If you've been reading this weekly thing of mine for any length of time, you probably have gathered that I'm a pretty mainstream-oriented guy. And mostly I am.
But I'm also a child of the 70's. That's when I started to really immerse myself in comics... right when the punk indie comics 'zine thing was starting to take off.
So even though I'm a Bronze Age baby, I'm also a zine guy. My first published anything ever was in a high school 'zine my friend Joe and I put together called Visions. (My English teacher loved it; the principal hauled me into the office and lectured me for half an hour because I'd printed a story containing profanity and he had gotten calls. Sort of summed up the whole zine experience right there: loved by artsy progressives and despised by The Man.)
Even now, as I'm edging up towards fifty and working as a respectable mainstream magazine writer and schoolteacher fella, I still have tremendous, tremendous affection for the low-tech Xerox small-press scene. The small-press indies are always my favorite part of any convention's Artist Alley, and of all the conventions I've been to, my pick as the all-time best remains APE in San Francisco, which is nothing BUT small-press.
Lord knows we spend an awful lot of time crabbing about comics here: what they're turning into, the shrinking readership, the wrongheadedness of so much of what comes out of the big companies... but I will tell you flat-out that the best cure for that bleak feeling you get sometimes about where comics are headed is to spend a day or so just looking at the small-press stuff.
Yeah, yeah, "most indie comics suck," or whatever the meme is that's been circulating on the internet the last few months. I don't care. I would a million times rather have the energy and enthusiasm of, say, a zine done with a sharpie called I Am A TIGER! than some over-rendered glossy cynical Superhero Event Comic with a bunch of Event Deaths. Whatever the skill level involved in doing a zine, there's something infectiously joyous about just seeing somebody Doing It, putting their own stuff out there.
I always respect that. Especially, after so many years in and around the printing business before I took up teaching, watching these kids killing themselves assembling their books by hand at the copy shop. I remember once I was working graveyard at a Kinko's and I offered to stitch this kid's books for him free of charge -- it was maybe twenty-five in all, about five minutes' worth of work -- and the kid looked at me like I was backed with an angel chorus and surrounded with a halo of golden light. It would have taken him an hour, probably, trying to do it with a desk stapler... but he would have.
I still like looking at 'zines -- not just comics, all kinds -- and I usually will spend a little time poking around that area of Left Bank Books or Elliott Bay Books whenever I get down there, just to see what's new.
The DIY ethic is one of the things I first fell in love with about comics, and I have done my best to pass this on to my students; it was the inspiration for having the kids do a 'zine of their own.
So I was delighted to find out about the Richard Hugo House's Zine Archive and Publishing Project, or ZAPP, as it's commonly abbreviated. Here is the beauty of the whole 'zine underground thing: I found out about this, not from anyone here in town or from any traditional marketing, but because my friend Jaye here at CBR sent me an e-mail saying, "Your kids might be into this," and linked me to a press release. (Jaye lives way the hell out in Wisconsin or somewhere like that.)
I knew about Richard Hugo House, a writer's non-profit collective here in Seattle that hosts all sorts of classes and workshops and things, but to be honest I mostly thought of it as a place where they held poetry slams. I was completely unaware of the 'zine archives there.
But ZAPP has been headquartered there for some years now, and it boasts what is the largest collection of 'zines in the world, with thousands of books going back some thirty years' worth. The smart money says it's the biggest in the world, anyway (no one's sure because there's so little systematic documentation of the 'zine phenomenon as a whole.)
ZAPP's collection is archival, meaning you can look at the books but you can't take them out of the building. Recently, however, ZAPP has partnered with the Seattle Public Library to create a new, circulating zine collection as part of the youth program.
They were inaugurating this by hosting a "teen zine symposium" last Saturday, the 27th, and it was this event that Jaye was e-mailing me about.
I pushed it hard in the cartooning class all week, same way I do any time there's any comics-related thing going on in town. And of course Julie and I went.
As it turned out, sadly, none of the kids from class made it, but we enjoyed ourselves enormously anyway. The workshops and panels were interesting and we did a lot of zine swapping and networking. We spent all afternoon and met all sorts of nice people.
So, this week, I thought I'd do a report of sorts on the event and run the pictures we got. Here's how it broke down...
