October 6, 1996, was an unusually warm day in downtown Toronto-warm enough that the organizers of Canzine 96 had to prop open the front and patio doors of the Library Imperial Pub and Tavern. Light poured into the dark, oak-lined pub, making the place look like a Muskoka lodge, open for the first day of spring after a long, musty winter.
Wood and brass ceiling fans whirred in an attempt to clear the heavy, smoke-filled air and to cool the 200 or so independent publishers who had gathered for the day’s event. The place was packed. Publishers, editors and authors took up nearly every square inch of the two-storey pub, including the sunny, open-air patio. They spread their creations-photocopied mini-magazines called zines-on dark tables marred by the sticky rings left by pint glasses. Participants took over the green felt pool table and the window ledges, fighting for space with the tropical plants. Loudspeakers thumped out lounge-era hits and sultry pop blues like Peggy Lee’s “You Give Me Fever,” the jukebox playing each selection three or four times in a row, a nasty habit remedied only by a swift kick or a flick of the power switch.
The ziners didn’t seem to mind. In the heat, they browsed the tables wearing short-sleeved T-shirts and jeans, flares or Herb Tarlek-inspired checkered pants. Their T-shirts bore the logos of their zines-the scripty banner of the zine Cygnals and the jaunty, stick-figure mascot “Bon Bon Hemingway” from the zine Stained Pages-or flaunted slogans that manipulated brand-name logos (Players cigarettes to “Slayers”).
A scruffy-looking guy with ripped jeans and shaggy hair called out to passersby like a county fair barker: “Zines from Vancouver, $1 each. Anything here $1.” The male publisher of a zine called I Hate Literature wore a white wedding gown, and four-eyed comic ziners scribbled in the yellow glow of the automatic popcorn dispenser. Goth girls with hollow cheeks and black lipstick brooded around the tables in a cloud of heavy perfume and hair spray while the authors of The Rolling Papers, dressed in bell-bottoms and wide-lapelled shirts, gazed at them through John Lennon shades. Every unnatural hair colour was represented.
The event was so successful that organizer Hal Niedzviecki, editor of Broken Pencil-a newsprint magazine that reviews zines and other independent publications-ran out of tables and chairs for the exhibitors. Every few minutes, Niedzviecki, with his mop of unkempt brown hair and slightly hunched frame, darted from the upper and lower levels to the patio, trying to keep all his ziners and the uninitiated, curious onlookers happy. “Canzine was somewhere between obsession and lunacy,” he recalls. “I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t manage to pass a zine off on someone who hadn’t read or seen their publication before.”
A zine can be anything from a four-page legal- or ledger-sized broadsheet, photocopied onto cheap bond paper to a 60-page, professionally cut mini-magazine printed on 60-pound stock, complete with spot colour. They’re written and published by young people (generally aged between 15 and 30) and their publishing schedules are erratic, changing according to the personal finances and school or work schedules of the authors and publishers. Zines regularly become defunct and new zines pop up monthly. And with no formal distribution system, it’s difficult to find the better-known ones in local record and alternative book stores, ziners preferring to swap their zines by mail or at trade shows. Canzine is the best and by far the biggest venue for ziners to hawk their wares, a form of expression that exists even as much of the established alternative press disappears into the clutches of conglomerates (read: Shift magazine). They may not strictly adhere to the “rules” of the mainstream game-formulaic writing, making sure each angle of a story is meticulously covered, the fa?ade of objectivity-but zines do emerge as a valid, exuberant voice of youth. They tell the stories the mainstream won’t touch, or choose to ignore, and they aren’t beholden to editors, advertisers or a mass audience. And unlike people who simply complain about feeling underrepresented in mainstream media, ziners take matters into their own hands.
