Before the Internet took over our lives and blogs and Tumblrs were the common parlance for self-indulgent self-expression, there were fanzines. And I had one. Actually, a few.
It’s hard to imagine a time before the Internet was able to connect people with like-minded obsessions so quickly and easily, but 20 years ago, when dial-up was the only way to get online, blogs weren’t an option. Instead, creative types — social misfits and weirdos, artists and writers — made hand-crafted magazines, called fanzines, relying on scammed photocopies and cut-and-paste aesthetics to express themselves.
The tradition of fanzines reaches back into the 1940s, when fans of certain genres — science fiction or horror–began producing “fan magazines” to show their appreciation for various works or authors. The modern-day fanzine, though, finds its roots in the burgeoning punk rock movement of the ’70s. (In fact, a fanzine called Punk, by Legs McNeil, is widely considered the first use of the term — it’s crazy to think that a fanzine named an entire mega-genre of music).
Like many, I came to fanzines through music. Middle school was a strange and difficult place, and in a matter of months I went from popular girl to designated loser. I started hanging out with the skater boys. They would make me tapes of The Smiths or Rollins Band. We started going into the city, and on these trips I would visit the Tower Books on South Street in Philadelphia. It’s gone now, but it was there that I picked up my first fanzine — called Gogglebox (I will never forget Jen Gogglebox’s mantra that “I won’t write about bands until bands start writing songs about fanzines”). I also picked up a copy of a ‘zine called Punk Planet (I developed a major crush on its founder/editor Dan Sinker, and would later write for PP), and Factsheet Five, which was a fanzine consisting of reviews of other fanzines, and pretty much a lifeline into that world.
To get the zines listed in Factsheet Five, you had to write away and send stamps. It was an exercise in delayed gratification.
My own zine-making praxis began when I was 14, having been kicked out of the cool, popular kids club, and having no one to hang out with over a long suburban summer. I spent days writing short pieces and creating little collages out of vintage magazines. My first zine was called What? It was very DIY, probably 10 pages long, double-sided and photocopied. I sent it in to Factsheet Five for review, and soon began getting requests for copies.
During the years I did zines — and I did them for about eight years — the name, content and aesthetic evolved. I had a zine called Hell Kitty (I WAS 16, PEOPLE). I had another one called Face First (this was when I was really emo, sorry). I sometimes interviewed bands (I even interviewed Patti Smith, and yes, that remains a highlight of my life). But most of the time it was my teenage musings on politics or relationships — on serving as a Planned Parenthood escort for the first time, or thinly-veiled open letters to boys I liked. I was a Riot Grrl, and talked, in my teen angsty way, about feminism. I wrote record reviews, talked about growing up in a small town and along the way cultivated deep relationships with many in the zine community. (I also got a lot of letters from prisoners.)
That’s probably the lasting legacy, for me, of doing zines. Before Facebook and email, there was a fanzine community. There were weekly letters back and forth (true story: some of my crappy teenage correspondence is now in the Northwestern Zine Archives, thanks to a particularly diligent pen pal). There were awkward visits from long-term correspondents. Deep bonds forged and secrets shared. I met a long-time pen pal I had from my zine-making days for the first time. We wrote letters to each other for six years!
And that’s one thing that I believe is probably unique to that time and medium — unlike the instant and ultimately fleeting world of blogs, there is no replacement for the time, work and effort of making and receiving something handmade. For that I’m deeply grateful.