At the first annual Brooklyn Zinefest, a defense of all things quirky, oddball, and most of all, handmade

The scene at the Zinefest (Anna White)
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The scene at Public Assembly this past Sunday may, to some curious, unaware onlooker, have resembled a "Portlandia" sketch.

In the large Williamsburg space—which, by virtue of the idyllic spring day unspooling outside, seemed positively cavernous—people manned tables piled with paper products in various stages of color and glossiness, perused by throngs of admirers and aficionados. This bustling marketplace, which, judging from overheard offers of trades issued and accepted was very much a barter economy, redolent with the scent of beer (provided by “beer sponsor” Brooklyn Brewery) and food brought over from Cubana Social, was the Brooklyn Zine Fest, the first of what its organizers envision as an annual event.

“We make zines, and wanted a good venue for ourselves in New York,” Kseniya Yarosh, one of the festival organizers, said when I met with her and her two co-organizers, Matt Carman and Eric Nelson at a Union Square bar in mid-February.

A gathering of some sixty exhibitors—zine-makers of myriad backgrounds, interests, experience, and origins—B.Z.F. was somehow a simultaneously backward- and forward-looking enterprise. It was a bit “the dream of the '90s,” a little post-capitalist world order in which no one seemed to be, at least in the moment, the slightest bit alienated, and just a touch au courant—Brooklyn! D.I.Y.! (The fact that, just two days earlier, Courtney Love had joined the other members of Hole in the same space to play and impromptu set helped heighten the '90s atmosphere.)

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The idea for the Brooklyn Zine Fest was conceived in Richmond, Virginia, at the Richmond Zine Fest, to be exact. That is where the organizers first came to the realization that Brooklyn needed a zine-gathering all its own. Carman explained that he and Yarosh (pictured below), co-editors of the I Love Bad Movies zine and a longtime couple, had frequently seen Nelson at various zine-related events. In Richmond, they finally had the chance to talk.

“And we realized,” Carman said, “We just traveled six-and-a-half hours to go to a great zine fest, and we want to have one in Brooklyn.”

“The last zine festival [in Brooklyn] was in the Slope at the Lyceum three years ago,” Nelson recalled noting at the time. “And with D.I.Y. culture blowing up [in Brooklyn], it seemed like the perfect time” for a new event. The tentative planning began then and there.

But of course the history of the zine itself goes back much further. Zines came out of the sci-fi fan community in the 1930s, most scholars of the form agree. (Oh yes, there are zine scholars, most notably, perhaps, Stephen Duncombe, author of Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture (1997), an academic study named for Duncombe’s old zine. And several university libraries have begun collecting and archiving zines, most notably the collection maintained at Barnard College and the acquisition of the Riot Grrrl archives by the Fales Collection at N.Y.U.) Disgruntled by what they saw as the implausibilities of popular science fiction stories and disappointed by the established genre magazines’ refusal to take heed of their complaints, science-fiction fans increasingly began creating their own newsletters, self-distributed to a network of fellow enthusiasts. These Ur-zines gave their writers and readers the chance to discuss the work on their own terms; at the same time, they could contemplate the nature of fandom itself, to personalize the experience of love-hate.

With the advent of punk and the D.I.Y. ethos in the ‘70s, zines acquired a political spirit, an edge and a perspective all rolled into one messily-assembled, snarling artifact—a love-letter-to-music turned into a hurled explosive. The ‘90s brought the two aspects together: the zine of the era is characterized by the personal-as-political, assuming the aspect of an idiosyncratic and doggedly revealing manifesto. ‘90s zines often came with an intangible but unmistakable soundtrack—Riot Grrrl, hardcore—and an agenda—revolution and the dismantling of a social order that had marginalized groups that now turned to zine publishing as a breeding ground for a more equitable world. But they also increasingly trafficked in the minutiae of daily life and pop culture, presaging our own era's blogs.

As examined in Capital some two years ago, today’s zines—resurgent despite the existential threat posed by the Internet—are more insistently particular and peculiar, devoting themselves to the sincere exploration, at varying levels of commitment, of specialized interests. But this new iteration of zines (Zines2.0?) has had to contend with questions about how to justify their cost—even if they rarely exceed $10—given the generational feelings of entitlement to free, web-based entertainment, information, and opinion.

“I really like zines because they are great for people who have a lot of interests and short attention spans," Carman said. "It’s very specific: It’s about this person’s life or a trip they took or liking bad movies. And you read it, and you get something, and it’s not too much of a commitment. You read something, and you can pass it on, you can give it to a friend, you can put it on a bookshelf, take it down once in a while.” Moments before, Yarosh had revealed that he pronounced the word "zines" as though it rhymed with "dines" when they first met, a notion Carman halfheartedly disputed.

Yarosh confirmed the satisfactions of working quickly but permanently: “I mean, we make an effort to proofread and edit,” she said, belying the clear care that goes into an issue of I Love Bad Movies, a paean to the wonderful pleasures of terrible movies. But, she stressed, once the zine was done, it was done, and she embraced this endpoint in the way of a zen master: the end of striving as the end of suffering. (For the record: Carman’s favorite bad movie: Gigli, the Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez vehicle mock-extolled in ILBM2.  Yarosh, for her part, singled out the wonders of The Room, the 2003 film described by ILBM2 contributor Alan Gamboa as being “akin to being hit in the face by a bag of what-the-fuck and liking it.”)

Not all zines are created quickly of course: Yarosh mentioned a recent discovery, a zine about the singer Prince, which took its creator over two years to put together. (That would be The Prince Zine, a 60-page exploration of the nooks and crannies of Prince’s life, loves, and discography.)

In putting together the Brooklyn Zine Fest lineup, the organizers were keenly aware of the need for a balanced slate and the possibility that visitors might come upon something unexpectedly intriguing.

