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.