The weight of paper: Why zines are more important than ever

The first zine I made was an ode to my late mother. She died of a malignant brain tumor when I was 8 years old and left behind a legacy of loud laughs and nostalgia trips that manifested in dozens of photo albums, hundreds of mementos and manila folders filled with her unpublished thoughts; flurries of handwritten notes and crisp, typed essays.

In my late teens—after the homeless summer and a few healing winters—I felt brave enough to grapple with a half-page, fabric-bound binder of my mom’s, filled with a year’s worth of short letters addressed directly to me, starting from the day she found out she was pregnant through my first incoherent babbles. They welcome me to the world, try to explain away the bad things about it, document my progress and personality, introduce me to people, places and things in her life. They reveal the roller coaster of a relationship with my father, the pressures of being a woman born into an immigrant family and the inevitable ups and downs of growing a human inside of you.

I’d never known how to communicate my conflicting feelings about growing up with a single mother only to lose her so young (my emo phase took care of what could not be said) and I definitely didn’t know know what to do with all the pages she never thought she’d leave behind. What I did know is that I felt compelled to amplify her voice, one crushed too soon, and that working with these words, putting them into conversation with my own burgeoning visual creativity, felt like the only way for a budding print-obsessed journalist to heal.

So, I turned it all into a zine. With glue sticks and a razor blade and tissue paper culled from bins at the Long Beach Center for Creative Reuse, I retyped my mother’s words on a thrift store find, selected my favorite photos of her smile and collaged together 16 handheld pages from my heart (via the former Kinko’s on Ocean Boulevard) to the hands of anyone who made the mistake of asking me how I’m doing.

Maybe you remember zines from the punk-rock days when everything from band interviews to concert fliers fell into the “fucked up and photocopied” category. Or maybe you know the longer history of zines—short for “magazine” and pronounced “zeen”—and are familiar with the hordes of science fiction fans, LGBTQ communities and political activists (Thomas Paine, anyone?) who have used the medium of small-batch print to distribute information that the mainstream outlets never would.

But today, in an era where we look at more screens than human faces, when most images and text we consume disappear after 24 hours, when marginalized voices are clamoring to be heard over the deafening shrill of infoglut, the tactility torch is being passed to an entirely new generation of users. The more than 100 zinesters who will be selling their zines at Sunday’s fifth annual Long Beach Zine Fest at the Expo Arts Center (which I also help organize) prove that the spirit of independently published, anti-establishment print is not only alive but more important now than ever.

Long Beach Zine Fest 2018. Photo by Samanta Helou

After the Mother’s Day Issue, I made about a dozen more zines, each one tackling a different topic, from horrifically bad breakups to being a female in the craft beer scene to a print compendium of my short-lived Tumblr, Only in Long Beach—all handcrafted between unpaid freelance writing gigs and community college classes, all personal projects that would otherwise not had a home outside my brain. I traveled to zine festivals in Portland, San Francisco, and L.A., the only places at the time you could sell them among like-minded people. I found one ({open}, now closed) bookstore in Long Beach that cared.

Five years ago, at the first OC Zine Fest, I found my tribe: a small group of Long Beach artists, graphic designers, musicians, community organizers, small business owners (including {open}!) and educators with something to say and only print as the outlet to say it, just like me.

Together, this ragtag team of Long Beach lovers volunteered their time, energy and secret powers to make the first Long Beach Zine Fest happen at the Museum of Latin American Art in 2015. In addition to a marketplace where people could set up and sell their zines, there were panels, workshops, a donation-based zine library, a full local music lineup and food pop-ups; a celebration not just of print but of our city’s fierce do-it-yourself (DIY) lifestyle.

Long Beach Zine Fest 2018. Photo by Samanta Helou

Since then, zines have made what some might call a comeback. There are now 26 annual zine fests in Southern California alone, each with their own focus and flair. It’s impossible to know precisely how many zines exist out there in the world, because, like bedroom beats and notebook poetry, most do not have an online presence and are kept close by those who make them. But the diversity of the zines that have emerged at these fests is equally as vast.

Imagine a form of self-expression whose only rule is “print it” and whose only limit is your own creativity. Imagine how much of your thoughts, feelings, doodles, ideas, sexual desires or likeness you don’t see represented in mainstream media. Now imagine how extraordinary it would be for you to discover there was actually something you could do about it besides rage tweet.

There’s a reason that those in power want to chip away at the First Amendment. There’s a reason that Long Beach Zine Fest’s unofficial slogan is “The Future is Folded.”

Long Beach Zine Fest 2018. Photo by Samanta Helou

In today’s technological world, and especially to the digital natives who participate, print holds more weight than a tweet or text, both of which you can fire off without thinking or typing at all (and delete just as easily). To make a zine, you have to at least organize your thought-vomit, consider its appearance and presentation, then decide that a few trees are worth dying for this information to be set free. And yet, there are still no editors, no naysayers, no one to tell you to change this image or adjust the wording on that.

Zinesters feel empowered every time they hit the print button on their creations, fold another copy, pull that long-arm stapler over the pages they made and—ker-chunk—ratify their message so it can be sent home with someone who will absorb, digest and pass along the words or images inside.

Even in today’s technological world, zines remain one of the few ways to observe culture at its most pure and raw. Each one is a memento of experience and knowledge and identity and passion that can only be found and shared via hand-to-hand transactions at festivals exactly like Long Beach Zine Fest.

With the loss of small independent bookstores, these festivals have become the only way for people to connect over these radical print manifestations.

To be honest, it’s better that way. You get to walk the aisles and take in all the colors and sizes and aesthetic approaches. You can stop and talk to the person who created it, ask about their process, their vision, their intentions, their experience. By the time you hand them a few dollars (or Venmo, as is most common these days), you don’t just walk away with a zine, you leave with a connection, a feeling that you’re not so alone in this crazy, messy world.

Long Beach Zine Fest 2018. Photo by Samanta Helou

I haven’t managed to finish another zine since I started organizing a festival for them, but as I’ve grown as a journalist and earned larger platforms for my thoughts and words (thanks Long Beach Post!), I feel less alone in so many other ways. It’s the next generation who now needs to discover the world beyond their screens, the world where a piece of paper can have a ripple effect of change.

Now, when I sift through my mother’s photo albums and excavate the folders of her unpublished writing, I cry less and smile more. I think of all the people she never met who were moved by her words, the second life that print gave to her lost thoughts, the years of therapy I was spared merely by doing it myself. But mostly, I think about those who might not know what to do with their own traumas, their own thoughts, their own experiences that need to be sifted and sorted and shared in order to make sense of it all. I think of the 26 zine fests within a few hours drive of here, voices yet to be heard and the zines yet to be set free.

LB Zine Fest takes place at Expo Arts Center, 4321 Atlantic Ave., from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more info, check out the website here.

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Sarah Bennett is a contributor to the Hi-lo and the editor-at-large at the Long Beach Post. She is also a professor at Santa Ana College where she was once a student before transferring to USC to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Sarah has written about music, art, food and beer in local, national and international publications for over a decade. An L.A. native and longtime resident of Long Beach, she is the co-founder of Long Beach Zine Fest and managing editor at theLAnd magazine. She never sleeps.
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