How to Express Yourself Through Zine-Making

Post by guest contributor Lucy Kagan.

When you walk down the Artist Alley at GeekGirl Con, if you’re looking for them, you may find a TON of different self-published or small-press books. Many of them call themselves zines, but the content, format, and presentation from one to the other might be wildly different. I know that’s part of what makes me so excited to stumble upon each new zine I find: the feeling of discovery, excitement at finding something totally unique, and the way that each creator’s individuality comes across so clearly to show me a new perspective on something I had never thought about before. 

So, how do you define a zine, and what makes it such a perfect medium for self expression? Pronounced “zeen” as it is short for “magazine,” the name gives us a clue: a zine is a small press publication, popularly thought to have less than 1,000 copies produced (it’s the low quantity that makes it small press!), but more typically having even 100 or less copies made. 

It’s hard to imagine someone from the 1940s saying the word “fanzine,” but it actually goes back at least that far! It’s worth mentioning that self-published papers have been a way for marginalized groups to share their truths since the invention of the printing press, but fast forward to the early 1900s, and amateur printing was becoming a phenomenon. The term “fanzine” arose from science fiction fan material being created, and artist groups like the Dadaists, who you may remember from art history, gave these publications the visual style they can be identified by. It’s not surprising speculative fiction has always been pioneering, even in zines!

There’s a lot more I could say about early SF fanzines, but I’ll just mention that the first TV-inspired fanzine was about Star Trek, and it was called Spockanalia. (…Okay, I can’t just leave it there, I have to say that Star Trek fans also created some of the first slash fics through zines, and if that doesn’t spark your interest in history, I don’t know what to tell you.)

Throughout the ‘70s, science fiction focused zines were also standing up to do what small press had always done before: representing voices of marginalized people. Probably the best familiarity fans might have with zine culture from this time is through the 1990s riot grrrl scene: women who continued to be marginalized found a voice in punk culture, and were able to reach a wider audience through zines and small press when larger publishing houses were gatekeepers to the means to publish traditionally. The DIY nature of punk culture gave a lot of aesthetic influence to zines at that time, identifiable by the photo-copied-and-stapled approach, and you can still see plenty of that today.

Nowadays when I go to a con, I see incoming fans and their excitement for zines, but also their confusion. “I thought a zine was when a bunch of artists each do an illustration on a theme or fandom, and compile it into a book,” or “I thought a zine was like an ashcan*, really low budget and DIY.”

*Ashcans are usually specifically comics, typically low-grade prototypes for promotional use.

It’s easy to see why newcomers to the zine world have some confusion about what a zine is, because they’ve been done a million different ways over the years! But in that loose definition is potential. Anything you can imagine, you can create! For me, I wanted to see aesthetic lifestyle content, but with the fun of magic, so I created Hazel: A Witches’ Lifestyle Zine as if it was something Kiki would read in Kiki’s Delivery Service. I created a plant zine to talk about my feelings about all things botanical. My friends and others at conventions have created Nic Cage fanzines, zines critiquing John Green’s work, a fictional newsletter from a fictional zoo, and cocktail recipes based on Sailor Moon characters. Photo zines, poetry zines, music zines, manifestos and prose zines; these are all options in addition to the classic illustration fanzine or the punk zines that educate readers on cultural issues.

So, when you’re ready to craft a custom booklet to get your ideas out there, think about what kinds of things you’d like to express: what you love, what you struggle with, your daily life, what you imagine the future to be like, anything that’s in your heart! Decide what format you want this zine to take — what presentation best supports your idea? How many pages should it be, and what size and shape? How are you going to make it? What formats are something you have the capacity to produce? Then, get out your favorite tools of the trade and get started. Whether that’s writing, photography, sketching in pencil, watercolor, or even crayons, just get started. If you don’t like how your first one turns out, you can always hold onto those lessons for next time.

This can also be a great place for play. As we grow up, there’s less and less space for us to just play the way we did as kids in art class, without any imperative of productivity. You’ll be amazed by the places your brain will go and the creativity you can unlock just by making it a no-pressure activity all about discovery. What kinds of shapes can you make? What kinds of colors express the feeling you want to get across? How can you express music on the written or drawn page? How can you combine text and imagery? How can you explore your thoughts and feelings on paper? What happens when you put this shape next to those words? Give yourself time to get totally engrossed in the process without worrying about anything else. Maybe you come back later with your editor’s glasses on and try to make sense of the thing, change this, fix that. Maybe you don’t. Then, it’s time to put it all together.

There are many routes to go with bookmaking, and you can find fabulous tutorials on the old photocopier method, or using digital tools such as InDesign and Photoshop. You can print it out yourself or at the local print shop and fold, staple, sew, or glue it, or you can go through a printing service that will handle the printing, cropping, and book binding for you, and you may be able to raise the funds for this if it’s not within your price range (although, I’d say to practice with more DIY methods first so you get the hang of it before asking for outside help). Once you have a finished book in your hands, it’s a magical feeling: YOU DID THIS. You made the thing!

The next most magical thing is to take one of your copies and hand it to a friend. Maybe they’ll be inspired to make their own zines, and you can trade. Maybe next time, you can work on one together. Sharing zines is what makes them such an incredible experience – why else did you make all those copies? Getting to see your zine enjoyed by others, and taking in their own work, too, is what keeps me coming back to conventions again and again, and I always leave with a feeling of utter delight. It feels incredible to have other people read your work and for it to be valued, without having to go through the publishing industry for validation.

Zinesters are some of the most creative, thoughtful, and fun people I’ve ever been around, and although we may or may not all be introverts, we all have common ground, just like any GeekGirl. So, keep your eye out for zines when you’re in Artist Alley or browsing artist’s work online. Start up a conversation if you’re in person or comment if you’re online, and you may learn a lot about zines, and make friends along the way. 

Zine Resources:

How to Make a Zine – Somnath Bhatt at The Creative Independent

How to Make a Zine – Emma Dajska at Rookie (basically a zine online, and tragically discontinued) This one shows the single page folded into an 8-page book method, no binding required!

Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine? (Book) – Esther Watson It may be backordered, but consider supporting your local bookstore like Seattle favorite Elliot Bay Book Company and ordering this for a good mail day in your future.

Girl Zines: Making Media, Doing Feminism – Allison Piepmeier  This one’s available on JSTOR if you have access through your work or university, and ResearchGate if you have an account. If not, it’s another great buy to support your local bookstore, and Google Books has a 65-page preview you can view for free!

DIY Bookbinding Watch out, bookbinding may turn into your next love! Books made for art’s sake are a thing!


Lucy Kagan is a freelance illustrator, zine maker, and pattern designer from Raleigh, NC, who raises plants and sews clothes in her spare time. Her zine Hazel: A Witches’ Lifestyle Zine, is celebrating its fifth and final issue this year, and launching the Kickstarter for its publication this August. You can find her having tea in the garden, or on her website, Instagram, and Twitter.

Website: http://lucykagan.com
Instagram: http://instagram.com/cottonbook
Twitter: http://twitter.com/lucykagan

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