A few years ago, a documentary was made about the Portland Zine Symposium, which takes place in Portland, Oregon, every year. As well as showing footage of the event, including a seminar conducted by Calvin Johnson, the film compiles interviews with zine makers from the city’s Independent Publishing Resource Centre, covering such fundamental questions as ‘What is a zine’, and concluding ‘zines are a visual medium — we should try our hardest to make them look good’, ‘Who makes zines’ (’99% of us are all nerds’), ‘Why make zines’ — not to make profit, but to have fun, educate and ‘alter people‘s perceptions', ‘How do you make zines?’ — something to have in the back of your mind is that ‘everything needs to be a multiple of four’, ‘Where have zines taken us and what’s next’ and, perhaps most importantly of all, ‘Why do people spend all their time in front of Xerox machines?’.
It’s a thorough introduction to zines, suggesting their spirit goes as far back as Martin Luther nailing his words to a church door, and can be identified in publications as diverse as the pamphlets of Thomas Paine, publications from the Labor movement, satirical magazine the Realist, the poetry anthologies of the Beats, and the punk and Riot Grrrl movements, when women made zines in their ‘hundreds and hundreds’.
The interviewees leaf through a zine library, picking out their favourite zines — or the strangest, which range from the niche — zines about collecting shoes and a publication about substitute teachers — to the practical — from a pamphlet dedicated to fonts to feminist zines offering advice on rape, sexual assault, the law, where to go for abortion advice and insight into mental health problems — and the downright grotesque — a zine about ‘the use of bodily fluids for revenge’.
There’s a strong community element, with zine makers sending zines all over in the post and receiving detailed critiques in return. The documentary’s charm is the enthusiasm everyone shows towards what they do, with one participant describing it as a ‘co-dependent relationship I couldn't break up even if I wanted to’ and others concurring ‘You have to find a way to produce it no matter what it takes’ because if you didn’t ‘you’d be standing yelling on street corners’.