Searching for London
By Skot Deeming
When you think of London, Ontario, you don’t think of a vibrant history of independent publishing and culture. After all, this is the town whose mayor recently endorsed the march for Jesus, but called a gay pride parade immoral. It’s a conservative town, to say the least, the kind of place that affectionately dubs itself “the forest city” even while its polluted river bobs with floating blobs of toxins and tars. London is home to the University of Western Ontario, known throughout Canada as the “country club” university. So how did I, and a handful of others, end up publishing zines in this, the most conservative college town in southwestern Ontario? Are we lone wolves whose howls long for a wilderness that never really existed? Or, as I’ve often suspected, are we unconsciously connecting to some element of London’s past, a time when this small city was home to artists and publishers on the cutting edge of independent artistic creation in this country?
To answer that question, I decided to map out the history of independent publishing in London. I wanted to find the zines of London’s past, and discover what made them successes or failures. I wanted to look back on these cultural documents and, hopefully, shed light on what motivates the zine publishers in my town today. I wanted to learn what it means to be a zine publisher who has ties and obligations not just to other zine publishers spread out across Canada, across North America, but to the place I call home.
I started my search by digging out my old issues of Paradigm, a lit-zine I used to co-edit. Jason Dickson, the current editor of the zine, had, some years ago, felt a similar urge to explore London’s publishing past, and had penned a pretty good subject on the history of the London lit-zine; his motivation, like mine, was to find a local cultural history and regional identity that would put our own indie publishing activities in context. But where my old co-editor was interested solely in the literary history of indie publishing in London, I wanted to examine the entire range of publishing matter. Surely there was more than lit-zines in the past? I thought. So much for the easy route.
Next stop was the Central Branch of the Public Library, more specifically, a room in the library called the London Room. The London Room is an archive and museum that houses old books, artifacts, newspapers and various publications from London and area. I asked the librarian and he showed to me a few rows of shelves that I hoped would reveal the publishing ventures of London folk from way back. The librarian then offered me some good advice for my project: He told me to explore and I would find what I was looking for. And I found it all right, nicely hard bound and anthologized, there was London’s zine history at my fingertips. A quick perusal convinced me that London is a town with a rich artistic and literary history – no wonder Jason had been so intrigued.
Most of the zines in the library were either litzines or artzines (often both) that were directly connected to the art scene at the time of their creation. Intertwined with a thriving visual arts scenes, some of these zines lasted for years, and if one fell to the wayside another seemed to emerge to fill the void left in its place. What follows is an account of some of the zines and journals that seemed to dominate indie publishing in London over the last fifty years. However, it is an account with, no doubt, some major omissions. There is good reason to believe that the library may not have seen – or may not have chosen to collect – some publications. Who knows how many London zines – deemed offensive or worthless, falling outside the parameters of traditional culture – went uncollected, and, thus, forgotten? So I offer you a partial history, and one limited by the biases of the traditional research institutions. In the end, these are the zines that I could find, the ones that were archived and available. I’m sure there have been others that were never documented or collected.
The first London zine was published by the University of Western Ontario. I guess, in truth, it wasn’t technically a zine as it was put out by the University. But its contents were certainly varied and vivacious enough to be considered zine like. At any rate, the publication was a modest literary journal named Folio that began in 1947 and continued on until 1968. The longevity of this zine can be attributed to the fact that university money financed the publication and provided for a rotating editing staff that changed every few years, giving Folio a fresh editorial perspective every four or five issues. Folio was the only publication of its type until the 1960’s, when a whole slew of zines began popping up (more on that later). Folio was very straight forward, with quarter page introductions and two sections, poetry and prose. This publication was mainly there for the literary talent of the University, however it did accept submissions from London as well. By having a local bent to it,Folio set the stage for the zines that followed it, zines that placed the publishing of local artists above material with a provincial or national scope. Flipping through old dusty pages, I was struck by the historical resonance of the journal, the way it provided an opportunity for local writers to give voice to their aspirations and their terrors. One piece that caught my eye was a poem called The Atoms, by Charles Fourezes. Here was a poem about the horror of harnessing the power of the atom, published within a year of the Hiroshima bombing: “Tiny, whirling worlds/Part of Divine Device/Whirling!/Pop goes a neutron/Zip-zip-zip-a chain/Whump!-an atom bomb!/Whirling, one by one they shatter!/Faster, faster, faster, they shatter!/A city’s lost-a pile of atoms./A world’s lost- a pile of atoms./Man is lost- a pile of atoms./Where is God?/Whump! Whump! Whump!”