2-3 PM: Zines 101 Workshop taught by Abby Bass and Hazel Pine (current ZAPP coordinator and local zine publisher). Learn how to make a zine or just come make a new zine buddy.
This I went to mostly because it was first on the schedule and I was still hoping to see some of my kids show for it. None of them made it -- in fact, there weren't that many teenagers at the event at all, but there WERE quite a few teachers besides me, which I found greatly heartening. Hazel and Abby were both charming; a little flustered at getting a much bigger turnout than expected, which I thought was rather endearing. (You get so used to flying under the radar, doing underground stuff with alternative distribution, I think it throws you a little to see there's really an audience.)
They talked quite a bit about ZAPP and the history of the zine phenomenon in general, which I found really interesting, and passed around some samples of the different kinds of zines they had in the archive. The breadth of creativity was extraordinary, an amazingly wide spectrum of talent, ideas and even presentation -- the books were printed and bound all kinds of different ways, including one so intricately folded from a single original sheet that it probably qualified as origami.
Mostly I was thrilled to hear that this resource existed. ZAPP is more than just an archive -- it's also a workspace, a place for zine-makers to master up their books. They don't have the capability of printing the book's full run once it's mastered, but even just providing the work area to do paste-ups is an extraordinary thing. Certainly it beats using a Kinko's counter at midnight.
In closing, they walked us though a way to master up a little eight-page folded mini-zine from a single sheet of typing paper, without staples, and turned everyone loose to do one of their own. I apologize for the picture quality above, but at least you can sort of see it. That's Abby in the black and Hazel in the white at the front of the room.
3-4 PM: Zine Panel moderated by Davey Oil, local self-published cartoonist and former ZAPP coordinator. Come sit in on a lively discussion about the cultural, political and creative role of zines in Seattle and the world today. Participants include: Brad Beshaw (cartoonist and former Confounded Books owner), Ellery Russian ("Hellery Homosex," Ring of Fire zine), Lucy Morehouse (Ong Ong zine editor/publisher), Alexis Wolf ( Ilse Content zine/Use Your Words distro), and many others. This event will take place in the Auditorium on the first floor, and all are invited to attend.
The funny thing about this is that Julie kept nudging me and whispering about this or that panelist or audience member, "Don't we know her? Didn't they come by the kids' table at Emerald City?" Seattle's a big city but it's a small town. And you do tend to see a lot of the same faces at local shows.
Here's a shot of the panel. The first young lady on the left I'm afraid I don't know, she was a last-minute addition and thus not listed in the press release. The rest, from left to right: Alexis Wolf, Ellery Russian, Lucy Morehouse, and Brad Beshaw. And Davey Oil is the moderator at the podium.
I've scattered samples of the panelists' work throughout this piece as wellÂ --I put up the new Ong Ong cover, you can see it a little ways up, and this piece just below is drawn by cartoonist and indie bookstore guy Brad Beshaw.
The panel itself was interesting enough; what struck me about it was the nature of the group in the room, panel and audience as a whole. A great many people in the room seemed to know each other or at least know of each other; we got a late start because there was so much meeting and greeting going on that it was difficult to get people in the audience to go sit down. There was clearly a whole sort of shadow-publishing establishment, with distribution and retail and even a convention-going community, same as regular mainstream comics.
Now THAT really piqued my interest. One of my ongoing frustrations with the cartooning class is that I'm the only one doing it. The kids in my classes spend 6th, 7th and 8th grade publishing comics every six weeks during the school year, and by the time they leave for high school they are a pretty well-trained bunch; they know how to not just do their own comics but prep them for print and table at shows.
So I've spent the last twelve years or so training two or three generations of middle-school kids not just to be comics artists, but to be commercially-minded, publishing comics artists. The job doesn't feel done to them until it's in print somewhere in front of an audience. Every year I get alumni coming back to me and asking forlornly if I know any place they can publish their stuff. I always tell them, hell, they're pros, they don't need ME any more, just do it -- but what they need is the facilities to do it, and what would get them over the hump is being able to plug into a community that encourages the DIY ethic they've been assimilating all through middle school.
And here it was. I got so excited about the idea I asked the panel if they could talk a little bit about their entry point into this network of people; how'd they meet other kids doing this work?
