The punk and the curator: On Fanzines

21 Sep

Recently, a lot of zinester folks have been writing about Dr. Teal Triggs’ book Fanzines, like the incomparable Amber (Hello) Forrester of Culture Slut, Your Secretary and hometown-ish hero Ramsey Beyer of List along with many other zinesters on We Make Zines.

Triggs, a historian of graphic design in the UK, has perhaps unwittingly ruffled some feathers after sending notifications to zinesters that covers and excerpts of their zines are being printed in her book–notifications, rather than requests for permission. The notifications were reportedly sent too late for zinesters to request that their zines not be included, and at least in one case, the zine was included under a name that the zinester was no longer using (check out Amber’s blog). Your Secretary, in addition to providing some great basic guidelines for academics writing about zines, identifies their discomfort as based in the fact that Fanzines is a for-profit (and for individual distinction) book. Zine World also has a good run down. Although Sassyfrass Circus was not one of the zines included without (or with) permission, I want to weigh in to this conversation, as a zinester and as an academic who writes about zines.

There is a certain level of responsibility for an academic when dealing with a piece of material culture that is not necessarily copyrighted, that is “ephemeral” and underground, but whose author is both alive, easily contacted, and most likely still struggling economically to engage in their craft. This may not be legally or institutionally required, but it is required by those of us who see in academia (particularly in the humanities) the potential for a radical project. There is a responsibility for academics and archivists to work with, not against or around, underground artists and cultural producers. Jack Halberstam writes in In a Queer Time & Place, “The more intellectual records we have of queer culture, the more we contribute to the project of claiming for the subculture the radical culture work that either gets absorbed into or claimed by mainstream media.” What Teal Triggs has accomplished is the creation of an incomplete archive–images of zines without the voices of their creators, a flattening of a vivid subculture into style–I mean, she is a historian of graphic design–in my pessimism, I can imagine Fanzines being read in advertising classes as a text on how to get that “cool underground look” for your edgy girl power product line. But then, I am admittedly operating from a base level of mistrust.

Triggs is not a zinester, she is for all intents and purposes an outsider to what is admittedly a very insular, though evangelical, subculture. I am operating under the assumption that outsiders, especially “experts” will (because they do) misrepresent, appropriate and commodify.

Back to Halberstam; “Minority subcultures…tend to be documented by former or current members of the subculture rather than ‘adult’ experts…[the] archivist or theorist and the cultural worker may also coexist in the same friendship networks, and they may function as coconspirators.” (See the Queer Zine Archive Project) Triggs stands separate from the subcultural that she studies, “examining it with an expert’s gaze.”

Perzines in particular have been described as something between a magazine and a diary–when you hold a zine, you are being given a gift, the chance to “hear” the innermost thoughts of the zine’s creator, as if they were whispering them in your ear. Zines are conduits for friendships, connections across space and time. To (re)quote one of my favorite ideas from academic Alison Piepmeier, “The paper, then, is a nexus, a technology that mediates the connections not just of ‘people’ but of bodies. Paper facilitates affection.”

Like a whispered secret, the truths that zines contain may be ephemeral. They shift and change from issue to issue, like the identities, situations and addresses of their creators. The danger in archiving individual issues of zines is that it cements a particular whisper. And the danger of being an archivist of zines is that you are projecting that whisper, far beyond its original and perhaps intended audience.

So, if we understand the relationship between zine creator and reader to be a friendship, and a zine to be like a diary entry or a secret whispered in the ear of a friend–to archive and publish a zine is like publishing your friend’s secrets, sharing someone else’s diary. Dangerous territory.

I understand that when a cultural producer puts their work into the world, it takes on a voice of its own, an existence independent of its creator. But zines are often not widely available–when an academic publishes a critical paper on zines or a collection of excerpts from zines, readers of that academic work may not have access to the zines referenced. They would certainly not have access in the same way one would to a piece of canonical literature that is critically written about. So talk to a zinester. Let zinesters speak for themselves–they are the experts of their own lives. We also run in vicious gangs, but also are actually really friendly.

❤ jb

p.s. Fanzine touts itself as “the ultimate book on the subject, full of reproductions of the best fanzines ever created”…okay. Also, this is a discussion, not an edict. Get on it. Also, Teal Triggs has a zine-interview blog in which zine creators shine through the standard-whatever questions. I am assuming this is a separate project, since none of the zinesters I know were contacted about interviews, just about using their covers (after the fact).


14 Responses to “The punk and the curator: On Fanzines”

  1. Milo September 22, 2010 at 3:10 am #

    ♥ ♥ ♥

    • sassyfrasscircus September 23, 2010 at 1:31 am #

      back atcha.

