In Search of Underground: Zines in Champaign-Urbana: Culture: Smile Politely

I’m embarrassed to admit that I first met Joan Didion last winter when I read Advance to Bethlehem during Christmas holidays. Lately, I find myself returning to this volume’s “I can’t get this monster out of my head” essay. Reflecting on the tension between artistic license and commercial viability, Didion invokes the novel, calling it “nothing if not the expression of an individual voice, of a unique vision of experience”. The line resonates because I work with an even more personal and individualistic literary form: the zine.

An exterior shot of the Independent Media Center in the old post office in downtown Urbana.  It is a brick facade with neoclassical style columns.  The entrance is above street level and is accessed by a staircase guarded by balustrades.  A multicolored sign to the left indicates current tenants, including IMC.  Photo by Michael O'Boyle.Photo by Michael O’Boyle.

For the uninitiated, I don’t think I can give a satisfactory definition of the form. After spending the past three weeks or so browsing through the Independent Media Center’s Zine library, I share researcher Stephen Duncombe’s inclination to hand over a pile and say, “These are zines. Any attempt at a firm characterization could be easily refuted by dozens of counterexamples. These are small volumes of fiction, non-fiction, polemics, poetry, journal entries, or any form of written content except art collections and comics. They are the work of a single creator, except for compilations and those that accept general submissions. They are handmade, except those professionally printed. They are created around subcultures and underground music – especially punk rock – except for those that exist on literally every other topic imaginable.

The closest thing to a unifying characteristic is that they are decidedly amateurish: their creators, known as zinesters, practice their craft with no expectation of circulation, acceptance, or payment. They don’t care about publisher or consumer approval for sharing their content. They often manufacture their volumes at a financial loss and release very small quantities to immediate acquaintances. They pride themselves on working outside the mainstream and creating without worrying about marketability or even accessibility. They may not have something to share, but they do have something to say. Zine-making is anti-establishment, anti-capitalist, and anti-anything-other-than-you-can-think.

The collection of zines hosted by the Independent Media Center.  It spans two bookcases full with the zines housed in filing boxes.  They are organized by subject among perzines, music, literature, politics, art, gender, sexuality and many more.  In the foreground are two chairs, one green upholstered and the other gray sofa.  Photo by Michael O'Boyle.Photo by Michael O’Boyle.

As an aspiring writer hoping to join the establishment, it baffled me when I started perusing the IMC collection. A central idea in the very small amount of formal training I received is that we write for an audience. Even in personal essays, memoirs, and published journal entries, which detail the most private thoughts, writers believe they have something valuable for general readers, so they polish their work into “consumable” form. . The Zinesters defy this maxim. While perusing the IMC perzines (a personal zine portmanteau) I encountered unintelligible rants about incidents while grocery shopping, tales of unrequited love, open letters to Britany Spears, and drawings that distort human anatomy so grotesquely that I could have nightmares for the next few weeks.

A shelf in the independent media center displaying current publications, such as Activator and Jacobin magazines, alongside other smaller independent publications.  At the top left is a purple painted mailbox where the IMC accepts donations for the Zine library.  Photo by Michael O'Boyle.Photo by Michael O’Boyle.

Some contained reviews of other zines and interviews with rock bands, but the majority are only understandable if the reader knows the zinester’s personal history. And personal doesn’t mean good. I include Didion’s passage for the following: a novel is “nothing if it is not the expression of an individual voice, of a unique vision of experience – and how many good novels or even interesting, out of the thousands published, appear each year?”

Three issues of the zine Don't Tread Lightly produced by UIUC students Emily Guske and Joey Kreiling.  They are black and white stapled booklets with covers featuring a stylized title and a cartoon, such as a woman in metal armor holding a flag and a woman lifting her full skirt to step on a coiled serpent.  Issues featured are Issue 2 November 2020, Issue 3 January/February 2021 and Issue 4 March 2021. Photo by Michael O'Boyle.Photo by Michael O’Boyle.

Still, a few of the hundreds, if not thousands, of volumes I considered tickled me. For example, Trevor Dowdy hit bottom, in which the creator’s life as a professional dishwasher in downtown Champaign and a comic book enthusiast is chronicled. Aside from possibly carbon-dating it by references to Radio Maria and The Great Impasta, I was captivated by Dowdy’s sarcasm. He tells us he’s a card-holding member of the International Brotherhood of Dishwashers, Local 945. His professional pride shines through, ensuring his dishes are always clean enough to consume. He reveals his refined artistic instincts by declaring Christian Slater the greatest actor of all time. Another favorite is Don’t tread lightlya “feminist, queer, eco-compilation zine” produced by U of I students. Issue 3, January/February 2021, features Emily Guske’s drawings of the women present at Biden’s inauguration- Harris titled “Coats of the Inauguration 2021;” the surprise of the final design being the iconic Bernie-in-mittens had me laughing out loud.

Is this the reason for creating something so populist that it ironically excludes a large majority of the population? A zine titled Personally yours… Life on Zines shelved at the Ricker Library contains zinesters’ thoughts on their craft. Liz Mason quotes Tim Kreider describing the creation of zines as “radio messages in interstellar space: more a leap of faith than anything else”. A zinester known as Galia describes the sense of community she feels creating: she describes the experience of going to zine gatherings where “girls who recalled [her] of [herself] selected [her zines] stand up and read them and say things like “thank you, it’s so real”. [She] felt seen and heard. I guess the chance of reaching another human is reason enough to create.

But the real rewards seem to be pure, unrefined expression, the satisfaction of creating something with one’s own hands, and a creative outlet channel. Dowdy states that “when [he] first picked up HRD, [he] was a loser. [He] drank all day and smoked 3 packs a day… [his] life is on track now… when [he thinks] about everything Trevor Dowdy and HRD did for [him, he gets] a big HARD ON!!!!! [sic]Despite the long tradition of irreverence in zines, Dowdy’s zine allowed him to create something entirely his own, a cultural space where, unlike the “real world”, he is never a “loser”. That’s the magic of zine making.

The value to the creator, however, comes at the expense of the potential reader. Zinesters claim to create a community, but their zines are virtually inaccessible to those outside of their circle. To find a scene, you need to know where the scene is. It’s easier in big cities – Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Portland, etc. – and the usual suspects are well represented in the IMC collection. However, I can count the number assigned to Champaign-Urbana residents on the one hand. To be fair, the IMC was only founded in 2000 and the collection dates back to roughly that point; the simplest explanation is that the underground migrated from print zines to blogs and Myspace pages around this time. Even so, the problem of knowing where to look is only magnified in the online world.

Also, just having an online presence puts you on the grid and makes you another data point to rank and market to. Zines preserve at least the core of underground culture: existing outside of mainstream recognition and therefore beyond the reach of corporate America. I guess darkness and inaccessibility are the cost. In this regard, we are fortunate to have the IMC Zine library (and the U of I’s own collections scattered across multiple libraries), where we have a lead, if not a doorway, to the stage.

The IMC Zine Library is open to the public whenever the IMC is. Special thanks to the IMC staff and the U of I art and architecture librarians for their invaluable help and generosity during my research on this piece.

Top photo by Michael O’Boyle.

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