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Zines: Niche Counterculture for Campus Expression

Opinion | November 9, 2015

My first intimate moment was at Middlesex County Summer Camp, but, be forewarned, it was less than explicit. As an odd thirteen year old with a less-than-daily shower schedule (I was a kid!), I wanted to find somewhere to fit in. I was halfway between the older-kid cabin and the younger, middle school-kid cabin. Because I wasn’t so suave with my friend-making, I flocked quickly to the only people who I could make sense of—the counselors. I started talking with a dark-haired, freckly counselor named Acadia. She shared my music taste and, during arts & crafts, drew tattoos on her hands using magic markers. We soon started sharing notes with each other—but not typical scrunched up messages. We delivered small parcels every couple of days thick with cut-out pictures, receipts, torn pages, and found objects, riddled with poems and thoughts scrawled in pen. I had finally found a way to talk creatively and secretly with someone and I loved it. I would spend hours finding little mementos around the camp grounds for her to enjoy while she would reveal to me her behind-the-scenes counselor adventures. We made a routine of this and, even now, after years without camp and with only the sporadic Facebook message shared between us since then, I still have those three or four parcels saved in my room. I still wonder why those cheap little envelopes meant so much. They were intimate, funny, handmade—they weren’t created for any reason other than to share thoughts and connect. They were exactly the kind of communication that led me throughout high school to obsess over the culture of zine circulation.

Zines are cheap little booklets, often handmade in small batches. They had their start in niche science fiction communities as early as the 1920s, but truly gained prominence in the ‘80s when punk culture adopted zines as their main method of communication. Zines gained their popularity mostly through music. Publications like Punk, Sniffin’ Glue, and Maximum Rock & Roll were more than just punk-band propaganda—they directly catalyzed and documented several major music scenes across the country. Political movements, artistic communities, science fiction fan discussions, and poetry junkies have also all had legacies in the ‘80s and ‘90s through small-circulation fanzines, and now they still live on in scarce alternative bookstores and small groups.

I first found zines online as artist portfolios and I’ve been fascinated ever since. I have scrolled through tons of pages of zines, covering topics from radical feminism to the adventures of a man attempting to wash dishes in all 50 states. Zines are zany, funny, informative, even politically revealing. No other medium has such raw thought and energy. They are the same intimate, opinionated collections of multimedia that I savored so much at summer camp.

Since coming to campus, I have realized the place zines could have at Tufts. In a community where opinions are passionately shared and formulated, zines could find a beloved new home on our publications shelves.

And, it seems, they already have. Underground publications are not new for Tufts—remnants of now defunct student-run zines still remain. El Tit, a satirical zine making fun of media that’s “happy to openly mock all people from all walks of life,” ran last year as one of Tufts’ only small-circulation publications. It was funny, provocative, and mostly female-centric. Not to say that other Tufts publications can’t meet those criteria, but El Tit was, pardon the pun, a titular publication last year. It was fun, casual, yet still had a personal feeling of no rules and a lot of expression. The Tufts Disorientation Guide—which was distributed around campus and can be found online—recently released their 2015 edition. According to their website, the guide “hope[s] it provides some alternative perspectives to understanding the history and present [of Tufts].”

However, even as the writer of this article and as a first-year student, I wasn’t aware of the Guide until writing my second draft of this article. I can also assume that most first-years won’t be searching for an underground, informal guide to their school. But it shouldn’t take detective-level work to find them.

As part of our campus, zines have been and still could be an essential tool for expression. A series of zines could have a stronger influence on the smaller community it reaches. Instead of hundreds of partially-invested viewers, a zine could grab a dozen fully-invested soon-to-be activists. This dozen might be curious enough to pick up the pamphlet, interested enough to inspect its contents, and—most significantly—resonate more with the emotions of the writer. Modern zines could be the prose piece that inspires an activist or the manifesto that launches a movement. Or, they could just be 20 drawings of androids. Either way—they’d be noticed.

Online sharing is ubiquitous—however, most Internet platforms for communication are ephemeral. The Internet, in every way that it’s amazing (I’m looking at you, Netflix), still can’t offer the personalization and the lure of physical media. Unlike a shared link to a blog post or article online, zines can’t be as easily glossed over. Everyone walking to and from the campus center, Tisch Library, Olin, and the Rez will notice odd little pamphlet stacks in their periphery. Plus, zines fit into college student psychology—they’re free, easy to make, and share opinions personally and physically within the Tufts sphere.

So great, they could work. But why invest the time and energy into small-circulation paper books? Well, you tell me. I certainly enjoyed the phenomenon between my counselor and me. I’m sure the punks, feminists, and poetry junkies of the 80s enjoyed their discussions even if they didn’t reach out beyond their sphere of interested fanatics. I’m sure you, your squad, club, collective, or even political party could find joy in personalized discussion through cheap, handmade booklets. So, with zines in your head and all the tools to make them at your disposal, what would you fill a 15-page booklet with?