Lit

Chicago Zine Fest Recap: A Cross-Town Tribute to a Miniature Medium

By Liz Mason

Chicago Zine Fest is one of my favorite yearly events: a major gathering of people into what I’m into—zines. Don’t know what a zine is? Don’t worry about it! Short answer: a zine is “an independent published periodical.” Know why I can define it at the drop of a hat? And why I’m adamant in telling you it rhymes with “bean?” Because I manage Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago, and we’re known for selling them and other publications appealing to outsider sensibilities.

I’m one of the proud and lucky few who get to combine my work with my personal interests, which naturally makes me a big fan of Chicago Zine Fest. I can meet the people behind the zines I’ve been reading, and tell them how much their work affected me. I discover new publications I haven’t heard of, and get to to spread the Quimby’s gospel. As my Quimby’s co-worker and Hate Baby publisher Corinne Halbert says, “It helps me to put a friendly face to many of the zines we stock.” [Full disclosure—Quimby’s is a fest sponsor, but I’m not a CZF organizer.]

Mostly, I’m excited about being surrounded by other people who either make or appreciate the same things I do, because I publish zines myself. You know that Steve Martin joke about the plumbers convention, and the punchline is the fact that it only makes sense to plumbers? (“I said socket not sprocket!”) That’s how I feel about being at zine fest when I joke about folding and saddle-stitching with other zinesters in a knowing way, “And I was like ‘You’ll totally need a long-arm stapler for that folded quarter page booklet! Ha!”

Yeah, it’s like that.

The plumbers convention joke is especially fitting since this past weekend’s (May 19) Chicago Zine Fest tabling exhibition took place at the Plumbers Union Hall in the West Loop, where it’s been held the past three years of its nine-year history. How delightfully poetic—as if to say the Chicago union that supports the Chicago working class backs up the Chicago DIY class too. Plus: free parking.

CZF isn’t just about the tabling exhibition though. This year’s fest featured a trip to the DePaul University Library’s Special Collections and Archives to check out their zine collection. The following night a panel and exhibitor reading took place at the Institute of Cultural Affairs in Uptown. To close it all out, a Punk Rock Karaoke party was held down in Bridgeport on Saturday night at the Co-Prosperity Sphere. CZF has grown into a true cross-town festival.

“We always try to give attendees, especially those from out of town, a chance to explore our city by planning events throughout Chicago,” explained CZF organizer and Albany Park resident Johnny Wawrzaszek, “This year I think we did a great job. We like to spread out programming to engage those neighborhoods and work with new community partners.”

Every year, CZF provides a stimulating panel. This year’s presentations included “On Speaking Terms: Zine Librarians,” moderated by Sarah G. Wenzel, the University of Chicago’s zine archivist, featuring panelists like local zinester and Chicago Public Library employee Oscar Arriola; Doro Boehme of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s John M. Flaxman zine archive; and Milo Miller from Queer Zine Archive Project (QZAP). The panel discussed the DIY spirit of zines, what it means to archive them, and the idea that zine collections are meant to get the work into people’s hands and not about waiting for someone else to get your work out into the world. Furthermore, the librarians all affirmed that they don’t mandate that people wear gloves when they look at their archives, and begged publishers to title their zines, otherwise they can’t archive them.

After the panel a charming selection of exhibitors read from their work. Numerous pieces extolled cats. One performer read an ode to a kitty that pees everywhere. Another, a comics artist, gave a heartbreaking account of her beloved pet’s demise. Yet another artist satirized mental hygiene film strips with public service announcements courtesy of our feline friends. The Internet is made of cats, and it seems the zine world has fallen to kitty domination too. I am totally OK with this.

Saturday morning, both local and national zinesters sold their wares at the public tabling exhibition. Even though I was working, it was my kind of social event. I recruited my husband Joe to help me sell stuff at the Quimby’s table, for which he gets paid in store credit. One of his responsibilities is to hang the two Quimby’s banners: the one on the balcony overlooking the tabling floor always looks great, proudly proclaiming the store’s sponsorship of the fest. The one hanging behind us at the Quimby’s table…not so much. It’s a janky affair and not Joe’s fault, really—there’s just not much to hang the banner on. Most of the day was spent hanging and re-hanging it, implementing different display solutions until we gave up and just shoved the damn thing under the table. Thankfully, we also have a tablecloth I had made with repeating prints of the store logo.

If cats were the unintentional theme of the exhibitor reading, then “zines about making zines” was a predominant theme for the rest of the fest. There was a proliferation of how-to guides that were zines in themselves. One booklet provided its own directions on turning its single piece of paper into an eight-page zine through a simple series of cuts and folds.

