owner of The Beguiling, buys his zines mainly from local talent. “There are really only a handful of books that make any money for me,” he says. For the most part, he takes books on consignment from

artists who walk through the door peddling product. “The rest I display as a service to the makers who are also my clientele.” Birkemoe says that, for the most part, zinesters are more interested in getting their books into the hands of readers than making a buck. “Some don’t even come back to pick up their money and old issues.”

Being heard is the lesson to be learned from the zine scene. Living in the din of media from newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and the Internet, it’s easy to become lost. Zine makers want to break out, to say something the corporate-owned media doesn’t. “I know a lot of people who deliberately search out something like zines to get a breath of fresh air,” says Emily Pohl-Weary, co-editor of Kiss Machine, an arts, culture

and politics zine. She put out her first zine, We Have Lives, six years ago to pop the Gen-X slacker stereotype.

At their best, zines bring together elements of photography, writing and tactile art in a grassroots response to media domination and a consumer society. “When you’re making your own zine, you get to control everything,” says Pohl-Weary. “You get to decide the message.”

While definitely not the cultural mainstream, zines may not be relegated to the back corners for long: an economy hungry for the youth market is always hunting for ways to capture new customers. Today, you can buy zines at the Americanbased Tower Record chain store, which has infiltrated the Canadian retail scene. CBC televisions new series Our Hero follows a character who publishes her own zine. And Canzine, the largest zine fair in Canada, saw its best attendance yet, when nearly 1,000 people turned out last month for the fifth annual event.

Zinesters walk a difficult line between an anti-corporate, socially critical ethos and the desire to be recognized for their effort. Despite rants against celebrity culture and giant entertainment companies, zinesters must participate to some degree in the very system they abhor if they want their voice heard. In fact, the zine scene already has its own celebrities. There’s Jim Munroe, a Toronto-based zinester and author who self-published Angry Young Spaceman, his second novel, after a bad experience with publishing house HarperCollins. His Web site, www.nomediakings.com, posts tips on do-it-yourself book publishing. There’s Ninjalicious who puts out the popular Infiltration {www.infiltration.orfi. And there are professional artists who continue to publish zines on the side. It’s what you do with the fame that ultimately counts. For the editors of Kiss Machine, that means building the small publication up to the next level on its way to many zinesters’ dream: a magazine carried on newsstands across the country. “The next issue will have a colour cover, we’re hoping, and well get ads,” says Pohl-Weary. “Eventually, it will be sort of an arts and culture magazine. Not necessarily glossy, but one that gets more widely distributed than a zine.” Not the route you’d necessarily expect from a posse of countercultural revolutionaries. Then again, this is a whole new decade.