Those with a moderate knowledge of this site (or, for that matter, who have spent any mount of time on its Wikipedia page) can tell you that Boing Boing (nee bOING bOING) came into this world as a zine -- "The World's Greatest Neurozine,” no less. It’s genesis into a popular blog is certainly something of a rarity, of course. In a certain sense, the two mediums feel at odds -- the physical and the virtual -- particularly as one seems constantly under threat from the success of the other.
But as zines suffer at the hands on the online self-publishing explosion, there’s been a push in recent years to collect some of the best representations of the medium, to counteract their nebulous, dissolving nature with bound collections. While these don’t have the same thrill as newly printed single issues, it’s impossible to overstate the value of these volumes, which help to preserve a rich culture history that would otherwise vanish with the disappearance of their remaining copies.
Of course, not every zine is a masterpiece, but the great ones hold work on-par with the best professionally published books. And thankfully, publishers like Microcosm are doing their damnedest to preserve as many as possible. Below you’ll find some personal favorites. It’s hardly a complete list by any measure, but these are the ones I keep pulling off my own bookcase shelves to read and re-read.
Add Toner, by Aaron Cometbus. (Last Gasp)
I don’t know what to tell you beyond the fact that Aaron Cometbus is one of the best writers of the past 50 years. I believed this when I was a 13-year-old living in the East San Francisco Bay, and I believe it to this day. There’s a lot of catching up to do, if you’re not a frequenter of the zine sections of anarchist bookstores, much of which is out-of-print. This is probably the best possible place to start, a 368 page collection of the best zine that ever was. 2002’s Despite Everything is much more comprehensive, at nearly double the size, sure, but much of that collection is devoted to a writer attempting to figure out precisely what he wants his zine to do.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that the relatively recent issue 54 is easily one of the series’ best, a story of growing up, diverging paths and traveling Asia and playing Scrabble with his old childhood buddies, who are now one of the biggest rock bands in the world.
Scam: The First Four Issues, by Iggy Scam. (Microcosm)
Totally, totally essential for anyone with anything approaching a punk rock bone in their body. In more recent years, Iggy has contributed to This American Life and written a politically-minded tome featuring a back quote by none other than Howard Zinn. To those of us who know it, however, Scam will always be his legacy. This collection of the zine’s first four issues features plenty of types on how to live for free, chronicles of questionable police authority and honest-to-goodness music reviews, all alternating between type and handwritten text.
The sporadically published zine just celebrated the release of its ninth issues, an extended cut of the Black Flag oral history the author wrote up for the LA Weekly. For those with even a passing interest in the band and the hardcore scene, it gets the highest possible recommendation.
The Encyclopedia of Doris, by Cindy Crabb. (Doris Press)
Just about everything you could ever want from a zine collection: reproductions of hand-photocopied layouts, the typewritten lists, scribbled comics about bugs and stuff, feminist politics and memoir all rolled into one. Oh, and an alphabetical arrangement of the contents collected herein. I think what really enamored me to Cindy Crabb’s much-loved zine, however, is the author’s laying bare of her own struggles in politics and empathy.
“I have not always been a good transgender ally,” she writes. “I have been frightened by the implications of people born girl, deciding they are not that, and afraid that somehow that would undermine my struggle. It’s smart writing, obviously, and it’s clearly from the heart. Most importantly, it’s the words of a person with a lot to teach, still concious of the fact that she still has things left to learn.
Burn Burn Collector: Collected Stories from One through Nine, by Al Burian. (PM Press)
Al Burian’s name invariably comes up in every list of great zines. And there’s no question why, really -- he’s one of the most talented writers ever to sit down and bang out a zine. Unlike most authors in the medium, there’s no shortage of ways to get Burian’s work, but this collection is really the most logical, for that rare series that came into the world mostly full formed. And, unlike many of his contemporaries, who are hesitant to jump into the digital sphere, you can even buy the whole damned thing as an e-book. Those that kind of feels like cheating, no?
One More for the People, by Martha Grover. (Perfect Day Publishing)
Perhaps setbacks aren’t the sole source of inspiration. Maybe purpose can just as often arise from positive change, but it’s hard to argue the point that most great art is born of the unfortunate. None of this is to suggest, of course, that Martha Grover’s life is ultimately tragic, but this collection of eight year’s worth of Somnambulist is evidence of a writer finding literary purpose in adversity.
Her early family memoirs are terrific (“March 1, 2009: The [family] meeting is canceled because everyone has strep throat”), but One More for the People explodes with life a soon as “81 Symptoms” begins, chronicaling her diagnosis and eventual coming to grips with Cushing’s Disease, including, as advertised, a full catalog of the strange and potentially fatal disease’s laundry list of indicators.
One More for the People is strong and funny and ultimately hopeful, and Grover continues her honest-to-a-fault explorations in the final segment, “Personals,” closing the book with the wonderful list, “Fifteen Things I’m Not Putting on My OK Cupid Profile,” a section that opens with the pitch perfect, “This morning I put my iPod on shuffle, and strangely, the first two songs I heard were both about murdering women.” It probably says more about my own neuroses that I think that’s a perfect opener, right?
