The Rise & Fall of Zines

Daniel Melin

In the late eighties and early nineties, a movement spread across America. Thousands of people pulled all-nighters cutting and pasting materials out of books and magazines, making countless copies, and sending them out all over the country. They worked diligently to write about their lives and interests, from punk rock and politics to lame jobs and boredom. It was a wide and greatly varied movement that sought to personalize publication in a way that had never been done before. It was the movement of zines.

Although now largely forgotten, zines were a key component of an American counterculture. Equal parts self-expression, political statements and works of art, zines were the creation of disaffected youth, shy outsiders, and all manner of misfits, dissidents and idealists. But what were they? From their birth in the punk movement, to their demise in the nineties, zines were the voice of an alternative, independent culture. While they were ultimately subsumed and destroyed by the structures they rebelled against, they continue to be a fascinating source of self-expression, dissidence and outsider art.

As a form of communication, the roots of zines began with independently produced science fiction magazines of the 1930s which would come to be known as fanzines. The fanzines came directly from Amazing Stories, as it was the first publication to feature science fiction stories. Its real innovation wasn’t the content of the stories, but the publishing letters of readers that critiqued, discussed and debated the science of previous issues’ stories. Along with these letters, addresses of the people that wrote them were published which lead to fans of the magazine communicating directly with each other instead of using the source magazine to talk to each other. From there it was only a short time before they began to produce their own fanzines featuring original work. These science fiction fanzines broke from the conventions of mass produced magazines in several ways.  First, they were made for and by fans of science fiction, making the consumer and producer one and the same. Secondly, they were fashioned in order to directly challenge the mainstream offerings of science fiction. Thirdly, they existed outside the realm of commercial science fiction.

While science fiction made up the bulk of fanzines, this changed with the emergence of the punk rock movement. Because mainstream media typically ignored or spoke negatively about punk and its culture zines quickly became an essential form of communication of their culture. Furthermore, punk culture took pride in being self-made and in challenging society. This marginalization from both inside and out forced punk culture to manufacture itself. From this came one of the most important pieces of punk ideology; DIY (do-it-yourself). Since the mainstream didn’t represent punks they did it themselves by starting their own record labels, managing their own bands and writing their own record reviews.  According to indie culture historian Kaya Oakes, “zines were the literary version of the lyrical and musical messages being sent out by bands in the eighties and early nineties.” Even the name “punk” as a classifier for the culture can at least be partially attributed to the zine Punk, which was published in 1976. The punk zine was and is one of, if not the, largest genre of zine.

From there the zine both spread out from being about punk and became more personalized and took on all manner of subjects. They were now a part of a larger culture of outsiders of many forms; political, personal and cultural. A multitude of topics had zines dedicated to them, one of the largest being perzines, short for personal zine. These typically contained the personal stories, opinions and rants of individual people instead of being based around a subculture. At this point the zine became a means of communication for individuals as well as groups. In order to organize them better for people who shared his interest, Mike Gunderloy started Factsheet Five in May of 1982. The zine consisted of short reviews of zines and was traded freely in exchange for other zines. It quickly grew by leaps and bounds, and was widely regarded as the largest database of information on zines and a hub for zinesters to connect with each other. Although it was initially a small endeavor, Issue 44, published in 1991 and the last under Gunderloy’s editorship, had over 1200 zine reviews.

Another factor in the rise of the zine was the riot grrrl subculture, which was a feminist movement largely spearheaded by punk bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, and Huggy bear. The movement started in the early nineties and like punk before it, also took its name from a zine. The riot grrrl movement was a grassroots feminist movement that used zines as a way for young feminists to express themselves out. Although riot grrrl zines were primarily a response to punk, their zines went beyond music and covered nearly every topic concerning women. Zine authorship was then extended towards women and brought attention to the issues they faced in the underground. This gave women equal rank with men in punk rock and, by extension, zine writing and brought more female writers and participants to the medium. They also broke from the mainstream mold of women’s magazines that portrayed women as apolitical and always in favor of popular culture.

