Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Zine Scene

By Stuart Wade

OCTOBER 13, 1997:  So many zines, so little time... until now. Even though they've been around since the advent of the fanzine several decades ago, zines -- those often witty or bombastic or useless amateur publications with goofy names like Crap Hound, McJob, or Inconspicuous Consumption -- are only now crossing over from fringe to mainstream. In an age of market research-generated amusement, this is good news.

During the past two years, so many "zine revolution" stories ran in mainstream media like The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, and Details that publishers started to recognize zines as a "trend," resulting in several zines' transformation from newsprint rags to computer-designed glossies, or even "best-of" books.

Three recently published zine anthologies take the trend a step further. The Factsheet Five Zine Reader by Seth Freidman (Crown); The Book of Zines: Readings From the Fringe, edited by Chip Rowe (Owl Books); and A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World: Writing From a Girl Zine Revolution, by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino (St. Martin's) are on sale now in the same bookstores where you can already find several nationally distributed zines on the newsstand.

Since nobody else has the time to read thousands of zines, the publishing world has entrusted this handful of experts to scour thousands of available titles. Why should you check out the fruits of their exhaustive efforts? To catch up, to clue in, or to thumb your nose at the "sold-out" zinesters who used to be so groovy. You make the call.

Whether you're a diehard or a newbie, the books are worth a look. But beware -- the writing can shock; it can be blunt and often voyeuristic. That's what zines do. They transport readers to the gray areas of humanity, often to places nobody wants to be (e.g., heroin addiction) and to things nobody should try (derailing trains). But the better zines -- like Thrift-Score, Bust, Stay Free, Cometbus, Crank, Murder Can Be Fun, and Beer Frame -- generally strive to balance the peculiar with the harmless. Included in the new anthologies are plenty of typical fare, including sex, music, cult fandom, politics, drugs, crime, disorders, dysfunction, chaos, stupidity, The Brady Bunch, Hello Kitty, milkcrates, trepanation (do-it-yourself head surgery), living cheap, and awful jobs.

The Book of Zines is an excellent book for the uninitiated because it is the most pop culture-oriented of the lot. The book opens with a reprint of an actual letter from the grandfather of Basurame editor Bob Bellerue. In it, the old man has obviously just been jolted alert from his Barcalounger after reading his grandson's nihilistic handiwork. "Any Flop House Toilet or Hobo Jungle can provide this type of dirt," writes the well-meaning grandsire, begging his progeny, "For Christ Sake take a look at yourself," and, "The mention concerning John Hinkley could subject you to federal questioning."

Among the nooks and crannies of consumer culture readers will experience in The Book of Zines are gory driver's ed films; a thorough chronicle of Fonzie and Mrs. C's screen kisses during Happy Days; a look back at the boardgame Mystery Date; interview subject Eve ("Jan") Plumb's barely disguised contempt for her years in The Brady Bunch; why the comic Family Circus may actually be satanic; and a fondly told tale of house rental from landlord/rocker Chuck Berry:

"Chuck cracks open his case, and inside is a guitar that looks like it hasn't been played in about ten years. It has broken strings, broken pickup, broken neck. Chuck says to me, `John, go get the promoter and tell him the airlines busted my guitar'... and then I'm thinking... Chuck says he gets a new guitar every time he plays."

In "Chuck Berry: Rocker, Legend, Landlord," reprinted from the zine Roctober, the authors describe what it was like to rent Berry's L.A. home. They describe meeting Berry, who shrewdly invites his awestruck tenants to join in tarring his roof. A Girl's Guide to Taking Over the World compiles impassioned voices of a new generation of women writers frustrated about female body image, media portrayals, and violence -- while the only messages being broadcast to women over the consumer airwaves seem to be, "be pretty, be sexy, be cute."

"To my high school friends," writes Sara, from the zine Ben Is Dead -- the typewritten words superimposed over a familiar yearbook layout of young, fresh faces -- "Thank you for staying away when I needed a hug. Thank you for killing my hope... for tying off my nerves and letting them die... I don't know what I would have done without you."

This book, compiled by the editors of Pucker Up, is brutally honest. While it isn't for everyone, it is for anybody curious about young women's perspectives at the close of the 20th century. Confusion reigns; confusion over sexual roles, religion, family, and self-esteem. A Girl's Guide delivers compelling testimony from those who do not subscribe to the beauty myth.

Named after its encyclop- edic zine-review parent, Factsheet Five, the f5 Zine Reader is the book to buy if you can only buy one. It offers a slew of topics, among them the Beat Generation, self mutilation, Seventies culture, donating plasma, eight-track tapes, a psychoanalysis of the the Montgomery Burns/Wayland Smithers relationship, breast feeding, lounges, selling out, lap dancing, how clothing brands are like boyfriends (J. Crew = a writer you'd move to the country with), and the Rat Pack.

Did you know that Jerry Lewis made a film in Sweden in the Seventies about a Nazi death camp clown who entertained condemned children? The Day the Clown Cried has -- thank God -- never seen the light of day. Consistently misguided on every level, the film and its nutty auteur get some much-deserved dubious star treatment in The f5 Reader. Have zines sold out? Are mass-published anthologies merely the next inevitable step in relegating the zine to the Remainder-bin of Cool, along with coffeehouses, nose-rings, and grunge? Some zine defenders believe that going mainstream will compromise these little pockets of free speech. Others are more pragmatic; it depends on who you ask.

"Our country is simply in the business of manufacturing pop culture," says Factsheet 5 editor and zine guru Seth Friedman. "In order to satisfy the thirst of millions of hungry consumers, the gatekeepers must constantly search for the next big thing. Zines have been the flavor of the month for some time now."

All the "sell-out" talk in the world isn't going to change an important fact. As zine partners, mass distribution publishers are providing much-needed exposure for deserving writing and writers. Good writing deserves to be read, whether it's collected for art -- or for commerce. Zines provide both outlet and audience for narrow-niche topics, good amateur writing, and talented writers who've perhaps been passed over, until now.

And anyway, zines are not at a watershed. They've been around, and they'll be around. They're like an underground stream, according to the editor of The Book of Zines, Chip Rowe, who posted interviews with 62 zine editors and many more links at http://www.zinebook.com.

"Occasionally someone taps into [zines] and says, `Look what I found. A refreshing diversion.' Eventually that hole will fill in, but in the meantime, new zines are being started and others are growing. So zines will go on whether these books are big sellers or they tank. The true test [of the books' success] will be if people are motivated after reading a selection to order the zine itself or to contact the editors."

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