“When I listen to the CBC, I frequently think, ‘They’re not talking to me,'” Vincent Tinguely says over the phone from his Montreal flat. He and his partner, Victoria Stanton, both Canzine participants, coauthor and publish a photocopied, monthly broadsheet-style zine called Perfect Waste of Time. “There’s an assumption in the mainstream media that everyone lives a certain lifestyle and that involves cars and mortgages and the usual aspirations,” he says. Tinguely and Stanton started their zine in December 1995 in order to develop a voice separate from the mainstream media and from the other artistic endeavours they’re involved in. In issue number four, for example, they published a service piece on garbage picking, much of it drawn from their own experience: to save money they have often rooted through others’ garbage to find housewares and furniture still in good condition. “If a paper talks about poverty,” Tinguely explains, “it’s generally like, ‘Poverty is an illness that we must prescribe against.’ It’s never the problem of the journalist, it’s never the problem of the paper. It’s at best their ‘concern’ for the poor who are voiceless. But the thing about zines is, because they’re so cheap, you can be poor and speak from that experience and not make any bones about it.”
Tinguely says on occasion they’ll publish a piece and, weeks or months later, a similar story will appear in one of the weeklies or on local TV. This happened with an article he and Stanton wrote on “lo-fi” culture. The piece described the trend toward low-budget music and film production and how the technique is being used by the mainstream. “In its typical co-opting and appropriating fashion,” Tinguely and Stanton wrote, “multi-national global and corporate industry has lately decided to employ the lo-fi aesthetic to sell its usual stuff.” The grainy, black-and-white Bank of Montreal commercials featuring hand-written signs were a good example. “We’re not doing anything that’s particularly outside the field of inquiry,” says Tinguely, “but sometimes we seem to be ahead of it.”
Despite their ability to spot trendy stories and fill holes left by the mainstream and the alternative press, Stanton and Tinguely don’t see themselves as journalists. “I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of ‘we’re going to produce a journalistic zine as opposed to a literary zine or a fanzine,'” Stanton admits. Yet, if amateurs like Stanton and Tinguely pride themselves on writing articles that the mainstream media are too slow to discover, why do they balk at being called journalists? “Because they want to be cool,” laughs Sean Stanleigh. “A musician doesn’t want to be labelled ‘alternative’ anymore because it’s too much of a buzzword; he’d rather be labelled ‘hard core’ or ‘industrial’ or something a little bit further off.” Stanleigh is the principal editor for The Globe and Mail‘s Report on Business Managing page, but in his previous incarnation, while at Ryerson studying journalism, he started a zine called Shapeshifter. The writers of this professional-looking zine (Stanleigh used layout programs when most other zines were still strictly cut and paste) included such future Toronto media types as Clive Thompson, editor until last month of This Magazine. Stanleigh’s zine, he admits, was atypical in its level of professionalism because most of the staff was made up of journalism students.
The key to Shapeshifter‘s success, as is true for zines in general, was its tendency to publish articles that you’d never find in the mainstream press or few (if any) alternative magazines. One such piece discussed the pros and cons of product manufacturers’ 800 numbers. Another, called “God and the Bong in Hamilton,” explored the world of the pot-revering “Church of the Universe.” Thompson remembers writing an investigative piece that questioned why, in Canada, Pop-Tarts had gone from being a source of eight essential nutrients to four. “Damn me and my nimble, curious mind,” he wrote. “Before I knew it, I was carrying around an unwrapped Pop-Tart to bakeries in Kensington Market, trying frantically to find someone who could tell me exactly what the hell it was.” Thompson recalls: “Without saying it openly, it was a meditation on the absurdity of discussing nutrients in these things which are clearly not even food in the first place.”
Meditating on bizarre issues is what sets the writing in zines apart for Thompson. He thinks that as more and more issues that were once the domain solely of the alternative press (for example, native issues, women’s rights, environmentalism) are dealt with in the mainstream, zines have increased in popularity. “I find it interesting that zines have become a prominent phenomenon in the last 20 years,” Thompson says. “I think there’s something to do with the mainstream press’s absorption of things that were ordinarily alternative, while leaving out a lot of the stuff that you could classify as simply weird.” Young readers who are looking for “weird” stories that fall outside the realm of the ever-expanding mainstream may find what they’re looking for in zines. And as the alternative press struggles to redefine exactly what “alternative” means, zines have easily taken over as an honest, in-your-face voice of youth.