No doubt, the existence of Folio helped to inspire the publications that would emerge out of its demise. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, London was a bastion of creative energy, and the scene was flooded with indie publications. At this time, London’s zines were directly related to London’s visual and literary happenings. Most of the people involved in these arts scene were the same people who were either editors or contributors to the local zine being published, often being both editor and contributor.
London’s artistic past is nearly legendary in southwestern Ontario. Performance art, gallery shows and publications proliferated in the Sixties, and London was the center of all that activity.
London’s zine culture really started with a modest publication in the early part of the decade called Region, which was produced largely by famed London artist Greg Curnoe. Curnoe is known best for his work in visual art using the images of bicycles (he also dubbed London and surrounding area with the moniker “South-Westo”, a name still used today by many from the area). As with most zine beginnings, Regionwas a zine created out of a need to show work done by London artists and writers, and create a forum for local artists to talk about their work. Not surprisingly, region was directly linked to the Region gallery, a small art gallery run by Curnoe at the time. As I pored through the zines of the era, I found that many of London’s zines seemed to come from a communal need to give voice to artists involved in local scenes as well as create a document of events that would otherwise exist only in the memory of the participants. Most zines don’t come out of a vacuum: they emerge to fill out a need that isn’t being answered. The more creative activity happening, the more the need for publications to chronicle that activity. This is a logical connection that continues to inform zine publishing in Canada today, with cycles of creativity and documentation on a constant spiral. Wanna start a zine? Maybe you should think about starting an art gallery first. But that’s a different story.
Many of the people published in Region went on to further careers in writing and the arts including poet and writer James Reaney and artist Murray Favro. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Region was its ever changing layout: the first issue was a six pager cut into the shape of a circle; subsequent issues went from 10 to 40 pages and came in all manners of shapes and sizes. All the type was hand written, so the zine had a familiar d.i.y. feel that, at the time, was probably a bit of a radical departure from assumptions about what a publication should look and feel like.
Poet James Reaney produced the next major publication out of a tiny third floor office in the University College at U.W.O. The zine was called Alphabet, and it had more staying power than any other London zine, lasting an astonishing eleven years! (1960-1971.) In the course of that eleven year period, Alphabet published the works of now acclaimed Canadian writers such a Margaret Atwood, Bill Bisset, and bp Nichol. The zine’s primary focus was on language and its relationship to shape and form: Reaney believed that modern poetry was riddled with codes and signs just sitting there waiting to be detected and decoded. Alphabet was well organized, and, thought it published up and coming writers from throughout Canada, it also retained a local focus.
The final major art zine of the Sixties was Twenty Cents Magazine. Done, by and large, by many of the people involved with Region, Twenty Cents was very much a continuance of the kind of work found at the time in the region. Most of the contributors involved with this zine were also members of the Nihilist Spasm Band, a noise performance group that emerged around the same time. The NSB were the world’s first electric kazoo band, and many of their members were also local artists who went on to become recognized for their work. These were busy folks: they produced the zine, played in the band, pursued their own artistic visions and, in their spare time, founded the Nihilist Party in London which, to this day, still has an annual Nihilist Party Picnic, featuring speakers on the arts and nihilism. Twenty Cents not only published the work of local and national artists but it also gave a home to film critiques, letters, manifestoes, journals and art show reviews not to mention work by such notables as Michael Ondaatje. This publication is perhaps the most famous of the Sixties art zines in London — it chronicled the emergence and range of the London art boom and without it a lot of the underground happenings in this city would have been lost.
It must have been an exciting time in London, so many artists working together and separately, challenging boundaries and exploring conventions. Some (Greg Curnoe, Murray Favro, etc.) went on to be recognized for their work, others fell, like the zines of the time, into obscurity. London hasn’t seen a boom of this magnitude since; it was a time when one zine fell to the way side, another came along, and more often than not the same people involved in one publishing project often became involved in the next. It was a time when London writers and artists were concerned with the production and coverage of local arts as a collective whole. The artists worked together and for each other and promoted each other’s work in their various publications. The publications cooperated in the promotion of the arts, and seemed less concerned with selling more issues than the other guy, than with the health of the entire scene. Twenty Cents thrived in a period where cooperation and cultivation took a small group of people from local writers and artists and made them nationally recognized artists. Twenty Cents was published well into the seventies before it ended its run.
