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My Love Letter To Fanzines

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.

There was no instant “click and read more” — the kind of mindless exercise we’ve all gotten used to with easy access to blogs and websites. Information was filtered slowly, by culling through zine reviews, writing away to often-flaky zine editors who might take weeks or months to send you the coveted copy of their badly photocopied zine you desired.

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.

There was no instant “click and read more” — the kind of mindless exercise we’ve all gotten used to with easy access to blogs and websites. Information was filtered slowly, by culling through zine reviews, writing away to often-flaky zine editors who might take weeks or months to send you the coveted copy of their badly photocopied zine you desired.

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.

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