Zines and Building Community

Welcome to the world of Portland zines, arming the marginalized with photocopiers and staplers in a hub of DIY creativity and community.

By Liz Yerby

“Zines” as a medium is very broad and loosely defined. Classic zines are made cut-and-paste style, with scissors and a glue stick and a copy machine. But handsomely-designed minicomics and poetry chapbooks can also be zines. In Portland, there are large overlaps between the zine community and the comics and poetry communities. The zine community includes poets, graphic designers, fanfiction authors, oblique abstract artists, writers of deeply personal perzines, and plenty of those people who are regularly dreaming and creating but who won’t call themselves artists. I’ve seen preschoolers, senior citizens, and everyone in between make zines. Their common factor? They are all excited to share their interests and their perspectives.

The DIY nature of zines makes it accessible to a wide variety of people, and there are many different ways to participate in zine communities. Like many literary and visual art circles, the zine community has its fair share of introverts; some people don’t go to festivals, but follow zinesters’ work via mail-order subscriptions. Other people may enjoy seeing friends at the Portland Zine Symposium or even at multiple zinefests they attend every year.

Zines helped me realize that being a cartoonist means I can not only make people cry, but also force them to make cat noises!

There are also people whose practice turns towards performance art. In the last few years, I’ve been more and more drawn to readings and performance series in Portland. Gridlords, a local comics collective which used to regularly put on performances, blew my mind. It was amazing to hear Simon Hanselmann, a genderqueer cartoonist from Tasmania, have strangers read the different roles in his surprisingly absurd and obscene comics. At Portland Zine Symposium’s “Identities and Futures” event last year, my friend Eileen Chavez looped guitar sounds, projected some wobbly creatures dancing, and convinced the audience to move along. Along the same lines, I am exceedingly proud of my piece at “À reading #25,” where I read very raw diary comics on communal grief, and had the audience meow every time my cat was on screen. Zines helped me realize that being a cartoonist means I can not only make people cry, but also force them to make cat noises!

There is a new comics series starting on September 24 called “Nice To Be Nice” at Ristretto Roasters Coffee on NE Couch St. Among the night’s readers is Quinn Amacher, who writes bittersweet stories with strong wild lines and has a majestic voice that always makes his readings special. Spencer Scudder and John James will be bringing the surrealism bordering on science fiction, while Ignatz-nominated M. Sabine Rear and I will likely bring some nonfiction work.

Another local, ongoing storytelling series, Tender Table, features local female and femme-identifying writers, zinesters, and performance artists of color. This series uses food as a gateway point into discussions into family and identity. While these stories are often tender (as the series title implies) and deal with heavy topics such as death and the loss of cultural history, the intimacy of the pieces reveals the importance of community and showing up for each other.

Zine makers are sharing not just the drawings or words in their zines, but a little piece of themselves.

Zines, like readings and performances, can be catalysts for finding community and feeling less alone. They can also help spread information, particularly on topics we are taught not to talk about, like mental and sexual health, or processing trauma.

As a young person I discovered the diverse world of online forums; I would read the perspectives of people who were questioning or closeted, and it allowed me to validate my own feelings without having to out myself. Zines are another medium that can help people find others who have dealt with situations that have left them feeling isolated. For example, this year many of my friends bought and connected with the zine, When Language Runs Dry, a zine full of pieces by contributors with personal perspectives on living with chronic illness.

The big difference between zines and web are that zines are a more tactile, personal experience and inherently carry more intimacy than a blogpost. Zines often have hand-lettering, and a quintessential old school zine will feature some typewriter-typed pieces. Though the rare zinester will find a small press to help put out their work, most zines are folded and/or stapled by the person who wrote them. Zines hold fingerprints and physical marks from their creators. Zine makers are sharing not just the drawings or words in their zines, but a little piece of themselves.

Everyone, but especially those who have been marginalized, wants to speak out and be heard. And while zinesters express a vast diversity of experiences, they are alike in that they are all passionate about sharing their experiences. Zines, as a medium meant for distribution, are, at their core, about reaching out and building community.

Header photo courtesy of Liz Yerby, excerpt from “The New Yerby.”