In zines I may have found the only form of communication that feels simultaneously from the past and from the future. Traditionally sent around by mail, made in small batches, running the gambit from the neat and professional to garish combinations of typewriter text and margin scribblings, they can have an air of the archaic, the underground. I flipped through some of today's offerings with the sense of thumbing through forgotten treasures. And of course, in the Internet age there is concern about their future.
At the same time, each of these offerings had something timeless or even futuristic about it. For some zines that meant a determined do-it-yourself bootstrapping mentality: texts that either promised to teach a plethora of skills worthy of Batman, or just seemed to be trumpeting the accessibility of the medium. Finally, there was the glamorization of the everyday, emotional minutiae long before wikis, blogs, and twitter. I immersed myself in Xerography Debt #25, Doris, an Anthology of Zines and Other Stuff 1991-2001, two volumes of Dwelling Portably 1990-1999 and 2000-2008, and A Guide to Picking Locks by Anonymous.
Where better to start than Xerography Debt? This thin $3 publication was the start of my crash course in Xeroxed-culture. Published since 1999, it's been trumpeted as the “PBS of zines.” They are about the closest you can find to an authoritative review source for zines. The opening sections are taken up with letters of comment and columns by the contributors, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a lot of them were really interesting and accessible, even for someone with very little knowledge of the struggles and drama of the medium.
One celebrating the anniversary of the invention of the photocopier, and discussing its role in zine culture and potential as an artistic tool was particularly good. Of course, the bulk of the zine, 50 or so pages, is taken up with the publication's primary draw: reviews and more reviews. Unfortunately, it's of limited use as a resource because there's no indexing or alphabetization to speak of. So while the reviews themselves tend to be written with a good mix of information and personality, you really don't have a choice except to dive right in and trust that you’ll get what you're looking for.
A Guide To Picking Locks, distributed by CrimeThInc., isn't what you think it might be. It's a book for people that already have at least a passing knowledge about picking locks and are looking to augment their skills by crafting the perfect set of lockpicks. In that sense it's an invaluable resource that goes into tools, measurements, the heating temperatures of metals, and even what sort of material you can make the best carrying case out of. another layer of mastery to their craft.
Dwelling Portably has been published reliably for 30 years now, making it practically ancient compared to some of the other offerings. It takes the scorning technology elements, as well as the DIY elements of zines to the apex: each issue is only a few very closely packed pages assembled on a typewriter, assembled by a couple living in a yurt somewhere in Washington state. While the text can be a little small, and it can be a little difficult to determine which contributor is saying what, there is a wealth of urban and wild survival information here.
It's also an interesting look into both the minds and routines of people who have, to varying degrees, choosen to cast off the trappings of modernity and seek out a different way of living. Occasionally, contributors do dip into some odd themes (government conspiracies, and various other ways that the world is out to get people who don't participate in consumer culture, ranging from the plausible to the absurd) but the emphasis in both of these books is on practicality, and nothing ever really crosses the line wandering into a rant.
Although these two volumes (1990-1999 and 2000-2008) together comprise nearly 20 years of zines, the format never changes for better or for worse, and so there's not a terrific amount of reason to choose one over the other. Thankfully, both have indexes (not something to be taken for granted) and while some of the more extreme claims should probably be verified elsewhere before being put into practice, I could definitely see this as being a good resource to have around: there are tips here for some fairly commonplace situations (having to sleep out of a car, for example) as often as esoteric ones (how to throw off tracking dogs). All in all, this was one of the more fun reads this month
The Doris anthology was interesting. Much like the Dwelling Portably anthologies, it covers about 10 years worth of zines made by Cindy Crabb. Rather than the practicality of something like Dwelling Portably, this is a condensed collection of anecdotes, reflections and secrets told in cut-paste fashion over comics, scribbles, and photographs. It's got an intimacy that borders on voyeurism, and while it starts rather humbly, some of the layouts or odd illustrations in the later issues are quite good, or at least distinctive. By the time I had gone through it my copy was terrifically dog eared with quotable or inspiring bits, particularly this one, which seemed to be as good a mission statement as anything for this book: “when I have family to tell stories to...I want to tell them the heroic stuff...but I want to get the small stuff in their too. Riding broken bicycles. Writing poetry on walls in chalk. Finding pizza in the dumpster and drinking coffee till you can't stand it anymore.”
There were bits that talked about topics like rape, abortion, or depression with a lot of honestly, but a lack of clichés, and usually ended on a hopeful note. There are also some subtle political threads here, but they're always woven into stories and kept personal. It starts slowly (the introduction recommends skipping to the middle if you're not familiar with the zine already,) but finishes strong.