The zines that emerged in the Seventies seemed to be a continuation of the artistic tradition set by the zines in the prior decade. The first to continue in this tradition was a zine called Applegarth’s Folly. Founded in 1973, Applegarth’s Folly was a literary journal, a community calendar for the arts, a forum for reviews and criticism as well as being beautifully printed on multicolored paper, with layered and multicolored text, art and collage. In 1973, an issue of Applegarth’s Folly cost a mere two bucks, was over a hundred pages long, and contained the writing of such Canadian literary luminaries such as bill bissett, Margaret Atwood and Stan Dragland. If there were a zine of this high quality today, you’d probably be paying over twenty dollars for it. The quality look this zine sported was due in part to the printer; a local boy named Mike Niederman, who, still active today, has also been involved in printing early issues of Brick and more recently, Girl Kult. Mike Neiderman’s work is definitely the work of a true artist and these zines owe a lot to him and his talents.
Applegarth’s Folly is probably the most well crafted zine I have ever seen, the layout is superb, tight, and eye-catching; appropriate for the content, which is not only important to the history of London arts, but to the Canadian literary world as well.
In 1977, around the end of the reign of Applegarth’s Folly, came the literary review journal Brick, edited by Stan Dragland. Brick was supposed to be an extension of the review section of Applegarth’s Folly, so that Applegarth’s Folly could continue in the artistic vein. The fist several issues were printed in a similar style ofApplegarth’s Folly (again by Neiderman). Early issues of Brick were slightly more academic than Folly, as Brick concentrated on reviews and criticism of literary works. Nonetheless, the layout made up for some of the more stand-offish content: vibrant design and collages featuring fifties style romance comic book art made the earlier issues of Brick a real treat. Like Folly, just flipping through the pages was a feast of multicolored images and text (call it literary eye candy). Unfortunately, later issues of Brick were printed in black and white on newsprint, and most of the visual elements were removed in favor of the writing. Still an important document in terms of literary criticism, but lacking the stunning look it had before. Brickeventually moved from its home base in London, to Ilderton, Ontario, then on to Toronto, and has had editors including Michael Ondaatje and current editor Linda Spalding. Today, Brick still exists in glossy form (albeit disconnected from the grassroots community it came from).
It seems that London’s predominate zine genre is the lit-zine, or literary journal. Perhaps this is because there was a dominant literary culture in London. In the Sixties, the stage was set by the literary figures such a James Reaney and Curnoe, and this left a tradition, a legacy, for others to follow. London seems to be big on tradition, one zine following the other, then another. In addition to Applegarth’s Folly and Brick, the 70’s also had three other lit zines/journals. Stuffed Crocodilewas a rough-worn journal that questioned its own existence in the first issue by acknowledging the “publication boom” it saw in London in the seventies. Nonetheless, it existed, publishing the work of local unknowns. There was also a literary quarterly called Mamshee which, like Stuffed Crocodile, was a whole lot of poetry typed and copied on one of those old fashioned ditto machines. These two journals lacked a punch; just poem after poem after poem, with no visual content.Mamshee ended its run in 1984, and Stuffed Crocodile sank in 1978. The final litzine of the 70’s was yet another journal called eclipse, which printed only four issues and ended its run in 1981. Unlike the other two smaller litzines, eclipse published more that just local poets. The first issue had a play by James Reaney called gyroscope, and also had a visual art element including reviews and interviews with local art/literary notables. Eclipse, though modest compared with some of the other lit zines of London’s past, seemed to strive to get quality well known writers whether through interviews or writing.
The final zine I found published in London in the Seventies was a labour/socialist publication called Perspectives that claimed to be a reaction to the “regional elite of London Ontario.” This publication concerned itself with local labor issues, politics and the like, more an extended length newsletter than anything else. Certain issuesPerspectives dealt with still resonate today, particularly labor issues, strikes and an article on the Ivey family, one of London’s old rich elite. (Today, their name graces the school of business at the university, teaching another generation to be cold, heartless suits.)
