The air that fills the fourth floor of Barnard Hall is thick with sweat. The clacking of typewriters and drone of punk music drifts down the corridor toward a crowded room where, amid portraits of stoic-looking alumnae, some 40 zinesters have gathered to showcase their work. It’s the third annual NYC Feminist Zine Fest, and the scene more closely resembles a grungy concert venue or flea market than a publishing conference at a storied women’s college.
Still, patrons stroll the long rows of blue tables, stopping occasionally to thumb the stacks of self-produced booklets and prints. Some are bound and glossy, costing customers up to $10 a pop, while others are haphazardly pasted together, photocopied political manifestos available for a dollar or two. They sport hand-drawn covers and eye-grabbing titles like Pop Culture Puke, Down With the Cis-Tem, Bitch Craft, and My Family’s Vaginas.
What began as a vehicle for science fiction fandom in the 1930s — later enjoying a renaissance during the punk movement of the ’70s and ’80s and riot grrrl feminism of the ’90s — has today evolved into one of the few tangible art forms resilient enough to survive in the digital age. While the Feminist Zine Fest in early March was by all accounts a success, on April 25 and 26 the Brooklyn Historical Society will host the biggest zine convention in the Tri-State area: the Brooklyn Zine Fest, which will bring roughly 150 self-produced publications together under one roof.
“I think people for a while had this idea that zines were a dated form, a dated medium that didn’t really pertain to what’s going on in the world now,” says Matt Carman, who, along with his wife, Kseniya Yarosh, puts on the Brooklyn Zine Fest and edits a film zine called I Love Bad Movies. “But I really feel the tangible power of a printed word. It sticks with me, and it actually changes me in a way that something in another medium doesn’t.”
Carman says that power is only augmented when all those zines, and zinesters, come together in one location.
“If it’s something you found at a zine fest, that means that you went to a place where there were people with like-minded interests and you interacted with someone who made this thing,” he explains. “Your experience of meeting that person adds to your experience of reading what they’ve written or illustrated or edited.”
Much like the resurgence of vinyl over the past several years, there has been a push recently to return to the printed and the personal. While it’s certainly easier to rant and rave on the internet — and a fair amount of this does, indeed, take place on zine blogs and forums — there has always been something inherently hands-on, antagonistic, and DIY about zine culture, a punk-rock mentality that rails against the prevailing ethos of the times. Even as this culture has expanded to include Etsy shops and stay-at-home moms, an undercurrent of the subversive remains intact.
“I think zines about cooking or crafts, or just about someone’s life, are still punk, you know?” says Jenna Freedman, a librarian at Barnard who curates the school’s zine collection (while producing her own publication of personal musings, Lower East Side Librarian). “They can still be anarcho-punk even if they’re not specifically about smashing the state.”
Ayun Halliday is one of the rare zinesters to have used her publication to launch a successful career as an author, penning such books as The Big Rumpus, The Zinester’s Guide to NYC, and the graphic novel Peanut. At the same time, she’s continued to put out one of New York’s most beloved zines, The East Village Inky, since 1998.
“I have an agent and I’ve had books published by Random House and I’ve kind of climbed that ladder, but I have fiercely clung to the voice that I use in my zine,” says Halliday, who will bring The East Village Inky to day two of this year’s Brooklyn Zine Fest. “It’s funny for me to be saying this, because my zine actually did lead to my career as an author, but I don’t think anybody goes into it thinking, ‘Hmm, this is a great launchpad for my career, this will get me in position to be a real writer,’ or something like that. It scratches an itch that you have.”
Many of the bookstores that once carried The East Village Inky have since shuttered, but Halliday still has some 500 subscribers to whom she snail-mails her quarterly publication. Each issue is hand-scribbled and deeply personal, and the experience of actually connecting with people — either at conferences like the Brooklyn Zine Fest or just through the intimacy of sharing a tangible memento — is what’s kept her going this long.
“I do think when they’re throwing me into my coffin, if I have one moment of consciousness, I will be glad that the zine was such a tangible artifact,” she says. “I think for me, as someone who really cares about making friends and staying in contact with people and rediscovering people from my past, it’s got that grandma’s-attic quality that I really like.”
While zines are certainly alive and well, it might be a mischaracterization to suggest that they’re on the rise. On the contrary, there’s only so much room for growth before a zine becomes a magazine, or a fest becomes a festival — the spark that once made each entity special absorbed slowly and irrevocably into the lameness of mainstream pop culture.
After roughly seventeen years, Halliday says she may soon cease publication of The East Village Inky, with her first child getting ready to go off to college in the fall and motivation beginning to wane with the latest issue. And while the Brooklyn Zine Fest is entering its second year at the larger Brooklyn Historical Society, Carman says he and Yarosh have no intention of expanding the event — in fact, they’ve already tried to limit the number of applicants considered each year. Ultimately, it seems the goal for many zinesters is not to be heard loudly, but just to be heard — to create something wholly on one’s own terms.
“Our goal is just to keep making Zine Fest as interesting and as varied as possible each year,” says Carman. “And as much of a reflection of what’s happening — of the zines people are making at this time — as we can.”