"ZAPP," several of them said almost at once. Ms. Wolf, bless her, went on to elaborate. "Zine symposiums like this one, and also something that's becoming kind of a lost art: tabling at a show or some other event. That's a great way to get the word out, connect with people." (Here's a shot of Ms. Wolf's zine, Ilse Content.)
Brad Beshaw also put in, "Bookstores, places that carry zines. My bookstore used to be a gathering place, when it was still around."
There was a lot of talk about distribution and copyright, and what constitutes a 'real' zine. To be honest, the last discussion walked, talked and shed water like the old fights you used to hear at comics conventions on how indie you had to be to call yourself an "indie" publisher. I rather liked Brad's take on it, which was that if it was self-publishing something non-profit, done out of passion, it counted as a zine. He held up a copy of a recent issue of Razorcake that he'd done the cover to and it looked really gorgeous. "Now, I think of this as a zine, but some people might not."
I was reminded of when Brandon and Justin and I would talk about the old Caravan zine we'd worked on with other CBR people and how firmly Brandon and I would come down on the side of making it look 'professional.' I still badger the kids in class about it, to be honest. "People are going to see this as representing you, so put your best face forward. This is how they're going to MEET you. What will you show them?" You know, you can still be ideologically pure without being a slob. But that's me. Your mileage may vary.
All of this is not to slight the other panelists, who all had interesting things to say. Ellery Russian, in particular, was very eloquent about the personal rewards of simply doing a zine and making it happen, which had everyone chiming in about the benefit of having a tangible piece in print that documents one's life. Being a print guy myself, I was completely on board with this idea too. There's occasionally someone making the point to me that zines are dead, they've been replaced by blogs and web shrines and MySpace, and I should be training my students to make webcomics. I was pleased at how quickly and efficiently that argument was shot down stone cold dead by the panel, and I'm totally stealing what they said for the next time some idiot tries it on me.
4-5 PM: Zine Readings. Hear the voices of Seattle's zine community on stage. There are several scheduled readers, including our own Hazel Pine and Neely Chestnut. Then there will be an open mic section. All are invited to attend this event.
This was actually our favorite part of the event, at least the teen contributors. Up above you have David, who does a zine called Trainwreck that we quickly snagged a copy of. It's got a punk sensibility and David is all about the music scene, but his zine is actually composed of moving personal nonfiction vignettes and poetry. Someday I am going to do a learned paper on how many angry young people in the hipster art/music/comix/lit'ry urban scenes (pick one) are really mushy romantics at their core.
I apologize for the picture quality here-- I was trying to use our camera's zoom function rather than get up close and disturb the people reading, since it was clearly a Big Scary Damn Deal for them to be up there at all, and, well, I didn't do that great a job of it. I'm not really a techie. But in any case, I wanted to run the shots we got, simply to honor the kids that read. We both absolutely loved this girl, and I suck like an industrial Hoover for not getting her name and a better picture. I remember her being at the workshop that opened the day, too -- she was one of the few actual teens there and really wanted to know more about HOW to do this, it looked like possibilities were suddenly opening up to her that she'd never realized before. One of the very few examples of the actual intended target audience showing up and GETTING it. You live for that when you're a teacher.
She reminded me forcibly of the shy girls in my classes like Samantha or Desiree or Amethyst; the kind of girls who tend to stumble and choke when speaking to people, but simply burning with the need to get the work OUT, get it on paper, get it distributed somehow. She is a remarkable talent, and I'll tell you up front that's coming from a guy that doesn't generally care for modern poetry or the urban open-mike/poetry slam crowd. I hope someone reading this lets us know who she is, and lets her know she had an appreciative audience that day.
This young lady, who I think went by "Kat," was the only one of the teen participants that looked completely comfortable doing a reading; she had enviable poise and humor. Nothing gives you hope for humanity like watching a smart funny teenager channeling her energies into something creative and fun. She read from the minizine she'd created earlier in that afternoon's workshop, perfectly embodying the whole DIY ethic of the day. (Julie also loved her because she was a self-proclaimed 'band geek,' and my bride was one of those too, once upon a time, long ago. Later they compared notes and it turned out they both played the clarinet.)
