“It’s really hard to define what a zine is,” says Stefanie Hilles, Arts and Humanities Librarian at the Miami University Wertz Art and Architecture Library. “A lot of books actually trace zine history back to The Comet,” a sci-fi fanzine first printed in the United States in the 1930s.
“However, I think there’s some really good arguments to be made that zines, or something like zines, have actually been around since the beginning of the printing press.” Hilles says that nearly all zines share at least two qualities: they’re counter-cultural and self-published. Documents like Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense were both zines in that sense. They challenged the religious and political status quo with forbidden, yet popular, ideas and they were widely and cheaply published.
It might be strange to compare the Ninety-five Theses with 30s-era sci-fi fan correspondence, but all of these “zines” were ahead of their time. The Theses, well, broke the Christian church in two, and fan magazines like The Comet presaged fan fiction and sci-fi internet forum culture, a predominant force in movies now for decades. Generations of thinkers, musicians, designers and artists inspired new artistic movements by first writing for or reading zines. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was first published as a Beat chapbook. The punkzine aesthetic can still be seen on album covers today. And third wave feminism worked its way into the public consciousness by way of riot grrl zines and music, eventually giving way to “girl power” pop music in the mid-90s. Zines predict the future. If you read something in a zine today, you’ll find it everywhere in 10 years.
The internet has expanded zines’ reach, making it easier than ever to distribute and create zines. Of course, personal blogs and social media have taken some zine real estate. Like zines, blogs and social media give individual makers the ability to quickly and cheaply spread thoughts on whatever obscure niche they’re interested in. Hilles applauds the internet’s expansion of zine and blog culture — archive.org has over 12,000 available for download — but she says she’ll still make tangible, paper zines herself.
“I can’t draw at all! But I can cut and paste really well. I don’t know how to run Photoshop, but I can operate a pair of scissors. There’s something really democratic about zines in that way — you don’t necessarily have to have a lot of artistic talent to get a really great product from a hard copy zine.”
You can make your own zines, learn more about zine history and peruse some of Hilles’s favorite zines at Cincinnati Mini Maker Faire on September 15 and 16 at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds. You can also read more about zines at the Miami University Libraries blog.