Writing in Margins

The independent publishing shelves at the Powell’s location on Hawthorne. This hidden gem contains all of the zines the store has to offer. Photo by Jonas Boone

The Barnard College Zine Library’s general definition of a zine states that they are “self-publications, motivated by a desire for self-expression, not profit.” By this definition, many informational pamphlets and independently published books, magazines, blogs, and more could fit underneath the zine umbrella, even 18th century literature that sewed the seed of revolution in colonial America, such as Common Sense. Who would have thought that Thomas Paine and our Founding Fathers could be some of the first zine-makers? Yet they stand tall in the halls of zine history alongside the dental health leaflets sitting at the bottoms of thousands of Americans’ trash bins.

Despite this technical definition, the public perception doesn’t recognize centuries old white men and disappointed dentists as the primary creators or participants in zines as a fixture of the artistic community. Historically, zines have been used to provide voices for marginalized groups and allow creative people to take the reins, utilizing the full extent of their raw imagination. The more generally accepted idea of zines are simply pamphlets that rest disorganized in the backs of book stores and comic shops. They are also blogs that are updated when their creators have a chance to duck away from the challenges of their day-to-day lives, attracting paltry sums of clicks but leaving their viewers engaged enough to share with all their friends. These are places where their strange, laser-focused (and potentially controversial) subjects are able to reside without scrutiny. In some cases, the underground, indie nature of zines over major publications can contribute to the enjoyment of the work itself, like finding a little treasure so specific it seems like the creators tailored it for the individual who possesses it.

Thanks to the fluid nature of zines and the freedom permitted to their creators as a result (who often are acting alone or largely without help in making their zines), zine-makers can draw various inspirations under one umbrella with a cohesive vision. Take Human Menagerie, for example, a webzine launched January 1, 2016, created and run by anonymous students so they can make their voices and experiences heard without fear of consequences. “[I was inspired by] ‘13 Going on 30,’” says the zine’s chief organizer and founder. “A few months ago I was inspired to start an actual magazine, but I realized that would take a lot of time and money I don’t have. I’ve actually never read a zine. I thought zine was just short for ‘magazine.’ And I don’t know if it’s actually going to be like another blog or a zine.”

Every creative work, even one as malleable as a zine, should begin with a sense of direction, a mission statement, even if that is subject to change, as is the case with the Human Menagerie team. “It was originally going to be mostly exotic, strange photography, but it became about getting the voices out of people who aren’t heard, who aren’t the popular kids. Ten people know their names and no one ever approaches them, and I want them to feel like people are listening.”

Similarly, Nora Weisbord (12) began a zine of her own with her friend Maggie Salter. The zine, which was released last year, is called Feelings for Beings, and its mission is to teach the world to love all creatures, with a strong focus on the intersections between issues, such as animal rights, feminism, human rights, and more. “There’s educational information, tips on being a vegan/activist… there’s also art from various local artists, and poetry,” says Weisbord.

So what draws these students to starting zines in particular? The observable trend is that it isn’t just a trend that passes through the population and fizzles out, like hairstyles or fad diets. These zines only begin because their creators are motivated and care about something higher than themselves. “I love [zines] and I couldn’t find a good animal rights zine that wasn’t all just recipes,” says Weisbord, “and there are things in the zine that aren’t addressed as often, like the section that I wrote called ‘Fishues’ (fish issues).”

The process isn’t all free publishing and unlimited creative freedom, however, especially when it involves wrangling the raw power of  a wide variety of creative youths, all only with the power of one organizer. The head of Human Menagerie can attest, saying, “I’ve learned that it’s really hard to be in charge of a lot of teenagers who don’t get their sh-… stuff done. I’ve learned that there are people who want to share stuff that’s really personal and intense. You have to stick to it. We died off for a couple weeks, and I really had to come back in and say, ‘Hey, guys, let’s get our… stuff together.’”

Still, none of this exists to diminish the value of zines to a global youth population that’s more engaged and motivated than potentially ever before. Being able to carve out a niche to grow a beautiful, hilarious, mildly terrifying creation from that has the possibility to personally touch and initiate any number of new members to the cult of caring about the world, which is an opportunity that can’t be passed up. “Zines are so important to youth culture, as well as DIY culture, punk culture, and others, but for me it was a huge outlet and fun thing to do with my friend,” says Weisbord. “It’s a great way to get the youth voice out there, especially if you go the route of artivism. This zine is our baby, and I’d recommend [making one] to everyone.” It just takes a pencil, some paper, and a cause.

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