Zines would not always remain an entirely underground enterprise. By the mid-nineties a number of news outlets had done stories on zines, and “alternative” culture had gone mainstream to the point that what was once “alternative” was now the new mainstream. Corporations sought to capture the attention of the new youth culture that was on the rise. One way they did so was by appropriating zines to their purposes; Time-Warner and Urban Outfitters being notable examples. Kaya Oakes claims that the independent culture of zines, “like punk and many other subcultures before it, has been branded by corporate culture”. This coupled with the development of the internet, which provided a cheaper, easier, and faster way to spread ideas, essentially ended the zine movement in the mid to late nineties.

The excitement and energy of the zine movement was not enough to sustain through the corporate world’s appropriation of alternative culture. Both the hopes and shortcomings of the zine movement are made clear in Cometbus #34:

It seems to me that there’s so much exciting stuff going on right now, but we’re missing out on some simple way to tie it all together. It seems like in ten years we will look back on all we had and wonder why we didn’t take it to the next logical step. In ten years we’ll understand exactly what it is we are doing now, the direction it’s headed, and the ways it could have been shaped and sharpened so that we could work together and have the maximum effect, the most passion and creative expression and fun. But I don’t want to wait ten years to figure out what could have been.

But personal publication does not end with zines. Because of the proliferation of the internet, more people are now writing and sharing their own writing, art and other creations without any intention of making a profit from their works. Still, unlike zine creators who created their own form, blog writers can only create the content of their blogs. Each blog will look more or less like every other blog on the same website and even between different hosting sites there is little difference in layout and aesthetics.  A blogger also has to play by the rules of the website he or she writes under and if he does not the content can be taken down. Furthermore, while a blogger may not be creating in order to make money, blog-hosting sites certainly are maintained with the intention of selling advertising space. Each blog becomes a new place for advertisement where the blogger has no say of what company is advertising on his blog. As such, they are a different form of expression from explicitly not-for-profit zines even though they may cover similar areas of interest.

The Economics of Zines

The anger of zine creators largely has its roots in economic dissatisfaction. By and large zines came from writers who were white and form middle class backgrounds. Many were college educated or otherwise well read.  Yet when it came time for them to enter the work force, they found it very different from their expectations. The myth that working hard and getting educated will inevitably lead to success was proving to be false in the late eighties and early nineties for a substantial number of young people. The eighties were largely a period of economic growth and political stability, yet much of the gains went to companies on the top of the economic ladder, not young people entering the workforce for the first time. By the end of the Reagan administration upward mobility had lessened and in the early nineties recession hit, rendering more intelligent, hardworking young people disenchanted. As a result, young people quit the system in which they were raised. The slacker was born.

In order to combat this, young people often purposefully sought under/unemployment. They were known as slackers, and their culture was based on refusing employment. R. Seth Friedman, second editor of Factsheet 5, said in his zine Food for Thought, “I was talking to my friend Bob, and we agreed that we are both happier when we’re unemployed, broke, and hungry... The only things that money seemed to provide was the ability to buy things and eat dinner in fancy restaurants”. The uniting idea behind slacker culture was that it was better to be broke and happy, than stressed, overworked, exploited, and have money. While the slacker ethos may have first been expressed in zines, it would soon spread to other forms of expression. Perhaps the most famous and largely responsible for the term “slacker” naming the culture, is Richard Linklater’s film Slacker.  A character states the slacker way of life bluntly: “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it.”

Still, even slackers had their struggles with work. Perhaps no zine tackles the struggle of meaningless employment as well as Temp Slave. In his introduction to Best of Temp Slave, founder Jeff Kelly states that “America, one of the world’s richest countries, has decided that the social pact between employer and employee is no longer relevant”. In his view, the bosses and managers held all of the power and the lower workers could do little to combat it. In the early nineties, a recession hit and a new wave of college graduates were forced to work as temporary workers, or temps, in order to survive. As temps, they were also paid less and held less power than full time workers. Temp Slave was written at a time when temp agencies were booming and became the outlet for a generation of people who found themselves working dead-end, often meaningless, and always unstable employment. According to Kelly, “The zine succeeded because, like the temp agencies, it filled a void for the kind of working people who were frustrated enough to put into words their frustration with their work lives”. 

