We take a look at the history of zines, including many homegrown mini-mags made right here in Notts

Words: Sophie Gargett
Illustrations: Jenny Mure
Saturday 04 May 2024
reading time: min, words

From its roots in 30s sci-fi fan fiction and 70s New York punk, the illustrious medium of the zine has sprouted many fascinating publications, with many homegrown mini-mags made right here in Notts. Let us take you on a whistlestop tour of this curious corner of culture…

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It was over thirty years ago that the internet was first launched to the general public, and since then the idea of anyone, anywhere publishing their work to the world has now become a normal part of everyday life. But of course, before this instantaneous sharing of information, opinions, and art, these spaces existed in non-digital formats, and one wonderful means of such communication was the zine.

These cheaply printed, DIY magazines, cobbled together using typewriters, Pritt Stick and photocopiers, have captured tiny facets of society throughout the years, allowing social commentary, activism, creativity and ideas to proliferate. Compared to mainstream media, they are wonderful slices of everyday local history, and here in Nottingham we’re lucky to have a wealth of zines past and present.

The term ‘zine’ first popped up in the early 1930s, when science fiction fans began creating mini-magazines, or fanzines, to share their thoughts and criticisms of popular pulp fiction literature. One of the forerunners of the zine movement, Lisa Ben (real name Edythe D. Eyde) cut her teeth writing for such publications, later going on to found Vice-Versa, a magazine that aimed to connect lesbians in the California area.

As literacy and access to printing technology flourished throughout the 20th century, self-publishing became a medium for these kinds of alternative voices that exist outside of the mainstream to finally be heard. Over on page 24 you can read about some of the publications relating to queer history in Nottingham, such as Diversion, a lesbian zine from the late ‘80s which allowed for queer women’s issues to be spoken about, without the distrusting filter of traditional media. A standout feature from their archive is a letter from a gay woman who’d been denied the opportunity to donate blood during the aids crisis, despite, as a lesbian, being in the lowest risk category of contracting the disease. Would a controversy like this have made the papers at the time? Probably not.

During the 1970s zines also became a fixture of musical subcultures, with titles such as Punk giving a nom de guerre to the burgeoning New York rock and roll scene, and Sniffin’ Glue documenting the same in Britain. After the yuppie hype of the 1980s, zines were later taken up during the grunge era, particularly via riot grrrl publications which shone a light on feminist issues via musical subcultures. In Nottingham, many music zines existed, which you can read about on page 33.

But as we’ve traversed into the quick moving and increasingly noisy internet world, the idea of a nice, tangible bit of print has become more and more covetable. “There was a lot of talk in the noughties about the death of print,” says Matt Gill, a senior lecturer of Fashion Communication & Promotion at Nottingham Trent University. “People were getting excited about iPads and digital magazines. It became print vs digital for a while, but that has resolved itself now. Print is thriving and flourishing, it's just doing it in different ways.”

“The internet moves at a million miles an hour and we see so many images,” says Matt, whose own publications Metazine and RIP Zine both reflect on his love of print. “Zines offer a sense of relief and escape. They are an alternative to staring at a screen and a way to make something using your hands. Plus when you show something physical you have made to someone, you get a much more excited response than when you share something digitally.”

While zines continue to be a medium for the activist, they are increasingly used as a method for unleashing creativity. “There’s no rules with zine culture,” says Craig Proud, director of Dizzy Ink, a risograph and screen printing studio in Nottingham which specialises in zine-making (and this month’s cover artist!). “You can craft something really horrendous. But there’s no room for pretentiousness. Everybody’s having a go. It doesn’t matter if it’s not super slick or pristine.”

This gentle, DIY approach allows zine-makers to embrace imperfections and human error, along with the opportunity to cover pretty any topic under the sun. One zine creator Ed Phipps, previously part of Dizzy’s print studio, began making zines during the first lockdown in 2020 and has created several different publications: Bikini State, Smell the Roses and The Dump. He attributes making zines to developing both inspiration and confidence in his other art projects.

“A lot of people have experiment folders on their laptops, so we made The Dump a place to publish all of that unused work. Sometimes you make something you wouldn’t ordinarily make and you think I like it, but would anyone else like it? Should I share it? It was a bit like the way comedians perform smaller shows to test out new material. It took away the pressure,” says Ed.

You can craft something really horrendous. But there’s no room for pretentiousness. Everybody’s having a go. It doesn’t matter if it’s not super slick or pristine

Luckily, we have several wonderful archives dedicated to zines here in Nottingham. In 2018, Craig at Dizzy Ink co-created a zine library that now lives at Blend Cafe in Nottingham Contemporary, and Matt opened another library at the NTU Boots Library in 2023. “Within the educational environment of the library at NTU it’s much more for a purpose to go and look at the zines, but the Contemporary’s zine library is there for the public,” says Matt. “It’s at the other end of the city and being in that kind of cafe environment it's a bit more laid back, you can kind of just happen upon them.”

Over in St Ann’s, another archive exists in The Sparrows’ Nest Library and Archive. Containing thousands of zines, pamphlets, flyers and other pieces of ephemera relating to radical culture in Nottingham, the UK and beyond, this invaluable and unique collection is a treasure trove of social history dating back decades. (Read more on pages 18-19).

“Zines are a brilliant archive and record of changing styles and tastes in creativity and different people's voices, current themes and trends,” says Matt, who regularly gets students to create zines to document their work at university. “They’re a good sort of litmus test of what are the hot topics of the day.”

Indeed - it may be said nowadays that whatever is posted online exists forever, but the question exists as to whether anyone is really collating and storing this mass of information, never mind where someone would even start. Sifting through all of these papers, pamphlets and zines, it makes one wonder what pieces of history get forgotten forever, and what stories and publications float back to us over time, the importance of their topics reframed and revalued.

If this issue has tickled a creative itch in you, why not head to one of the zine libraries for inspiration, or the annual Zine Fest held at the end of the year. There are also numerous workshops that pop-up throughout Nottingham where you can create your own zine or collaborate with others - we’ve even put together our own tips and tricks for making a zine on page 45.

Weird, democratic, creative and sometimes wildly revealing, zines make publishing accessible to everyone, so long live zines and long live print!

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