  2. Hello Amber! September 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm #

    Thank you so much for writing about this in a much more eloquent way than I ever could. ♥

    • sassyfrasscircus September 23, 2010 at 1:20 am #

      i think your post was pretty damn on point. ❤

  3. Eric Johns September 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    I’ll just point out that misrepresented/out-of-context use of my work has always been one of my major fears… I suppose this has become a contemporary example to show that fear is legitimate.

    Great post, by the way!

    ~ Eric

  4. Bec October 15, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    “We also run in vicious gangs, but also are actually really friendly.”

    Friendly? After reading this post, you come off as a pretty unfriendly bunch of people. Vindicating an ‘outsider’ for trying to celebrate ‘your world’.

    I feel kind of sorry for the woman.

    • sassyfrasscircus October 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

      I respect your opinion, but any discussion of Triggs as an “outsider” in my post is meant to identify my own prejudices, that are particularly based in a very real power differential–Triggs has social and economic capital that myself and the zinesters she is taking advantage of do not have. My post is meant, and I hope will be taken, as a comment on respectful and thorough research methodology, written as someone who straddles that outsider line of academic v. subcultural producer.

      I don’t think anything about this post is vindicating, but I also question the possibility of “celebrating [our] world” without the input of anyone from within our so-called “world.”


  5. Lincoln Cushing December 2, 2010 at 11:29 pm #

    I’m both an artist and an archivist, and support the author’s position that academics should make an effort to at least get permission regarding use of published artwork. I deal with this subject a lot in another marginalized genre, oppositional posters (many of which blur with zine graphic art) and I have to explain that there are both legal _and_ ethical considerations for reproduction. Institutional legal concerns have unduly hamstrung many academics from legitimately using these materials under Fair Use, and that’s a whole other discussion. But for the community described here, mostly broke and unrecognized, researchers (and artists, especially those eager to perform wanton mash-ups) of all stripes need to take the extra steps to be respectful, ask permission, and get correct citations.

    • sassyfrasscircus December 14, 2010 at 9:58 pm #


  6. Peter December 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    One of the valid (but not only) approaches to research is that being an outsider offers you some semblance of objectivity on the area you are researching. I am an academic researching zine making, primarily in terms of understanding why people participate, which has a wider implication for other art forms. Am I an outsider? I don’t know. I read zines, I buy them. I don’t make them. I hope that I don’t want to commodify or misrepresent zines. I like them, that’s why I want to research the practice of zine making.

    I have no issue with assertion that for-profit works should seek in a timely fashion permissions to reproduce another persons creative work. How does that extend to say a dissertation or a conference paper? I pose this firstly as a question, but secondly as an argument…there is a slope here, which has been engaged with a few times (for example, the no-reproduction list from the British Library that identifies the copyright works for which academic reproduction is not permitted by the rights holder). My position is that attribution of a published work, where a small quote is used in the context of an academic piece of coursework such as assignment of thesis shouldn’t require permission. Other works? I haven’t fully formed an opinion yet, however I can say, that generally there is a strong case to be made that continued academic study of zine making is a positive thing. It helps widen the community and broaden the understanding of the practices of zine making.

    • sassyfrasscircus December 15, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

      Peter–I totally understand the anthropological inclination towards being an objective observer, although I would argue that objectivity is a false ideal and that all researchers have biases based on their identities or lived experiences. The so-called “objective” positionality is usually one of unmarked privilege. Also, I don’t think it is necessary for someone to make zines to have credibility with a community…also, I am definitely interested in your research if you are willing to share. Also, I am working on a larger project about the academic study of zines and zine making, and I would love to interview you or speak to you more about it if you are willing. My email is sassyfrasscircus [at] gmail [dot] com.



  1. Reprinting zines part deux « your secretary is out - September 22, 2010

    […] to my post about Teal Triggs’ Fanzines book.  I highly recommend Sassafrass Circus’ article on the relationship between zine creator and reader. Ramsey started a discussion on We Make Zines and pointed out to me, when I saw her in person at the […]

  2. Why You Should Not Buy The Book Fanzines by Teal Triggs | Reclusive Obscenities - May 24, 2012

    […] The punk and the curator: On Fanzines This entry was posted in Other Zine Stuff and tagged fanzines, teal triggs, zine, zines. Bookmark the permalink. ← Reclusive Obscenities Issue 2 – For the Love of Zines A Victory Over Anxiety → […]

  3. Review of ‘FANZINES’ by Teal Triggs | Just Your Type Of Blog. - October 22, 2014

    […] “Minority subcultures…tend to be documented by former or current members of the subculture rather than ‘adult’ experts…[the] archivist or theorist and the cultural worker may also coexist in the same friendship networks, and they may function as coconspirators.” ( – Halberstam. Quoted by Jenna Brager, writer of SassyFrass Circus. The link to her statement can be found here: […]

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