Culture and Zines

Zines were not only the result of youth not having the upward mobility of their parents, but also products of political difference. The politics of the eighties were, as shown by the runaway victory of Reagan in the 1984 election, heavily conservative. Zines, with their roots in punk rock, were often on the opposite end of the political spectrum. The Reagan administration’s platforms such as conservative values, the war on drugs and build-up of the military, often upset and infuriated radical youth. Furthermore, zinesters of the late 1980s and onwards would typically been either born or raised in a post-Vietnam, Cold War America. This was a time filled with political confusion and economic troubles unlike anything since the Great Depression. The Cold War constantly loomed overhead with its potential to end all human life at any moment. They were the first generation raised in a climate of both national and personal failure and angst which lead many, especially outsiders like punks, to varying states of pessimism.

In particular, those who thought of themselves as social exiles turned to zines as a way to find community amongst each other. Perhaps the best example of this comes from Pathetic Life. He describes himself as “a fat balding middle aged fart with chronic bad breath, little money, few possessions, and lots of disgusting habits... Now I have few if any friends, and barely the funds to hover a week from homelessness”. He is happy with his outsider, “loser” status, but recognizes that it is only through zines that he can express himself. Someone as alone as him understands the benefits of communication through zines; “In person, why would I mention that I piss in my sink, that I’ve rejected Jesus as my personal fairy tale, that I’m not proud to be an American, or that I’m wearing the same underwear I wore yesterday?”

As zines proliferated, more and more subcultures began to use zines as a means of communication. One excellent example is the zine Diseased Pariah News, a zine about being homosexual and HIV positive. The title asserts the state of double-exclusion; first, they are outsiders in mainstream culture because they are homosexual, and secondly they are outsiders in homosexual subculture by being HIV+. Through zines, they were able to form a network between each other and form some sort of unity.

Often times, zines were created with the primary intention of empowering individuals to take on larger societal issues. Marilyn Wann, the creator of Fat!So?, a zine about size and weight issues, was started because she feared that “my silence would indicate that I agreed with how I was being treated”. The mistreatment by dominant culture also explains the massive amount of political zines. Political zinesters felt that they lived in a country that did not represent them or their interests, so they manufactured their own tracts of dissidence. This lead to one of the trademarks of zines: reclaiming words that had negative connotations in order to render them ineffective as derogatory. Some zines, such as Fat!So?, Diseased Pariah News, and Bitch, did so in their titles in order to make a statement that those words could no longer be used against them. Derogatory words and statements were used by zinesters as signifiers and identifying terms instead of insults. In doing so their zines carried their own subcultural language.

In a society where advertisements and marketing are omnipresent, zinesters took the materials of their society and pieced them together to make both art and political statements. Advertisements, famous pictures and text were found and clipped out of magazines, books and newspapers in order to make a new statement with pre-produced objects. This appropriation results in critical pastiche which cultural critic Frederic Jameson terms “speech in a dead language.” In zines, nothing was sacred from being used in pastiche; for example, one image from the zine Farm Pulp uses Eddie Adams’ famous image of a Vietcong execution by replacing the gun with a hair dryer, and adding the slogan “Anyone can throw a bomb, but it takes great skill to make salami.” Included is a fake order form, which satirizes the culture industry’s ability to reduce anything to a product. This fake product also has a new title: “Cute as a Button,” which even further warps the original picture.

This is not to say that zinesters were unaware that they had limitations. In the extremely self-aware world of zines, this question had been asked and answered. In issue five of Fucksheet Five, the question is asked:
“But isn’t it more likely that zines are really, at absolute best, a very shallow form of actualization? Composed and produced with the conniving convenience of modern technological devices, printed and photocopied in corporate zones, distributed through state post offices and commercial venues, how rebellious could this or any zine really pretend to be?”


An answer is also given, “So let us pay penance by admitting to ourselves that we’re ALL stooges and suckers, that we all wear enormous clown costumes of our own while screaming at the top of our lungs at what great buffoons everyone else is!”.

The Fall of Zines

Gradually, key components of zines crept into mainstream culture. This happened not through countercultural revolution, but through adaptation by profit seekers. In order to maintain maximum profits and relevancy, the culture industry must adapt to new movements in popular taste. As such, it is not the zine itself that the culture industry sought to absorb; it was the aesthetics and ideals of the zine that they wanted.  The flow of currency demands that new markets be tapped as soon as they arise, and zinesters were no different. By the mid-nineties corporations like Time Warner and Urban Outfitters produced zines with minimal or no direct advertising in order to shill their products. Instead, the zines exhibited and praised their products, in order to pass for an authentic work instead of an advertisement. Furthermore, with the success of grunge music, “alternative” culture had become the norm, and the culture industry had taken the codes and signifiers of the youth and placed them in the mainstream.

