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The Daily Tar Heel

A history of zines, from political activism to creative expression

Photos courtesy of Adobe Stock.

Zines evade strict definitions. They are journals with stapled and glued ephemera. They are digital collages. They are small poetry anthologies and folded pieces of paper full of doodles.

Pronounced as in “magazines,” zines are roughly described as self-published DIY booklets that feature — often underrepresented — personal, social or political expressions. 

“It was, in its origins, about radical communication and dissemination of information,” zine artist and UNC alumnus SamLevi Middleton-Sizemore said. “So civil rights movements, the feminist movement, the early gay liberation movement, all used zines.”

Because of their loose definition, zines can look as experimental, professional or messy as an artist likes. Their messages, like their media, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from music reviews to quirky satires and political calls to action. 

They also provide a means for creating networks between underrepresented groups, according to Josh Hockensmith, the interim head of the Sloane Art Library at UNC, which has its own collection of contemporary zines.

“They tend to be about building communities and reaching out to people with similar interests, where you're not finding that kind of network otherwise,” he said.

The namesake of today’s zines is the 1930s science fiction fanzine that featured sci-fi comics and letters to authors, but comparable magazines have existed as early as the 1920s through Black writers’ “little magazines” of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Some even say that the idea of zines began with the publishing of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” pamphlet in 1776, in which Paine tried to persuade the colonies to declare independence from Britain. 

Despite the ambiguity in definition, zines found a community in the 1970s, when they became a central feature in punk subcultures. The small-batch publications were where one could find local underground concerts, band interviews and the latest album reviews.

With the rise of photocopying technology, most anybody could produce and publish their own zines, also making them a symbol of anti-institution publishing, Hockensmith said. 

They persisted throughout the 1990s and evolved from punk rock fanzines to feminist publications. For example, a famous zine from the “riot grrrl” movement was a punk feminist publication that discussed music, sexuality and body politics.

Zines faded out of the mainstream in the early 2000s, but made a comeback with digital publishing in recent years, Hockensmith said. 

Zine artist Tristin Miller explained that with the digital rise of zines, they have become more of a medium for visual artists to self-publish. She said contemporary ones display less of the “punk rock radical” attitude they were known for in the past.

“I think now it's become more of a creative, expressive art,” she said.

Despite the rise of online zines, artists around North Carolina are keeping the hands-on printed art form alive in festivals, fairs and classes. 

The Zine Machine Printed Matter Festival will be held in Durham on Oct. 15.

Miller organizes the Greensboro Zine Fest and recently taught a workshop for educators at "End Paper," the N.C. Museum of Art’s art book fair celebrating print artist communities in North Carolina. The fair is the first event of its kind in the state.

Middleton-Sizemore is planning the first zine fest in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, named the CH-Boro Zine Fest and tentatively scheduled for March 2024. 

“I want it to be very community based because I believe super firmly in the fact that zines are for everyone, and they're the most magical, connecting art form out there,” they said.

A variety of zines are available to view and purchase at Peel Gallery in Carrboro, and Wilson Library houses zines in its Rare Book Collection, some of which students can check out.


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