Now I’ve Zine Everything
My first Zine fest in 50 years---better late than never!
Last Sunday I attended the San Francisco Zine Fest, now celebrating its fifteenth year. Zines have a long proud tradition in the City By The Bay, at least dating back to the Summer Of Love and Underground Comix in the 1960s. But that’s a lot of capital letters to describe the humble chapbook, which you might recognize as a couple of folded sheets of paper with a staple in it.
My history with the medium began fifty years ago when I first encountered science-fiction fanzines. At a time when enthusiasts of Star Trek, Hammer films and old comic books were separated by great distances and overwhelming social disdain, these stapled, paper-clipped and cotter-pinned publications were like messages in a bottle, cast out into a harsh and unfriendly sea.
The zines were typically 8 1/2 x 11” sheets printed in purple ink (with prose to match), redolent with the scent of alcohol used in the cheap duplicators. The printing plates were thin cellophane-like mimeos with a waxy coating that could accept impressions from a typewriter, pen or pencil. Creators would impress their thoughts onto this flimsy medium and crank out a few dozen or hundred copies until the words faded into obscurity forever.
At a time when no self-respecting adult would admit to watching Night Gallery or reading Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth, these zines were a way for teenagers to connect, share, and validate their interests. Not to mention providing a vehicle for their fevered imaginations, taking their beloved characters into wild scenarios and hormonal trysts barely hinted at in prime time. Even with the rise of conventions celebrating a world of toys, comics, and movies, zines filled the long, lonely gaps in our existence.
And as it turns out, there were many other subcultures in need of literary sustinence. With the advent of photocopiers, and their proliferation in schools, businesses and libraries, folks had a new, better and cheaper way to spread the word. Cheaper, that is, if you had the key to the copier room or could stay late at your temp job to pilfer Xeroxes.
The Punk Rock Aesthetic and Conservative Politics collided brilliantly on the pages of many zines of the 1980s. Young, angry artists spoke truth to power with collages of torn paper, razored typefaces and blurry photos fashioned as blunt instruments. The splotchy halftones and mottled toner splattered their rebel yells across fine 24lb cotton weave bond paper, previously reserved for corporate letterheads.
That’s where I got my start, expressing my latent creative impulses after hours at Anacomp, the data-processing company where I toiled long hours on swing and graveyard shifts. It was a bad schedule for sleeping, but an optimal time for access to the office supply closet. I kicked out a couple of indiscreet pamphlets, particularly “This Is Only a Test,” a scratchy ink blot of counter-culture commentary, co-written and drawn with my brother Rob. He was attending art school in New York and was the real deal—I was just slumming.
My real desire was to make movies, or at least draw a newspaper comic strip, thereby enjoying the cultural acceptance (and financial reward) of mass media. Alas, I had a family to support, so I dropped into graphic design, and spent thirty years chasing my dream by proxy, eventually art directing a bunch of movie and comic book journals, and 800 soundtrack albums, pretending I was Hollywood-adjacent. Hey, I did visit every movie lot in LA, often in the line of duty!
I also spent much of the last decade making short films, first as an animator, then as a writer, director and producer. Each one was, I hoped, a step toward my goal of telling big sweeping stories in a feature film. Considering that I started three decades after finishing film school, I enjoyed some success and fulfillment. But the reality was brutal: movies are the most difficult and expensive way to tell stories, involving years of effort and the blood, sweat, and tears of a large group of people. These are resources I did not have and could not marshal.
Which brings me back to Zine Fest. Walking into the airy main room, I was greeted with the contented, happy hum of two hundred creative spirits. I expected to find tables of neatly stacked booklets, and of course there was plenty of that, from the most unassuming, folded scrap of construction paper, to several mass-market trade paperbacks, and everything in between.
Unexpectedly, there was so much more—paper mâché objects d’art, miniature needlepoint, hand-carved figurines, silk-screened posters and block prints. To say nothing of the sweep of subject matter on display: Odes to Sunday Funnies. Poetry of Grief. Reviews of Psychotronic Cinema. Queer Cookbooks. Erotic Mythology. And lots of memoir, in prose and comics form, like The Pandemic Mixtape and Snake Pit, vol. 6
I made my way through the amiable crowd to the first corner of tables. Of course I came with a few dollars to spend, but I promised to open my heart as well as my wallet. Sure enough, I was greeted with a friendly “hello” right off the bat, and I took the time to review the author’s work. Comics of “nutty conversations” with walnuts, cashews, pistachios and “not-nutty” ones with coconuts, and butternut squash. The drawings were spare, the jokes slight, but I couldn’t resist the creator’s passion for foodstuffs and said so.
At the next table was a published author with a series of middle-school comics about Kid Beowulf, loosely based on the classic epic. No copyright issues there, I suppose? A middle-aged couple displayed their 40 issues of Frequenzine, which is written, illustrated and assembled in one 24 hr. period each month. A proudly blue-and-green coiffed artist with pointed ears shares their Blue Hare Comix, featuring the exploits of hot goblins at play. The Hotcake Collective offers posters of Chinese number gestures. Outside, guests were invited to screen print their own posters with messages like “The Revolution Is Love.”
How could I fail to be charmed?
As I wandered through the tables I made lots of eye contact and conversation. These were artists on the front lines with their potential audience, stripped of any pretense or buffer. I tried to be gentle, and find something complimentary to say even if the zine wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. “You have an engaging style! Your typography is sharp! That’s a delicate piece of work. Do you moonlight as a designer?” And when all else fails, “Nice paper! Lovely colors!” Do I sound like I’m reaching? I just want to be supportive with these lovely, brave, publicly-vulnerable strangers.
In short, my people. Cartoonists, writers, designers and editors with stories to tell, unfettered by budgets or technology. Working with the materials at hand to express themselves directly, simply and clearly. Some of it is silly and fun, some political and trenchant, all of it personal and idiosyncratic. And there is the lesson for me.
It’s been a hard transition, after carrying the load of expectations for many years, to be myself and accept what I have to offer as an artist. The slick, glossy surface of pop culture beguiled me from an early age, and I judged my work harshly as a result. Maybe with the help of a team of professionals, I thought, my work could measure up. Or at least I’d have cover if it didn’t.
Now I believe the best way to tell my stories is to find a way to tell them myself. I had already decided to start writing and drawing my own graphic memoir. I’ve finished a first draft, and completed a 16-page excerpt. But… what will the world think? Dare I show it?
Here again, the zinesters showed the way. Everyone was invited, regardless of age or experience, talent or craft. If you show up, your work is welcome. YOU are welcome, and a member of the clan.
Gee, thanks! I accept the invitation. My first issue debuts in October.
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For more information about The San Francisco Zine Fest, you can visit their website. You can find many examples of zines in better indie bookstores and comic shops everywhere. Thanks also to my brother Steve Sikoryak for the clever title.