Writer, publisher, Uptown resident, and Quimby’s friend Mike McPadden made the observation of another theme, or lack thereof: “There was a glorious and welcome relief from STAR WARS crap!” he noted that the 2017 gathering was glutted with t-shirts, stickers, and other paid-for-by-the-consumer advertising. “Especially odious, it was so often marked with the branding ‘REBEL’!” McPadden continued, “Can it be that the medium initially formed to smash through Soul-Deadening Anti-Thought Monoculture has broken free from yet another crucial chain of intellectual/spiritual oppression?!”

Amen to that.

It’s hard to pin down the demographics for people who “table” at the fest, other than the fact that they’re zinesters. Speaking anecdotally, when I dipped into the zines I bought or traded my own zines for, assorted references revealed they were mostly published by folks in their twenties. Does this mean zines are the exclusive province of those proverbial millennials? I can’t say for sure, and in keeping with a true DIY culture aesthetic, it’s hard to tell the difference between who’s a zinester and who’s a fest attendee. My husband noted the fuzzy line between creator and consumer after the fest. “The crowd seemed to blend with the vendors.” He also added that this year he felt a “more queer inclusive presence, whether by the actual zines being sold or by slogans on jackets.”

I asked Ravenswood-based zinester, Lynne Monsoon, editor of the zine Butch Nor Femme, what they thought about Joe’s statement. Lynne agreed with “…the caveat that you can’t tell someone’s gender or sexuality based on how they look. I would definitely say there were a lot more queer-learning and probably-not-cis people in attendance and tabling. I don’t know if that’s partly that kids these days sort of lean in a non-straight/non-cis direction anyway, but it was nice to see. I also thought it was more racially diverse than I’ve noticed in the past.”

One thing I love about every zine fest I attend are the things that directly reflect the standards of the culture. Quid pro quo rules. Folks trade zines, and I made sure to bring my own to exchange as I circulated amongst the publishers. Edison Park-based zinester Jonas of Fixer Eraser traded me his latest issue for multiple issues of mine. It wasn’t a case of oneupmanship. His work just delights me and I wanted to repay him.

“Wait! Hold on!” he exclaimed. He disappeared and came back with another issue of his zine I hadn’t read. It tickled me so much I told him I needed to repay him with a seven-course dinner.

The creator-to-creator relationship is what most endears me about zine culture. That and its miniature nature. Zine publishers make, at most, a few hundred copies of their zine to distribute. Based on experience I know for sure they don’t make any money selling them. Most zine “profit” gets recycled into printing the next issue or paying of the debt incurred to print and distribute the previous one. Zines have little or no advertising. Money can be an uncomfortable topic for zine publishers. Shyly accepting money for sales or even asking for it all can be nerve-wracking for the introverts who publish their own work, so those who table at multiple fests a year figure out clever ways to explain their wares and communicate prices.

But that doesn’t mean the prices can’t be revealed in a charming way. My favorite display of the day was by artist Kaitlin Kostus (a resident of Albany Park), who founded Low Maintenance Publications, which sells zines and comics like Koshka and Soft Reset. Her handmade signs feature pleasing illustrations and hand lettering. Signs such as the one that details what financial tender she accepts (“Cash! Plastic! Venmo! Paypal!”) and information about her zines (“Soft Reset: Coping with Digital PTSD Post-2016 Election $5”) became natural fodder for the Quimby’s Instagram (@quimbysbookstore).

In this era of easy digital access, how can the world of DIY print thrive? For one thing, the act of making them is the reward. QZAP panelist Milo Miller (who travelled to Chicago from Milwaukee) says, “There’s a magic of tangibility in creating and acquiring paper objects in a digital age. From a maker’s perspective it can be a fun puzzle to figure out how to make text and images fit within the constraints of any given printing or production system.” Secondly, before mainstream social media sites, there was print. When I hear people trying to explain zines to folks born after blogs became a thing, they always say, “Zines were blogs before there were blogs.” Eh, close enough.

Butch Nor Femme’s Lynne added, “My most recent zine is mostly made up of reviews of The X-Files…written the way someone would while live-tweeting their reactions. I’m curious to see how people react to an analog version of that.”

Above all, the main appeal of zines over digital media is connecting with other people. The draw of a fest that celebrates that connection is best summarized by Lakeview resident and CZF organizer Cynthia E. Hanifin: “In an age where we are bombarded with mass-produced digital communication, I think more and more people are craving the sort of one-on-one interactions that zine fests foster.”

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Liz Mason has been self-publishing for 20 years. In addition to her own zines, her work has been printed in The Chicago Tribune, Punk Planet, Lumpen, The Zine Yearbook and more. She once appeared on the reality show Starting Over to provide instruction on publishing zines, which NBC executives referred to as “pamphlets”—as if they were Marxist propaganda. She is the manager of Quimby’s Bookstore, home of wild and weird reading material in Chicago, where she has worked since 2001. She tweets @CabooseZine.

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