Words by Bren Carruthers
Illustration by Heath Hipwell

Born into the digital age, it’s hard for me to imagine a time when accessing a community of like-minded people was difficult; the internet has made connecting with others so much easier. But long before websites like Tumblr became the glue that seems to bind every piece of fandom, opinion, and self-made art together in one format, self-printed zines were the primary means of underground expression.

Zines are handmade, photocopied publications, usually made in very small numbers and based on very niche topics. Unlike most other media of the late twentieth century, zines had the ability to be whatever the creator desired. For some zine makers, that meant cut and paste collages. For others, it encompassed a range of mediums, including handwritten content, political rhetoric, comics, photography, and art.

In the same way that Gutenberg’s printing press changed the way ideas were circulated to the masses, the mass availability of the photocopier allowed the 20th century underground to exchange new ideas quickly and easily through various subcultural scenes. Fuelled by caffeine and their beliefs, eager devotees spent countless late hours hovering over warm copiers. They would spread their zines through mail order, sell them at gigs or zine fairs, or supply them to record stores to be filed away in their own section.

The first real appearance of the zine in its identifiable form was in the science fiction community, where fans would publish their grievances and thoughts on the latest sci-fi hit. In many ways, these works are a precursor to the fanfiction, fan art, and alternate universe works that pepper the internet today.

Other fan communities followed. Punk, a music fanzine that began printing in 1976, chronicled the underground music scene found in New York City at that time. One of the bands in that scene, The Ramones, launched into the mainstream spotlight, taking the term punk with them and giving the genre its name.

However, zines also had the ability to transcend fan circles and become social movements in their own right. Zinemaking played a prominent role in the riot grrrl movement of the early ‘90s, a vital building block of third-wave feminism. Stitching together a do-it-yourself aesthetic in both art and music and shunning the mainstream, artists like Kathleen Hanna claimed the name of the Riot Grrrl zine, and helped evolve it into an entire movement. As best explained by The Riot Grrrl Manifesto, zines were a vital necessity:

BECAUSE we need to talk to each other. Communication/inclusion is the key. We will never know if we don’t break the code of silence… BECAUSE in every form of media we see us/myself slapped, decapitated, laughed at, objectified, raped, trivialized, pushed, ignored, stereotyped, kicked, scorned, molested, silenced, invalidated, knifed, shot, choked and killed. BECAUSE a safe space needs to be created for girls where we can open our eyes and reach out to each other without being threatened by this sexist society and our day to day bullshit.

Espousing sex positivity, anti-oppression, and reclaiming ownership of misogynist slurs, the riot grrrl movement not only inspired an entire lineage of female artists and musicians, but also helped to inform and inspire artists like Kurt Cobain.

As the internet became more popular, the zine age slipped away. Of course, zines are still being made today, although they are now mostly the domain of the obscure hobbyist. Rather than an outlet for the underground, modern zinemakers are far more interested in exploration with the medium. Some zines are accompanied by extremely personal effects, like a strand of hair or even the zinemaker’s own blood. Other zines play with genre, delving into incredibly niche topics and postulations. Yet most modern zines are explorations in graphic art—the zine is, after all, another blank canvas waiting for an artist to impress their personality on its surface.

Melbourne, as a UNESCO City of Literature, helps play a major role in modern zine culture. The Sticky Institute in Campbell Arcade, under Flinders Street in the city, is one of the few zine-specific stores in the world. It acts as a cultural nexus for the medium not just locally, but globally, through their refined ability to access and order zines from across the world.

While the days of the zine as a facilitator of fandom and subculture may be gone, the medium is sure to live on, much in the same way that people will continue to hang onto the printed newspaper or book. The romance of print, of intimacy and tangibility of the physical item, and the human desire to collect means that printed matter will always have a role in art and culture.