“We wanted a good mix of literary and comics and there are a couple of food ones,” Yarosh counted off. “We wanted to have variety, a little of everything.”

“We wanted mostly Brooklyn, and it’s about two thirds Brooklyn, but we also wanted some variety,” Carman chimed in. (The two tend to talk in complementary conversational volleys.) “We sort of collected our favorite zine-makers.”

Carman, Yarosh, and Nelson were passionate about the role zines had played in their own lives.

“I grew up in the suburbs, in Maryland,” Yarosh said, “and I discovered zines at a Tower Records, and I didn’t even know it was possible, until I found some zines on a corner shelf, to write your own thing.”

Nelson was a high school fan of punk rock: “But I didn’t play, so I made zines.” He has since heeded the call of the literary zine, a direction in which he generally sees the world of contemporary zines heading. “I feel like there are a lot more literary zines right now, and that is probably coinciding with the explosion of D.I.Y. publishing,” he mused.

They also emphasized the notion of “community,” which came up again and again, and the Fest was clearly both the catalyst for and the product of this communal good-feeling.

Yarosh said that when she came to New York, she met a lot of people through zines. “And I would give them this thing I wrote,” she recalled, suggesting one way zines foster bonding. Of course, blogs build communities, of a sort, too. Yet Yarosh contended that handing over a zine to someone is “just so much more intimate,” giving something “that wasn’t online or anywhere else,” was an act of goodwill. “I mean, I could send them a URL, but this is so much more personal to hold this thing, have it be limited to paper.”

The matter of zine vs. blog is one many of the Fest participants were also aware of, though it has been largely settled, with the two ruled, in the court of zinester opinion, compatible. Many blogs, Capital reported, have been appropriating the zine model, eschewing reader-bait titles and other appeals to the lowest common denominator in order to free their writers to write about things they were genuinely interested in. But, truth be told, most zine makers have websites devoted to their zines, especially ones producing regularly-scheduled issues. And, Yarosh said, she has lately noticed more and more people “are converting their blogs into zines.”

Jenna Freedman, the zine librarian at Barnard College and Fest exhibitor with her zine, Lower East Side Librarian & Friends Menstruate, helpfully quotes two posts from a 2005 discussion on the Zinegeeks Yahoo Group in “Zines Are Not Blogs: A Not Unbiased Analysis:

[A friend of my neighbor] asked what a zine was and I gave her a description that was worthy of Webster’s and then started showing her various zines. … She looked at [my current masterpiece] briefly and said “So a zine is like a photocopied blog.

Well, in the simplest of terms she's probably right, but in the simplest of terms I could say “A cat is like a dog except cats meow, shit in a box and don't hump your leg,” and be equally correct.

In an email message, Freedman also noted that “the Internet has helped zine production more than it has hurt it,” a sentiment echoed by several other Fest participants. 

“The Internet is a wonderful, free way to promote zines and share information about how to produce, distribute, and promote zines,” Ayun Halliday, the creator of The East Village Inky, suggested in an email. “Facebook allows those of who create personal zines to get a glimpse of our readers’ personal lives too, tit for tat.” But Halliday, who has been making quarterly installments of her zine since 1998, also admitted that “the seductive, addictive qualities of the Internet take a massive bite out of my actual hands-on time with the zine … I spend way too much time dicking around in front of the screen, convincing myself that I'm doing something worthwhile.”

At the Fest, Halliday wore a New Year’s Eve-style tiara, spelling out ZINES, and she happily interacted with people stopping by her table, piled high with issues of Inky and displaying her books, including the Zinester’s Guide to NYC (2010). She traded copies of her zine for work thrust at her, a tacit acknowledgement of something she had said in an email in anticipation of the event:

“Zines have the thumbprint of actual human labor. Somebody cared enough to staple this up, go to the copy shop, maybe stitch it together or glue in a surprise.”

The lure of the physical artifact—its feel, weight, relative permanence, the sense of completion that accompanies something that cannot, unlike a blog post, say, be altered once distributed, its intimation of intimacy, with many zines making use of handwriting—informed the decision of many Fest participants to keep zine-ing, despite the ostensible ease of electronic publishing.

“After I moved to New York in 2006,” Marc Calvary of the carbon based mistake confessed in an email, “I considered switching to eZines to save on printing costs since all my money seemed to go to rent and just being able to stay here. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I love print too much…. There is nothing in the world so great as when you finish a project and it’s there in your hand, something that did not exist until you brought it out of your head and made it real.”

The notion of the real permeated the Brooklyn Zine Fest. By 3 p.m. (the fest had begun at 11) some of the exhibitors seemed a little tired, a little dazed, but also genuinely excited. Several sketched in black-covered notebooks, and it was tempting to imagine that new zines were being born right then and there.

“Anything can become a zine,” Calvary said in his email, hypothesizing one “entirely comprised of photographs of the insides of people’s medicine cabinets or a diatribe against religion or a children’s story with curse words.”

And this seemed very true on this Sunday afternoon, as people exhibited and traded and bought zines about nothing and everything. No one here was looking for fame or fortune. Fame and fortune were elsewhere, most likely drinking bottomless Bloody Marys at brunch. Instead, there was the sense that everyone involved was doing their small part to be part of some larger whole, a compendium of quirks and grievances and memories and curiosities and objects lost and found.

Maybe this was a zine-version of a blog comments section, the chance for writer and readers to interact, exchange ideas. But it was also something largely and satisfyingly itself.

And what was that?

Tom Blunt of Meet The Lady, a zine that began life as a variety show, put it well: “Some zines evolve into bigger, better projects, but when you start out, it’s usually just you, your friends, and some pirated office supplies.”

All photos by Anna White.