The Eighties saw the decline of zine publishing in London, at least in comparison to the past. While some of the litzines continued into the 1980s most were finished by ’84. Just as the zines of the Sixties and Seventies documented a time of innovation and independence, the dearth of Eighties zines documented the emergence of a new consumer consensus. Maybe the death of the litzine in the 80s had to do with the Rubik’s Cube (so many people trying to solve it they had no time for anything else) or maybe the Cola Wars were just so preoccupying that no on cared about literature anymore. Whatever the case, of the zines of the Eighties (all two of them) showcased the emergence of a split in what the role of the indie publication would be in years to come — indie literature falling by the wayside as people began to relate more closely to the pop culture spectacle dramatically influencing their lives in new ways.
A good example of this phenomenon was SideTrekked, a local star trek fan zine started in 1980. This thing was a real mess. It was published by a Star Trek fan group called Star Trek Ontario, and, other than being a document of pop-culture phenomenon had nothing to it. Mostly is was a zine of raving fans, a couple of typewritten full size pages stapled together along the spine, and reproduced with some not so great ditto-machine copying. The content betrays the closed, insular pop culture world we now know as fandom: In an issue I have, there is a trivia quiz that only the ultimate Star Trek fan boy would be capable of answering.SideTrekked wasn’t a total loss. As time went on, the zine grew, reflecting the increasing emergence of a sci-fi subculture that considered the cannon of movies, tv shows and books to be something far more than just distraction from ordinary life. Science fiction was also slipping into the everyday in other ways: the zine could be reproduced with quality using a futuristic invention called the photocopier. Also in later issues, the editors changed the format to a more manageable digest size and expanded their content to include other science fiction as well, such as Star Wars(the obvious choice) and, more interestingly, several articles about sci-fi cult author Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner). SideTrekked had a long life — twelve years! — which proves just how dedicated those s/f nerds can be. Interestingly, this is only the second London based zine in three decades that had a focus other than art and literature. Nevertheless, the function was the same and perhaps just as important: in an age of voiceless passivity, the zine provided a voice, gave the fans of sci-fi a space to share their stories and validate their obsessions. This zine encouraged submissions, provided membership in a fan club with members across Ontario, and gave sci-fi fans a sense of community similar to that the writers and artists found a decade earlier. It would be a mistake to dismiss SideTrekked as unimportant.
Tabula Rasa was the other Eighties zine in London. Yet another lit journal in the tradition of those that came before it, Rasa was nothing truly spectacular and had a short life of three years beginning in 1989 and ending in 92. Which brings us to the recent past…
The Nineties and Beyond
The nineties saw another explosion of independent publishing, most closely linked to the literary and artistic tradition. What mysterious shifts in the cultural climate fueled this new proliferation? Certainly, there was a significant void that had emerged with the absence of a forum for local creators. As well, new generations of creators — many influenced by the burgeoning spoken word scene — were coming into their own in an age where it was, again, permissible, even desirable, to produce works of independent cultural activity. Just as early art zines were connected to galleries, these new literary publications tended to emerge from readings and public events organized by their editors. Wanna start a zine? Start a reading series first.
Ecks magazine, a litzine of sorts, was only around for two short years and four issues, but it was well regarded. Editor Stephen Edgar managed to publish works by Stan Dragland and London artist Aiden Urquhart; many of the contributors to Eckswent on to publish their own zines, no doubt filling the publishing void that emerged when Ecks vanished. However, in the years between the demise of Ecksand the new litzines, the zine was replaced by a series of square bound, one shot lit journals including London After Midnight, its sequel Glass Matador, and a joint London/Guelph venture Waking Ordeals. Perhaps the most notable journal of this time was Scribbled Secret Notebooks, an anthology of London poetry written by writers age 25 or younger. This anthology was the brainchild of Jason Dickson, who was committed to publishing the voices of young London talent, and then went on to found Paradigm with yours truly. The spirit of this journal is best captured by the words of Cathy Carriere a poet from the anthology: “stalk the sleeping poem/ for the writing down.” Around this time, the mid-Nineties, another litzine started up called Afterthoughts. Afterthoughts has had quite a long run, and continues to publish the work of local and international writers to this day.