After that, they opened it to the floor and several in the audience did readings of their own work. There was one young woman who read a harrowing, uncomfortable, angry story about a man named Johann who lied about being HIV positive before a tryst; another woman who read a hilarious piece about her husband's first experience being home alone with their new baby; and a fair amount of poetry. We enjoyed it all but for us it was the teens that were the stars. Good on Jennifer Bisson of the Seattle Library for putting them front and center and reminding us all the day's event was about them.
5-6 PM: Zine Exchange and Refreshments. Do you make a zine? Want to meet others that do and share your work? We are hosting a free zine exchange, open to anyone and everyone. Come eat free food and trade zines. This is also a great time to check out SPL's new zine collection, located in the Teen Center on the 3rd level, and get information about zine-related programs at other local organizations.
Which is to say, a networking meet 'n' greet. There was a big table at the front of the room whereupon everyone who wanted to could dump zines and swap them, and you had to have pretty fast hands to keep up with that -- books went flying off as fast as they got put down.
And there was also a box where you could donate books to the new Seattle library zine collection. I had a couple of my kids' books with me and I made sure that both ZAPP and the library collection got hooked up. As you can see, that filled up fast.
We spent some time chatting with folks. A lot of people made it a point to introduce themselves to me and let me know how much they appreciated having a teacher take an interest, and how cool they thought a comics zine program was for a middle school, which pleased me, because I think my students ARE pretty damn cool. I just wish I'd had more of their books to give out. I did have some of the students' finished original art pages that I was taking to the printshop later, and those got plenty of oohs and ahs when I pulled them out.
Jennifer Bisson, the Seattle youth librarian who'd put it all together, was very enthusiastic about including the kids' comics in the zine collection, and I resolved to put her on our mailing list. We had a nice chat about how graphic novels really have opened up teens to libraries, and I told her about my experiences working with Lisa Oldoski at the Puyallup library (I'd done some art workshops for her youth program in conjunction with Free Comic Book Day a year or two ago.)
Jennifer sighed. "Lisa's so lucky -- well, there are benefits to being in a smaller system. I mean, granted, I get to use all this--" she gestured at the auditorium-- "but Lisa gets to buy her own books for the system. I have to go through a whole big thing, there's the board, it takes a while to get recommendations through. But we love having comics here, I don't differentiate between comics and the other stuff."
Comics industry take note. You know why so many of us first experienced science fiction through a Heinlein juvenile like Rocket Ship Galileo or Have Space Suit Will Travel? Because his publisher, Scribner's, went after the youth librarians, HARD. That was a major market for them. And it's a major market for graphic novels, too, all flavors. Lisa in Puyallup and Jennifer in Seattle both are very, very aware of how popular comics are in their libraries. Remember, for a librarian it's all about getting people interested in reading. Lisa told me once that the average circulation for a library book is getting checked out two or three times a year. That's considered successful; at least it's okay, a book that moves often enough it's worthy of keeping. Graphic novels do anywhere from fifteen to twenty checkouts a year, or more. Librarians notice that. They want to do more of it. Show them a little love, comics industry. Get your books in front of them and they'd probably buy them. Or, in Jennifer's case, recommend buying them.
And speaking of putting books in libraries, all you zinesters out there: if you want to contribute something to the ZAPP archives, I imagine they'd be happy to take your book. I won't put up an e-mail because it's a spam magnet but you could just mail your zine to
ZAPP Co-ordinatorc/o Richard Hugo House1634 11th Ave.Seattle, WA 98122
And I KNOW Jennifer at the Seattle Public Library is interested in getting more zines into the circulating collection. Those can go to:
Jennifer BissonTeen Center Librarianc/o Seattle Public Library1000 Fourth Ave.Seattle, WA 98104
The next small-press event here is something called (pro)Text, which is on Saturday Februrary 17th at Hugo House -- a small-press zine show with 38 local publishers. Several people told me about it and urged me to bring my students. You bet I'm going to try, just so I can show them the fun of seeing so many cartoonists and writers doing the same kind of zines we do in class, unencumbered by retail sales worries or Diamond's exclusionary policies or anything other than the sheer joy of Doing It, and Getting It Out There.
And to you folks who've never checked into the small-press scene, well, hell, I say to you as well: Do It! Get Out There! There's some good stuff, and even the bad stuff has an exuberance you'll never see in a Marvel X-crossover book or DC's latest Crisis.
See you next week.