Earlier this month, several thousand people roamed over two floors of a Columbia College building for the 4th annual Chicago Zine Fest. Moving through the youthful crowd was Sarah Wenzel, bibliographer for Literatures of Europe and the Americas at the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library.
Wenzel has been a zine fan since 2000. She gravitated to Quimby's, the North Avenue bookstore that is an unofficial clubhouse for zine lovers, soon after arriving in Chicago in 2007.
Quimby's philosophy, according to store manager Liz Mason, is to “sell hard-to-find, weird, aberrant, saucy or lowbrow printed matter.” Wenzel started the Regenstein Library's Chicago zine collection in 2010. She curated a show of 79 zines in its Special Collections Gallery titled, “My Life is an Open Book: DIY Autobiography,” which runs through April 13.
We met in the gallery for this edited exchange on zine culture and creativity.
Q: What makes a zine?
A: Zines distinguish themselves by being handmade. To me, that's the key distinction. They are usually hand-folded, maybe hand-sewn. That's the easiest way to define them. Otherwise, they come in all shapes and sizes. The most important part is that they are self-published and have the hand touch somehow.
Q: Is there a zine scene?
A: Well, I think there are groups of people who meet in various locations. Spudnik Press, which helps people self-publish, is going to be a hub. Quimby's itself is a hub. The zine fest is a hub. The new CAKE (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo) is establishing itself.
Q: Give me a sense of the history of zines and their antecedants.
A: Well, there's more than just one antecedant. There's the whole idea of autobiography, which really goes back to Montaigne. We have him in the exhibit because of his "Essays" which are the first printed autobiography in the Western canon. And Montaigne was the first author to self-publish while he was still alive.
Q: Let's bring the story up to the 20th century.
A: There's the name, Zine, which comes from science fiction fanzines of the early 1940s and '50s. These enabled science fiction fans to find each other and write what today we call "fanfic," of which "Fifty Shades of Grey" is a good example. That started out as fan fiction written off of the Twilight novels.
Q: Most historical accounts locate zines in the counterculture. What was the defining impetus at the time?
A: In the '70s, what we call zines started taking their place as a genre. It took root as an outsider medium that came out of comics (Art Spiegelman, R. Crumb), the feminist press movement and underground rock movement. In the '80s and early '90s, punk rock really seized zines as their means of communication.
It wasn't just rock but the whole political and social moment that punk stood for in terms of anarchy, alienation from society. There was a large homosexual, lesbian, queer component as well.
Q: So in the 1970s, the main topics of zines were music, politics and autobiography?
A: I would add social issues.
Q: "Jane," one of the zines on display in the exhibit, looks quite political.
A: "Jane" was originally reproduced in 1975 and it documents the clandestine abortion services in Chicago during those years. We included it in the show because it relates to women's issues right now. We wanted to contrast it with the purely personal zines.
Q: What was the next stage?
A: The '90s were the onset of the Riot Grrrl movement within punk culture. They were women who agreed with the punk aesthetic and political positions but were very upset with the very misogynistic aspect of much of punk culture.
Q: Since 2000, are zines concerned more with lifestyle and less political themes?
A: It's not that they're less politically inclined. I think they are less an immediate response to a crisis. My example has been Occupy Wall Street. It's not that there's no zines about Occupy, but that movement was created, maintained and held together by social media, not by underground print media.
Q: The zines you've chosen are beautifully mounted and artistically appealing. Even if a zinester writes about ugly issues, she says it so attractively that you are held spellbound.
A: We have to give credit to the authors who can write or arrange text on a page in such a way which goes back to the dawn of printing and even manuscript writing, since many of these are written by hand. These authors are able to create works the way great authors have always been able to really draw you into their text and their subject.
Q: The advent of new technology has made it possible for zines to go beyond the book format. One even documents a long CTA ride in 28 panels?
A: This is the zine we use to talk about shifting boundaries that defy imposed categories. Daniel Resner completed a 15-hour trip throughout the entire system. His zine extends over five feet. It charts the entire CTA grid with a map and a blow-by-blow, station-by-station account. And, online, he has a recording of all the sounds — the doors opening and announcements of all the stops — which was his audio proof that he'd done this marathon trip.
Q: Why does the exhibit focus mainly on women's zines?
A: Every exhibit needs a focus. One of ours was autobiography. That's an area of interest on campus and ties into several classes like Gender Studies. Once you put autobiography and self-publishing together, women's self-publishing comes to mind as a focus because, for many women until relatively recently, that has been the only method they had for writing their life stories.
Q: Two women merit a full case, Marian Runk and Corinne Mucha. Are these, in your opinion, stars of the exhibition?
A: I find their work incredibly appealing. They've been doing zines for a long time and I find it very interesting to see how their work has evolved over time, how it changes according to the type of zine they are creating.
I think (Runk is) one of the zinesters who manages to convey very much in very little, both image and text. As she says, it's essentially a process of simplification and reduction. And that really appeals to me. The words are few but they convey so much in terms of emotion and character.
Q: Mucha has a way of dealing with her personal obsessions hilariously.
A: Yes, one of my favorites is "The House of Worry" where she talks about "How one day, I became so rich that I built a monument to house all my worries. It is tightly guarded so my worries do not escape." And Mucha writes, "Each type of worry is given its own floor."
Q: How did the collection get started?
I went to my first Chicago Zine Fest three years ago and I was completely overwhelmed. I thought "What a terrific opportunity to collect something that really relates in literature to the city."
Q: So, is Chicago a leader in zine culture?
A: I don't think zines have leaders. It is a major hub, along with New York and Los Angeles, Seattle and Milwaukee.
Q: Why should the University of Chicago collect such outsider, even transgressive, material?
A; Because it's an important part of what makes Chicago Chicago right now. Part of our mission is to collect material that scholars want to study now, to collect what's happening in the city. It's like taking a core sample the way a geologist would do to learn what Chicago culture was at this particular moment. We see zines as particularly important to Chicago history. What may be seen as ephemeral or outsider now is often later seen as a precious window into the past.
Q: How large is the collection?
A: More than 400 but we haven't gotten our regular, quarterly shipment from Quimby's yet. Shipments average about 100. Chicago people are prolific. Quimby's sends any zines of the Chicago zine scene writ large, meaning created here or by and about people who have a relationship with the city.
Q: Early zines had titles like "Cop Porn" and fetish zines with people dressed in latex. Do you still see that outrageousness today?
A: Yeah, if you go to Quimby's, there's even a whole erotica section.
Q: But zines have mushroomed topsy-turvy with more lifestyle topics, like craft beer brewing, food or pets. They seem to have lost their edge.
A: No, they may be less timely perhaps but that doesn't mean they are any less anarchist or political. While the show is mostly autobiographical zines, what happens in people's lives is often political. They still have an edge.
Q: Do you feel zines have made some contribution to changing cultural attitudes by addressing once taboo topics like LGBT, poor body image and fluid gender identity?
A: I think they've helped the people who wrote them feel more comfortable and helped others feel better about those situations. They've been like a stone in the lake that ripples out.
Q: What do you personally find most fascinating about zines?
A: Well, professionally, they fascinate me because they are a stage of literature that we don't get to see when we look at a fully-edited, published book. Those have been refined by the editorial process with various people selecting the typesetting, binding and cover. With a zine, it's one person's aesthetic that goes into all of that. And, personally, they feel alive to me.
Tom Mullaney is a freelance journalist who has written for the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and Chicago magazine. He edits an arts blog at ArtsandAbout.com.
For details on "My Life is an Open Book," which runs through April 13, or the University of Chicago zine collection, visit lib.uchicago.edu.