“Honestly, some of the writing I did for Shapeshifter I consider to be the best writing I’ve ever done,” says Thompson. “There are only one or two other places in the world that will let you write that type of stuff. Every mainstream journalist should spend some time writing for zines just so they can get a sense that there are other ways to broach topics and to write about really weird things. You can get at some really central politics that way.” But is this freedom to write about virtually any topic gratifying enough to sustain the zine publisher when there’s no money to be made in the endeavour (ziners are lucky to break even) and no recognition outside the zine world? “People always ask me this,” says Lesa Hannah, publisher of the zine Noise. “Why do I do it when I lose money and I never get anything back? I just really like it. I don’t have to write something, then say, ‘Where could I put this?’ or try to get it past someone. I like getting all the credit.”
One of the main reasons ziners are able to get away with writing about whatever they want, however they want, is the absence of any content-monitoring body. And it’s precisely this unrestrained, free-for-all quality of zines that causes Evan Solomon, editor of Shift magazine and host of CBC Newsworld’s media culture show Future World, to believe that the information presented in zines is unreliable. “If there’s no self-regulating force that checks that the news source is held accountable,” he says, “then you’re endangering your news source and the zine is held accountable to no one except the author.”
Paul Corupe, publisher of a zine called Ground Control, agrees with Solomon: “Are zines propaganda? Yes, absolutely. Most journalism is propaganda to some degree anyway, whether it’s the Christian Broadcast Network News or The Wall Street Journal hyping up an irrelevant economic model.” But Corupe qualifies this by saying, “Most ziners do not get their information from only one source. If you listen to Rush Limbaugh, you probably listen exclusively to right-wing speakers. This is not true for ziners at all; most zine kids read a large variety of zines.”
Corupe’s publication is an odd mixture of fifties pop culture-cartoon cutouts of June Cleaveresque moms and cigarette-smoking, recliner-lounging, nine-to-five dads-along with Adbusters-esque critiques of advertising and other forms of corporate mass manipulation. In issue two of Ground Control, Corupe published an article about in-store coercion of shoppers called “Smells Like Happiness! The Psychology of Buying.” In it, he describes the use of techniques like scent boxes, electronic devices that automatically spray appealing smells to lure hapless spenders into the store. “Hey,” Corupe writes, “I’ll bet even the Gap could cover up the stench of human suffering their clothes pick up in third-world sweat shops.” And in the premier issue of Ground Control, he wrote “Living Logo,” a profile of Betty Furness, the Westinghouse appliance spokeswoman in the fifties. Corupe writes of Furness, “She became both a symbol of the revolutionary new American kitchen, and of the new kind of consumerism that sat poised on the roof of the nuclear family.” The article features a vintage photo of Furness in a typical refrigerator-demonstrating pose. (Like most ziners, Corupe flouts copyright laws and clips images from other publications for his zine. His favourites are those depicting North American lifestyles in the fifties which he finds in old Hamilton Spectator cookbook supplements his grandmother collected from 1930 to 1970.)
Ground Control carries ads for other zines, a regular practice among ziners. Surprisingly, given their outlaw image, many zines also run product ads. However, Corupe insists that product ads in zines don’t compromise their editorial integrity. Most ads promote independent bands and record labels, not Absolut vodka and Levis, and the ziners, who aren’t dependent on the advertisers, have complete control. Ziners say that businesses like indie record companies and funky clothing stores have a symbiotic relationship with the zines that run their ads. “There are a few record labels that send us free stuff to review,” says Greg Clow, “and if they ever want to run an ad, that’s not a problem. I think it’s fair.” His partner, Sheryl Kirby, agrees: “I have no problem running an ad because they’re doing for me and I’m doing for them; it’s a fair trade.” Though she’s quick to add, “We’ll run your ad but if your stuff sucks, I’m going to say it sucks!”
