Kelly Shortandqueer, one of the co-founders of the Denver Zine Library, stands near the entrance of a large room at the McNichols Civic Center Building and smiles at the crowd. He excitedly tells us that last year, the entire event fit inside a small church. The Denver Zine Fest has doubled in size.
Sitting just around the corner of mainstream, zines are having a moment.
I first came to zines as a college undergrad. Small books sloppily stapled and folded hastily traded at parties or in parking lots between classes. They covered topics ranging from veganism to queer studies and sexual health. Most were overtly political and used poetry, prose and comics to get their points across. All had a sense of urgency and love to them.
Born out of fandoms of sci-fi, fantasy and rock music, DIY books have been around in this form since the 1930s. Then, full addresses were often printed along with letters to the editor in early magazines. This led to the start of fan communities and mailing lists. Over time, these small groups started their own fan-made content and shared it out to other fans.
The tie between written and visual languages has always been an important element in zine culture. Fan-made comics followed a similar path to the sci-fi stories. Naturally, the two combine and the modern form of visual and written content appearing side by side evolved.
In the 1960s and '80s, the rise of alt and punk culture injected politics into zines. Underground comic creators and writers used the newly available copier technology to increase production and quickly spread their art. The 1990s saw a decline in zines due to a mainstreaming of the aesthetic of DIY publications. Many zines were seen to be “fake” or the artists as a “sell out." The internet added to the decline due to the rise of personal websites and blogs. Mailing lists fell out of favor and the distribution networks fell apart.
In the last decade, zines have risen again. Events like the Denver Zine Fest are popping up in places across the US. Behind every single table at Denver Zine Fest is an artist, outside the mainstream, attempting something basic to the human condition. To share an idea. (For example, see MW writer Collin Stapleton's profile of Denver comic artist Derek Knierim).
Behind a table topped with a dark chest of drawers, a woman smiles at every person to make eye contact. In front of her, zines, buttons and postcards are neatly arranged. A track of prints sits to one side, the face of Shirley Chisholm looking out into the sea of people. Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination, and the first black candidate to run for either major party’s nomination, is a figure in American history that is often overlooked. Intrigued, I went up to the woman's table.
Adri Norris lets people look at the work for a bit before engaging. She wants people to experience the art first before being “sold” on it. The first zine to jump out is a black and white piece about Betty Williams. The Nobel Laureate is an important figure in Ireland, but outside is less known. The other pieces all focus on other women who seem overlooked, like zines, by mainstream culture.
Norris explained her project, Women Behaving Badly, as a way to bring attention the ignored parts of history. The stories of women who challenged and shaped the world we live in.
Published under the name Afro Triangle Designs, the project branches into fine art, essay, presentation, and most recently, zines.
"I started zines because back in 2016 I also started spending time with Denver Drink & Draw," Norris says. "We’d meet up once a week on Tuesdays. Most of them are comic artists. I had been an reader of comic books for a long time. It was something that I always wanted to get into but I’m a fine arts kid so I gotta do it my way."
Today, many of the artists making zines do lean into a comic book format. There are a few Drink and Draw members at the fest. All work in comics. You will still find hard politics and studies of both gender and identity in many of the works, but the poetry and prose has taken a back seat to a strong Instagram-able visual style. There is also an attempt to make the books more polished. Many use companies that print and bind instead of photocopiers and staples at home.This seems to be a reaction to the rise of the internet.
The sudden populism of the early internet led to personal websites, chatgroups, and email lists that nearly killed zines. Hastily photocopied homemade pamphlets look a bit shabby next to floating gifs and instant communication. When asked about the format, and why it’s coming back in the age of smartphones and twitter, Norris was pointed in her response. "In a world where everything is so very polished, zines are accessible," she says. "Think about the rise of YouTube, Instagram videos, even when Vine was a big deal. People like to make their own stuff and knowing that they can do it."
Norris' own art starts as large-scale mixed media paintings. Collage and watercolor combine with words on uniquely-shaped canvases. Translating that work into zine form seems like an odd choice for someone who recently showed their work at the Denver Public Library, but Norris is unapologetic about her ambitions to get the work in front of people: "I’ve always loved sharing information," Norris says.
"I was that kid that looked up in the encyclopedia where babies came from and then told all of my 4th grade class. I’m going to do the art anyway, that’s going to happen, how do I use this as a way to share these ideas, this knowledge, with other people. It felt like a natural fit. As I said, I am super into comics and graphic novels and I love the historical ones, so I was like, alright, I’m going to do this."
The return of zines doesn’t “make sense” in a literal way. They are low tech, require physical sharing or selling, places with photocopiers are becoming rarer. But they involve making eye contact. They are a way to make space for the forgotten parts of ourselves.
The embracing of them by younger groups seems counterintuitive to what we are told about that generation. Adri made it clear that part of the work of getting your voice heard in the modern world means using every avenue available. Whatever it takes.