The emergence of Afterthoughts marked the rise and fall of the single issue anthologies. Expensive to produce and mail, the books fell to the wayside as the zine re-emerged as the dominant form of indie expression in London. The Nineties were a time of enormous diversity in the popular imagination. No longer would London be a single genre town. Litzines would be joined by comic zines, sex zines, political zines and more. One example of the diversity of the Nineties zine scene in London was early comic work of cartoonist and London native Marc Bell — he produced such now infamous and celebrated works including the Mojo Action Companion Unit featuring the loveable Shrimpy and Paul while in London. Other such zines emerged such as Teri Appelman’s mini zine the Cum Lord, which incorporated old religious kitsch with 70’s porn images. There was even an angst-ridden zine by an angry suburbanite called If You Hate London, Clap Your Hands. Another notable zine was Girl Kult, published by Joan Brennan and printed by Mike Neiderman (who did great work in the Seventies on Applegarth’s Folly and Brick). Branching out from the traditional arts genres has resulted in a far more diverse and fragmented scene. Although many of these London zines struggle against similar difficulties, there isn’t the same spirit of sharing and cooperation one sense from the zines of the Sixties and Seventies. There is, however, that same sincere belief in the importance of independent forums in which a variety of contributors can voice their concerns and opinions in ways that challenge the conventional attitudes of what can and should be conveyed in periodical form.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the litzine returned to its former glory as the central forum of expression in London. Dickson’s Paradigm began in 1996 and consciously continues in the tradition of London’s artistic past — mixing quality writing from across Canada with local voices. Defiance is a zine of political thought that intersperses essay and poetry and art, updating the litzine with a shot of anarchist politics. Other off-and-on efforts include a modest mini litzine called Opium for the People (had a short run of four issues), and Black Lodge, my humble lit offering. Among the most exciting of recent zines to come out of London was Rubber Ducky, which only had two issues to its run, but included collage and writing by London artists Neil Jeffrey and Justin Mcnabb. The great thing about this zine was its down to earth approach to art and writing, so much so that Justin’s Bombardier chili recipe was included in the first issue. Best damn chili I’ve ever had that came from a zine recipe! Bseides great chili, Justin and Neil explored their identities as Canadian artists, through fiction about artists who call themselves “art farmers” or through poetic word play such as the piece Canada needs more dykes ( about the Manitboa flood crisis from some years back).
That brings us pretty much to the present, where there are about a dozen or so zines in London being published on a semi regular basis. Some of the ones I haven’t mentioned yet include the work of Chris Barry (static toe) and friends (brand x media), who have been reviewed in BP, there is the cyber-culture zine, Dissentry, the fantastic comic work of D.S. Barrick and his nutty The Day I Wrote Watermelon, the crazy bug zines by yours truly, and the film journal of the London Film and Video Society. An on-going highlight is a zine that tries to put some of that great ecology back into the forest city, Antler River Life. Antler River Life is a zine with an environmental focus, with articles on bio-regionalism and various information about the ecology of London and area.
So there you have it, a nearly comprehensive look at the zine goings on of a modest south-western Ontario city steeped in a history of experimentation in the literary and visual arts. London’s tradition of art and literature is still felt today in many of its zines, which are either a conscious or unconscious continuation of that commitment to the arts. Many off these zines emerged to fill a void left by the demise of zine(s) prior. Also most became defacto documentation of spoken word events and artistic gatherings in London. So to you, the zine reader and publisher I say this: these publications are more than just passing fancy, they are the cultural documents for future generations to look back on, much like I have here. Though they seem ephemeral, it is clear that zines provide a counter-culture history of any given region or space. The zines in your town might be the key to exploring the nature of your own community’s on-going indie publishing and cultural traditions. Look through the back issues of the Entertainment section of the daily newspaper, and you won’t find the vast majority of art events that the zines of London have documented over the last fifty years. Without zines, so much would be lost. Inevitably, zines published today will be just another chapter in a larger story; a story about finding a voice, finding a way to speak about a place that, however briefly, gave us a chance to say who we were and what we were like.
Skot Deeming is a zine publisher, artist and founder of black lodge distro. e-mail: [email protected]
A brief listing of zines currently in production in London, ON.
Paradigm- a journal of art and literature in London Ontario
Ed. Jason Dickson
433 dufferin ave. apt #17
Chris Barry ( static toe, the kids can’t sing)
99 hawthorne rd.
Black lodge distro ( litzine, comix, music, bug stuff)
3 chapplehill rd
Ed. Andreas gripp
p.o. box 23176
380 Wellington rd
Antler River Life- an environmentally consciousness zine
Ed. Ron Johnson
32 black friars street
Girl Kult- girl kulture zine
Ed. Joan Brennan
48 craig st.
A History of the Small Town Zine Scene