This Is What Zine Culture Looks Like In 2017

by Emily Dixon

In a dimly lit Bed-Stuy kitchen, Aiyana Knauer and Laurel Leckert squint at their Macbooks. Behind them hangs a poster reading “Capitalism is a pyramid scheme”; the faint whine of an accordion drifts in from upstairs. Leckert swigs occasionally from a beer bottle. They’re working on issue three of the “Shout Your Abortion” zine, a collection of personal narratives from people who’ve had abortions.

“Zines are something both of us have grown up with,” says Leckert, who’s 34 and works multiple jobs: she teaches self-defense classes to women and non-binary people at a karate school, and works at a credit union and a small travel agency. She wears thick-framed black glasses and blunt bangs cut high above her eyebrows. “They’re self-published, uncensored, unpolished – they’re punk rock and DIY to the core.”

The endurance of the zine as a medium seems, at first glance, perplexing. Originated by science fiction fans in the 1930s, then exploding during the 1970s punk scene and 1990s third-wave feminism, zines are homemade, self-published mini-magazines. Their circulation is small and their readership limited. Why would writers and artists continue to spend hours in copy shops when they could distribute their work within minutes to a limitless Internet audience?

And yet the zine survives. More than 400 enthusiasts attended the fifth NYC Feminist Zinefest in March. The New York Public Library has a zine collection, and recently hosted the “Protest in Print” exhibition. Zines have even been co-opted by the fashion industry: Kanye West has released multiple zines to advertise his fashion line, Yeezy, and Calvin Klein distributed a zine of outtakes from Justin Bieber’s 2016 underwear campaign.

syainsidean inside page of Shout Your Abortion

Knauer and Leckert, alongside friend Isabel Martin, began working on their zine in January 2016, when the nationwide Shout Your Abortion activist group, based in Seattle, called for supporters to celebrate the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade. “The point was to elevate the voices of people who’ve had abortions, and to start a conversation that reclaims the abortion narrative,” Knauer says.

Both are zine purists: though they type individual pages, they cut and paste them onto a card stock master copy, then reproduce it for free by sneaking into the print room of a Midtown office where Leckert’s friend works, or by using a friend’s Staples code. “Corporate scamming,” Leckert calls it.

“Ideally, it’s free to make zines,” says Knauer, 27, who works two jobs at a bar and a craft beer distributor. “We try to sell them as a fundraiser for the New York Abortion Access Fund, but we give them away if people can’t afford them.” The zines typically sell for $5, and the resulting donation to the abortion fund isn’t sizable – “we usually donate $20 to $150 at a time,” says Leckert. “It’s pocket change. But they’re very sweet and grateful.”

Leckert considers the zine format directly congruous with the Shout Your Abortion message. “Zines are very democratic and so is the need and desire for abortion,” she says. Knauer, whose intricate tattoos poke out from the sleeves of her cable-knit sweater, recites the Shout Your Abortion mission statement: “Abortion is normal; our stories are ours to tell; this is not a debate.”

crybabystickersA “Crybaby” issue

The Shout Your Abortion team attended the NYC Feminist Zinefest at Barnard College, where hundreds of zine artists and readers gathered to buy, sell and share their allegiance to the zine.

Near the entrance, Stephanie Segura, 27, sat at a table piled with pocket-sized zines. A member of an independent publishing collective, La Chamba Press, Segura produces photography zines, largely focused on Mexico City. “Because there are no rules for zines, people can voice what they want and express what they want without being edited,” she said.

Lauren Melissa traveled from Toronto with The Wheelhouse, a collective that distributes zines from multiple artists. She explained, “In mainstream media, you don’t get as many perspectives. The work we do is grounded in queerness and showcasing diverse perspectives.”

A skeptic might point to another, bigger platform open to a diversity of voices: the Internet. But, as Barnard zine librarian Jenna Freedman argues in an article titled “Zines Are Not Blogs,” few people have the skills or resources to create their own online platforms, so they’re beholden to the dictates of whichever host they use. “There is usually an Internet service provider that has the power to pull the plug on something it deems offensive, be it because of politics, sex, religion, copyright, or anything else,” Freedman says.

Which is not to say zines and the Internet are necessarily antithetical. The Shout Your Abortion team solicits submissions through a Facebook page and receives most via email. Some zines are readable in their entirety online; those that aren’t often maintain strong social media presences, particularly on Instagram and Tumblr.

A few tables down from Stephanie Segura at the festival, 17-year-old Remi Riordan and 18-year-old Danielle Sklar displayed their zine, Crybaby, on a glittery silver tablecloth. Crybaby is almost the anti-Shout Your Abortion: created digitally, it’s as meticulously designed as any mainstream magazine, it’s readable online, and it boasts a far larger online following than physical circulation (16,500 followers across Tumblr and Instagram, but a typical print run of only 60 copies.) Yet their motivations for producing zines are similar. “They’re very accessible – anyone can make it,” said Riordan, a high school senior who’ll attend USC in the fall.

crybabyinsidean inside page of “Crybaby”

Another appealing element to the zine: “they’re tactile in a way that blogs and the Internet aren’t,” said Jordan Alam, 25, who co-organized the festival and creates zines on topics including emotional stress, cultural heritage, adoption and hair. It’s a view echoed by Knauer of Shout Your Abortion. “It’s really easy to close a tab on a computer,” she says. “You can lose zines, but when you throw it away you have to think about it. It has a lot more permanence than posting something online.”

And yet Alam offered a seemingly contradictory reason for the prevalence of zines in the Internet age. “They’re avenues to express thoughts that aren’t surveilled,” she said. It’s harder to be anonymous on the Internet, where IP addresses can be tracked and authors identified. Even a blog post might be harder to get rid of than first imagined, thanks to archive sites like the Wayback Machine. Undocumented immigrants, Alam suggested, might prefer to produce a zine than discuss their status on the Internet.

About half of the contributors to Shout Your Abortion ask to be unnamed. “The topic of abortion faces endless amounts of ridicule and violence,” Leckert says. “Having a zine format literally allows people to speak who would otherwise be silenced by the possibility of abuse or being trolled online.”

Three weeks after Leckert and Knauer met in Bed-Stuy to compile it, issue three of Shout Your Abortion emerges from the photocopier of a Midtown office building. Leckert spends 45 minutes folding and stapling each copy. “One of my square friends – she’s a teacher – asked me what I wanted for my birthday a few years ago,” she says. “I was like, ‘A zine stapler!’ and she said, ‘Do you mean a long-armed stapler?’” Four years later, the birthday gift is still going strong.

In one story, a woman writes about the abortion she had in 1969, four years before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Another recounts 40 years of guilt after her abortion in the Bronx. A former worker at Planned Parenthood speaks proudly of her career.

That night, Leckert takes a stack to a Bushwick basement, the site of a women’s art showcase titled ‘GIRL PUNCH’. The ceiling is low and the walls whitewashed; in the corner, a tattooist with a septum ring offers flash tattoos of fern leaves and bare torsos. A DJ plays Aaliyah. Leckert fans herself with a zine – the basement is poorly ventilated, and attendees wipe sweat from their upper lips. She sells the first copy of Shout Your Abortion: Volume Three to a quiet man in scuffed Vans, whose hair hangs in curtains over his eyes.

He turns to the first page. “At the risk of sounding apocalyptic, this is a really scary time for all of us,” the introduction reads. “By providing a forum for people to shout their abortions honestly and without judgment, we are fighting back.”

Images courtesy Shout Your Abortion and Crybaby

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