When I encountered my first zine, it was love at first sight. A punk kid was handing out Xeroxed copies of his masterwork in the halls of my high school between classes. As I leafed through those stapled pages, I knew instantly: I wanted more. This was something I wanted to do.
The year was 1988, the beginning of my sophomore year of high school. In this pre-internet era in Topeka, Kansas, underground music culture was barely accessible. Having the university town of Lawrence half an hour up the highway helped. All breeds of underground music fans shared space at the Outhouse punk venue just outside Lawrence. Love Garden Sounds opened its doors in 1990, and swiftly became a sacred weekend destination for Topeka alt-rocker teens in search of rare vinyl.
Topeka had its bright spots, too. The Basement all-ages club spun a decent New Wave selection, making for an appreciated gathering place. If resourceful, one could special-order Fields of the Nephilim on vinyl through World Records on 6th Street. Mother Earth just down the road carried Bauhaus and Sisters of Mercy on cassette.
And for those inclined to reach out and network beyond Kansas borders—inclined to make contact with that romantically (over)-idealized “world beyond the Fly-Over-States”—well, there were zines.
Being so inclined, I started my own goth fanzine in 1990, which came collated and hot off the Kinko’s press in ’91. The world of zine crafting and trading became a primary creative outlet and collaborative platform that lasted for years. Zines were my main means of expanding awareness of underground subculture. They were a resource for learning about bands, fashion, and even films, as well as sharing art and writing.
Perhaps most importantly to me personally, zines were a means of establishing a unique brand of friendship. Although also bought and sold (usually for a dollar or two), zines were typically traded among their creators through the mail. We shared pieces of our lives and loves with one another through this medium both literary and artistic—both privately inspired and motivated, and yet vulnerably, purposefully public.
In this digital age, online communities are instantly accessible, focusing on any area of interest of which you could possibly, wildly dream. For every networking desire out there, it seems there’s a corresponding social media opportunity to connect and self-validate. But in the late 80s and 90s, zines were the primary way of connecting folks who shared arcane and under-the-radar interests. They networked bands, fans, penpals, artists, and zine-traders all across the world.
Today the significance of paper zines has shifted as their purpose has changed. But their status as an art form remains—perhaps holding stronger now than ever, emphasized by their survival in this era of immediate electronic engagement.