Kirby’s defiant attitude about advertising backfired in 1994 while she and Clow were working on Liisa Ladouceur’s Goth culture zine The Ninth Wave. Ladouceur had solicited an ad from Queen Street West’s Goth fashion store, Siren, owned by the presidents of the Gothic Society of Canada. With classic zine cheekiness, Kirby wrote an editorial calling the Gothic Society elitist and exclusionary and ran it in the same issue as Siren’s ad. Siren’s proprietors were outraged. They complained to The Ninth Wave‘s staff and, according to Clow, bad-mouthed the zine to other retailers, encouraging them not to carry it. Eventually, even Goth afficionado and host of CBC Newsworld’s Big Life Daniel Richler got involved: he wrote a letter to The Ninth Wave expressing his disapproval of Kirby’s editorial, despite the fact that he usually enjoyed the zine. “It became this whole convoluted thing,” says Kirby, “and it was just meant to say, ‘Hey, take a look at yourself.'”
Today, Kirby and Clow are publishers of a zine called Stained Pages. Clow (who also writes the column “Feedback Monitor” for Toronto music magazine Chart) says the incident hasn’t made him or Kirby shy away from injecting personal opinion into Stained Pages. In issue three, Clow wrote an opinion piece that doubled as an eighties movie review. In it, he looked back fondly and critically on John Hughes’ “brat pack” films like Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, and admitted to a long-standing obsession with actress Molly Ringwald. “My affection for her spawned an attraction to redheads that remains with me until this day,” he writes, “and certain Molly scenes, like the famous one from The Breakfast Club where she applies lipstick with her cleavage, provided me . . . with months and months of masturbation fantasies.” Clow explains that “a lot of doing a zine is Gen X in a way; it’s taking these things that we remember from our childhood and our teen years.”
Some of Lesa Hannah’s teen years were just like a John Hughes movie. She started Noise in 1990 when she was a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Lakeport Secondary School in St. Catharines, Ontario. Her experience with writing for Today’s Laker, the school newspaper, was very negative. “I’d write things and then they would change them on me,” she says. “I was just feeling like I didn’t have any freedom to write.” When Hannah began distributing Noise to her friends in the school cafeteria, exasperated staff members dragged her into the principal’s office, like a scene straight out of The Breakfast Club. Undaunted, Hannah kept publishing and distributing her little cut-and-paste creation, often slipping copies to eager classmates from her locker.
Noise has since evolved into a stylish, well-laid-out zine, thanks to the facilities at Brock University’s Brock Press, where Hannah is a communications student. She also wrote a column for the St. Catharines Standard for six months in 1994, interviewed Monika Deol for the now-defunct Ingenue and guest-edited an issue of Sassy magazine in its former, truly sassy incarnation. Sassy‘s tradition of personal writing inspired Hannah, and this kind of writing, infused with personal opinion, is the charm, not to mention the allure, of zines in general.
Clive Thompson says he tried to make This Magazine alluring in the same way. Zine writing, he says, “is very, very personality-driven because, certainly in Canada, anyway, there are virtually no venues for really good personality-driven journalism. Everyone in Canada really beats the living shit, all the personality, out of journalism.”
It’s John Stegenga’s job to be familiar with every publication in Canada. He works in the National Library of Canada’s Legal Deposit Office and says of ziners, “They have something very significant to say, as significant as any other author on the scene. I like that they’re motivated by what they have to say as opposed to being motivated by making a dollar out of it. The zine is a vibrant expression; it’s in a raw state and it has something exciting about it.” Zines like Stained Pages, Ground Control, Perfect Waste of Time and Noise act as portals into a young, subculture world. They constitute a worthwhile alternative for those who, as readers and writers, feel constricted by the mainstream, and they are hatcheries for new journalists. And unlike teen mags that struggle, via focus groups and questionnaires, to appeal to young people, Lesa Hannah says, “With zines, the kids themselves are talking, so you’re getting what they really think.”
Unfortunately, zines remain largely unrecognized by the mainstream-when asked at last October’s Word on the Street fair in Toronto, Saturday Night editor Kenneth Whyte admitted to knowing virtually nothing about them. Even zine critics like Solomon feel this is unfortunate. “If you’re in the journalism game,” he says, “you should be a professional culture-watcher, watching trends. And zines are a kind of petri dish of culture; they offer, in very microcosmic detail, signs and movements.”