One of the key examples of this within zine culture is the riot grrrl movement. While none of the riot grrl bands become massive financial successes, there was a surge of female musicians who were less traditional and more (or at least marketed as more) strongly “female” than ordinary woman rock and pop stars. This dilution of feminism continued throughout most of the nineties. By the mid-nineties the Spice Girls had become massively famous and carried their slogan of “Girl Power” with them. Unlike the riot grrls, they expressed nothing feminist beyond the slogan, nor took part in any sort of activism. Instead of being a rallying call for awareness, unification, and activism, “Girl Power” had become a marketing slogan devoid of real meaning.

Perhaps the largest co-optation of zines came not from their aesthetics, language or ideals, but instead their subject matter. As stated earlier, the most common type of zine was the personal zine which paved the way for the mass forms of popular entertainment that use the self as a source of material. The idea of taking an ordinary person’s life and turning it into mass entertainment happened on a massive scale in the nineties. With the rise of personal zines confessing became a key component in all manner of television. According to Red Chidgey, “From Oprah to memoirs, reality TV shows to talk therapy, the confessional and the raw seemed to mark the cultural zeitgeist.” Zines opened up the potential of using the personal as a product. Now, it has extended even further beyond talk shows and gone online, where millions share their personal thoughts, feelings and moments with each other in massive networks. The idea of the everyman (or woman) as mass entertainment may be the most powerfully felt and longest lasting legacy of the zine. While the medium used to share it has changed, the stories of ordinary people fill our televisions, websites and minds.

By the mid-1990s, zine production largely stopped, one of the main reasons being that the youth culture surrounding zines had been subsumed by the culture and system it fought against. Zines became important for marketers who studied them to find what young people were interested in and how they were talking, since “the subculture begins to strike its own eminently marketable pose, as its vocabulary (both visual and verbal) becomes more and more familiar” . As their own subculture was being stripped from them, zines provided all the information needed to market to hip, young outsiders. In her book Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, Karen Oakes makes the argument that indie culture has now been entirely dominated by corporate forces:

iPods are indie (since indie artists like Feist sing in iPod commercials); American Apparel, the trendy retailer of thirty-dollar T-shirts and leggings, is indie (since it advocates for fair wages for its garment workers and because its advertisements, with their images of skinny, young, nearly naked hipster girls, look like porn for indie fans); Toyota Scions are indie (because Toyota has marketed them with a DIY crowd in mind by making them easily customizable); bands who used to be on indie labels but are now on majors are indie (because they have some sort of sound or look that helps them sustain indie cred even while they’re playing stadium tours)... The list goes on. Indie, like punk and many other subcultures before it, has been branded by corporate culture and repackaged as an aesthetic.

The Present and Future of Zines


This is not to say that zinesters and their ideology completely disappeared by the end of the nineties. Some continued to create zines, and to this day some are still created and traded with the same independent spirit as the earliest punk zines. Still, this is a very small fraction of the thousands that were once in circulation. Many zinesters also left behind their outsider status and traded in slacking, zines, and alternative culture in order to rejoin society. When Factsheet Five became too much for Mike Gunderloy he quit the magazine and sought a job as a computer programmer. He now seldom discusses small press. His story is fairly common for former zinesters; when change didn’t come, they packed it in and moved on with their lives.

Still, the independent spirit carries on. To this day, new zines, such as this one, continue to spring up. Some zines, such as Maximum RocknRoll, never even went out of circulation. Across the country, numerous zine festivals and meet-ups occur annually. After the rise of the internet and collapse of alternative culture, the fate of zines seemed to be in limbo, but well after their peak they still occupy a unique space in American culture. They may not be circulated in the large numbers they used to be, but as long as people wish to control the form, content and circulation of their own personal works, zines will continue to live on.



About the Writer

Daniel Melin is a writer living and working in Indianapolis. Last year he graduated from Butler University, where he wrote his senior thesis on zines. He has published articles on music, politics, and sports. When not writing, he can be found riding around the city on a beat-up bike and playing the banjo.