On Subbing, by Dave Roche. (Microcosm)
Along with fellow Temp Slave and Dishwasher, this one gives me great joy, as someone who’s lived his own personal Factotum in early post-education life. There’s no greater well of zine fodder than the dead end job, and Dave Roche’s a master catalogger of his struggles to engage a classroom full of children with special needs. Every bit as entertaining as it is heartwarming. I think I’ve accidentally purchased a couple of this over the years, and they were both worth it.
Ghost Pine, by Jeff Miller. (Invisible Publishing)
Old Erick “Iggy Scam” Lyle calls this one “Canada’s longest running and best punk zine.” I’m struggling to argue the point, but I’m not sure I can. On the former front, I can’t thing of anything I can claim to any of value I’ve performed consistently since the mid-90s. As for the latter, well, Jeff Miller spins an entertaining true life tale, especially when discussing his suburban punk rock youth.
This collection, clearly, is an attempt to highlight the literary merits of the long-running zine, collecting, non-chronologically, the best of the title into a prose volume that shares none of the aesthetic properties of the punk zines on which we were weaned, saved for the screen printed cover. But hey, entertaining writing is entertaining writing, bad photocopy or no.
Absolutely Zippo: Anthology of a Fanzine, by Robert Eggplant. (Benny & Son)
Now this is how a punk zine looks. And maybe it’s partially the fact that I purchased a used copy, but this feels like it’s going to fall apart in my hands every time I open the damned thing -- not like those loving compiled and beautiful bound collections we’ve seen from some of these folks. The glue holding together this volume undoubtedly has far less reinforcement than the staples that held the original issues together. And maybe there’s something to be said for that -- the etherial nature of fanzines. Not everything is meant to last forever, right?
But while some of the contents included herein no doubt hold some embarrassment for their creators in the decades that have since passed, there’s a lot to be said for the essential nature for all those harboring even a passing interest in 80s/90s punk rock. Between Eggplant’s own musings and contributions from the likes of Aaron Cometbus and Larry Livermore (whose “scene reports” seem to always include mention of just how hastily they were written), this is, perhaps, the definitive documentation of the Lookout / Gilman East Bay scene.
Touch and Go: The Complete Hardcore Punk Zine, by Tesco Vee and Dave Stimson. (Bazillion Points)
This collection happily skirts the line between the two, maintaining, for better and worse, the original layouts of the 22 issues it compiles, while creating a volume that’ll play nicely next to your fancy pants coffee table art books. Bazillion Points outdid its here. Every page is a hardcore show flier come to life, featuring interviews with and works by most of hardcore’s definitive icons, including Ian MacKaye, Keith Morris, Henry Rollins and, of course, the Meatmen’s Tesco Vee, who would go on to found the record label of the same name with co-author Dave Stimson and Necros bassist Corey Rusk.
This 575 page collection is important as more than just its insight into the label -- it’s a key document of one of the most powerful music movements of the past 35 years. And hell, who doesn’t want to look at full-size reproductions of early Black Flag concert fliers?
Schism: New York Hardcore Fanzine, edited by Chris Wrenn. (Bridge Nine Press)
Speaking of Hardcore, if you can find a reasonably-priced copy of the Schism hardcore fanzine collection by Bridge Nine Press, don’t hesitate. That book’s currently fetching more than $100 over on Amazon, which certainly feels like a lot to pay for a book that’s a fraction the price of the Touch and Go collection -- one that originally carried a $14 cover price at that. But the pictures and oft-lighthearted interviews with the likes of Agnostic Front and Gorilla Biscuits are pretty essential readings for anyone who live through the era -- and those who wished they had.
The Simple History Series, by J Gerlach. (Microcosm)
Like Howard Zinn broken up into bite-sized, Cliffs Notes volumes, this unbound collected series chronicles a diverse array of historical moments into easily digested. There’s ten books in all, and once you’ve finished the first issue on Columbus on your bus ride to work, there’s no getting out of this things they didn’t tell you in school history series. The day after getting this in the mail, I shot a letter to the publisher asking when volume two is set to arrive. The answer is eventually. But not soon enough.
Easily the best compilation I’ve seen of an 80s skate zine. And damned if it doesn’t make me happy, with its badly drawn comics and goofy interviews with folks like Lance Mountain. Nostalgia for the era has never been stronger, thanks almost single-handedly to the cinematic output of Bones Brigade founder Stacy Peralta. As great as his recent documentaries have been, however, there’s something to be said for the raw document that is this collection, with its hand-drawn ads, collections of abandoned logos and sometimes questionable grammar.
More than just about anything I’ve come across over the past couple of years, this thing makes me want to jump on my board. But, as I’m sure is the case with its creators more than 30 years after its inception, my knees just ain’t what they used to be.
Brian Heater (@bheater ) is a senior editor at Engadget and the founder of indie comics site, The Daily Cross Hatch. His writing has appeared in Spin, The Onion, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Press. He hosts several podcasts and shares an apartment in Queens with a rabbit named Sylvia.