Notion Magazine’s Editor, Michael C. Lewin, talked to Professor of Graphic Design at the University of the Arts London, Teal Triggs, for a piece in the latest issue of Notion. She’s the author of a lush, enormous new book, Fanzines, which collates the best and barmiest from the world of fanzines from the last 50 years. Here’s the full transcript of their conversation.
Michael C Lewin: As a professor of graphic design, does the lack of visual coherence in some fanzines sometimes make you want to scream? Or do you find that chaos part of their charm, and is breaking the conventions (visual, typographic and otherwise) actually inherent in what they are?
Teal Triggs: Very few design crimes make me scream! I have no problem with what you suggest as ‘the lack of visual coherence’ (Stephen Duncombe once famously described zines as ‘rantings of high weirdness and exploding with chaotic design’). Fanzines are as varied visually as their producers. The 1970s punk zines provided one early model of handmade appearance with cut-n-paste lettering, typewritten texts, and photocollages whilst at the same time ignoring conventions of mainstream publishing (typos, spelling mistakes, etc, were all part of the mix, and helped to express something akin to the immediacy of punk music). There is a trend now with some zinesters wanting a more ‘crafted’ look by using different kinds of paper, silkscreen and letterpress production techniques and desktop publishing packages. And of course that is fine too. There is room for every kind of look within the zine scene.
MCL: I’m a huge fan of Karen, which you feature in the later stages of the book, for how she takes the conventional lifestyle magazine subjects and filters them through that lens of her very specifically life. I think it’s a great example of how much fun there is to be had with the magazine form. Are there any other examples you’d highlight of surprising and enjoyable angles people take on the magazine form?
TT: I agree Karen has found a way into asking the reader to look at the ‘magazine’ differently. Fire & Knives – a fan magazine for ‘food lovers’ – takes a fanzine feel in its approach using uncoated stock and with a smaller format than most magazines. Wonderfully illustrated, this publication is an antidote to mainstream food magazines where its editor, Tim Hayward, asked writers to ‘write as an amateur about something you love.’ I’d also like to mention Nicola Streeten’s great comiczine Liquorice with paperdoll cut-outs, kids’ pages, etc. and which riffs on magazine formats.
MCL: What are the strangest zine subject matters you’ve come across? I was struck by the ‘Kurt Cobain Was Lactose Intolerant Conspiracy Zine’. I mean – ??!!?!? Amazing. Is that fanzine actually all about its titular matter?
TT: Yeah, this is one of my favourites. Kurt Cobain Was Lactose Intolerant Conspiracy Zine is exactly what the title says – a perzine which posits a theory that Cobain went undiagnosed as lactose intolerant, and this was something which contributed to his suicide.
I don’t know if this is really a ‘strange’ zine subjects but maybe more quirky. I really like Otto von Stroheim’s ‘Tiki News’ which is for fans of the art form and culture of Polynesian – style cocktail clubs and restaurants. The interiors and tableware have a certain kitsch factor and a huge fan base particularly in the US.
MCL: We love fanzine and magazine covers for the way they promise so much more – they suggest the wealth of fun and creativity to be found inside. What we wondered, considering your professional background, was how you think the design of a fanzine cover differs from the ‘rules’ of typical magazine cover design. And also, what are your favourite examples of zine cover design, particularly examples that break or subvert the rules?
TT: The design of a fanzine cover will sometimes take on the conventions of mainstream magazines where the title appears at the top, a photograph or illustration is used and the use of heading to indicate what is covered on the inside pages. Most zines tend to follow these conventions – some more ‘designed’ than others. Early punk zines even followed many of the mainstream design conventions. It was often when you opened up the zine and you got into the interior spreads where the layouts were so visually chaotic that it would sometimes be really difficult to read. But like anything, this in itself has been absorbed into a zine style – especially for music zines. It’s also worth noting, this is a general observation as there are different visual ‘attitudes’ to different zines.
One cover that I find almost refreshing in its simplicity was done for the London ‘girl-zine’ ‘Pamflet’ – the cover was just the name of the zine in black on pink copy paper. It somehow didn’t need anything else to get you to pick it up and see what was contained inside.
MCL: I find that there are certain magazine features which I have a clear, fond memory of for their creative ingenuity. For example, a couple of issues ago Fantastic Man published an 8 page shoot of the different cuts of steak, with text ‘credits’ about how they should be cooked, judged and enjoyed. The space given to it, the panache it was done with, the genuinely interesting subject matter and the inherent humour of it, all combined to make it genius. Are there any favourite examples you have from fanzines?
TT: Ah, there are so many examples, it’s not so easy to answer this one! But if I had to take one as an illustration of humour in zines, it is worth taking a look at the print version of the American feminist publication, ‘Bust’, founded by Debbie Stoller, Laurie Henzel and Marcelle Karp. Although this publication is now a highly successful magazine, it has maintained an original zine attitude. Whilst still taking feminism and women’s issues seriously, the editors have been able to both visually and in their copy/writing, keep it humorous and therefore the issues accessible to their readership.
MCL: Fanzines have certainly been associated with various significant social and cultural movements of the post-war era, but are there any specific examples where fanzines have contributed significantly to a cause?
TT: As we know there is such a huge range of different zines including those from producers who are interested in more ‘political’ dimensions of their subjects. These include zines specifically for raising awareness about different kinds of causes such as animal rights, climate change, and so forth. We know that some zines are able to contribute to specific debates such as football zines in the UK, have a strong fan base and through them have influenced decision-making for local clubs.
MCL: Just how significant do you think the development of the internet is in growing and championing the niche causes of fanzines? And is the rise of the blog and the ezine of benefit to the zine movement overall, or do you lament the reduction in hand-produced DIY zines?
TT: First of all I don’t think there is a reduction in hand-produced DIY zines. At the moment, we are seeing a resurgence of handmade, craft-orientated activities generally (e.g. knitting, baking, soap making, etc.) and this has helped to support a DIY zine culture. The Internet has its’ own momentum, and blogs which are quick to put up and produce, have sparked off a new wave of diary-like writing which could be linked to perzines found in print form. The relationship between the Internet and print is also flourishing. And, visually, some zines are taking advantage of the medium’s inherent visual and text-based characteristics (scrolling down the page, for example).
The net has also become a way of making zines visible to more people as well as offering a place where zines can be sold or swapped outside of the traditional zine symposia, etc. Fever Zine for example, also uses social networking (Facebook, Twitter and MySpace) to great advantage as an integral part of their zine approach.
MCL: In an environment where consumer magazines are suffering sales and ad revenue drops, do you think independent mags, fanzines and ezines will continue to thrive and perhaps even grow to take some of their space? Do you think we’ll see a significant change to the landscape, where the dominance of the Conde Nasties et al is replaced by a long tail diaspora of niche independents? And will that be a good thing?
TT: As I mentioned above, zines are certainly thriving. But also in the UK at least we are seeing a continuing development of indie magazines – just take a look at ‘Stacks’ who are using their website to subscribe and promote independent magazines. But there is also an established history of zines (Jamming, i-D, Bust, Giant Robot, etc.) moving from the underground into the overground. For some zine producers the zine has provided a space for trying out and fine-tuning a craft. I think it is all part of a cycle of self-publishing. After all, if you have taken the time to write and design a publication – don’t you want it to be read?