Wanted: pen, plain old paper, imagination

The Web hasn't killed the zine, say some artists. In fact, it may be driving interest in the ultimate staple of DIY culture.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Nowadays, you don't need a mailbox for bills, takeout menus, or party invites. But even in the Internet era, some special things still come in paper packages. Consider the zine – that handmade, carefully assembled staple of DIY culture – which some observers say is slowly growing again in profile.

Zines come out of the independent press movement but truly busted out in the early 1990s, says librarian Jenna Freedman, who has created a zine collection at Barnard College in New York. The classic zine tells stories about the creator's life and is xeroxed with a punk rock cut-and-paste aesthetic. Handmade, cheap, and defiantly independent, "zines are works of art unto themselves," Ms. Freedman says.

Some take that a step further, creating art zines that deserve no less respect than glossy magazines or artist books, according to librarian Susan Thomas, who started a zine collection at the Pratt Institute in 2004 during her time at the New York college. (She since moved to the Borough of Manhattan Community College.) Zinestreet.org lists over 60 general zine libraries – some independent entities, some part of university or public-library collections.

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The Internet has made finding zines easier, Freedman acknowledges. Many distributors now have online catalogs. And a number of zinesters do have blogs, Freedman says, but "people use them for different things" – quick-hit news updates rather than artistic expression.

"The Art in Zines," this year's exhibit at the ABC No Rio, a social center in Manhattan that includes a gallery, was well attended "given that it was pretty esoteric," says organizer Steven Englander. The event, which featured case cover art, layout/design, and editorial illustrations in zines, drummed up interest in the group's zine library.

So what kind of art can you make using a xerox machine, anyway? Many zines tend to rely on comics, illustration, and collage. For her now-defunct zine, "Red-Hooded Sweatshirt," Marissa Falco of Boston collected box after box of graphics paraphernalia to decorate the pages – security linings from envelopes, for example. She called her zine, "a life illustrated by comics" and sketched things such as a dinner party on a city street median and an encounter with indie-rocker Melissa Auf der Maur. That sense of shared experience can create a social universe. Angela Mark of Boston published the popular zine "American Living" with husband Michael Shores from 1982 to 1988. Mostly line drawings and collages (with no attribution to detail who made what), the publication grew fancier over time with die-cut paper, color covers, and creative folds.

Zines today are even more elaborate. Elsie Sampson, based in New York City, tacks plastic dolls into "Chinese Sweatshop." It's almost the conceptual art version of a zine.

Many zines arrive in envelopes gleefully decorated with stamps and stickers. Inside, you'll find hand-sewn bindings and glued-on colored paper. Creator Jennie Hinchcliff says she and collaborator Carolee Gilligan Wheeler "bring our fine-art perspective to it." (Ms. Hinchcliff teaches book arts at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.)

Still, despite the craftsmanship, Hinchcliff sees her work as zine-centric, not the more elevated and respected "artist books." The key difference is personal content.

For instance, the zine "Kimagure na Dowa no Hon" is based on travel sketchbooks. Sampson divides her work into zines or artist books depending, her Website says, on whether or not she cares if you understand her. Reading a zine, you identify with the creator, Hinchcliff says. "The story was your story, too."

"The connections you make with people are really amazing," Mr. Shores says.

He and Mark are still friends with people they met at a Minneapolis zine fair in 1985. Falco used to get three or four daily letters from readers who wrote to order zines, comment on zines, or send her theirs. "A publication is usually a pretty one-sided communication," she says. "It became very interactive."

One might think that the Internet would step in to fill this lust for communication. But Shores thinks zines are now "a reaction" to the Internet. Zinesters love "the tactile experience of reading and creating something," says Freedman. "There's really something nice about getting something in the mail that's ... made by hand," Falco says.

Digital graphic-design technology continues to drive the trend. Many art zines now "have higher production values," Thomas says via e-mail. Mark and Shores went from mimeograph to copiers to laser printers, which allow finer work.

New zinesters are still joining the, well, fold. When Falco dips her toe back in and looks at zine catalogs, she finds "very few people that I know."

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