Zine Philosophy


by Al Burian

Brief interaction #1: I wandered into a bookstore in New York City, hoping they would take some zines off my hands. The guy at the counter was pretty unreceptive. This is not an unusual occurrence, of course, given the vast mountains of such material being published continuously, and the limitations of earthly shelf-space. Plus, when you deal with a capitalistic entity like this there is a certain realpolitik in play: it’s nothing personal – it’s not that they don’t like your looks or the font you chose for the front cover – it’s just that, in a time where the vendors of physical, published material are fighting for their very existence, every inch of shelf-space counts. I’m the next level up on the food chain: fighting to get my ideas out, thinking beyond the mortal scraping through, focusing instead on the statues that may potentially be erected after my death. Mine is the more relaxed position to be in, so when some surly bookstore clerk mutters “no one’s gonna buy this crap,” I just nod amiably. If a sculpture of me is erected in front of the city hall in Carrboro, North Carolina sometime in 2070, I’ll be having the last laugh from beyond the grave, so why rub his nose in it now?
During this particular haggling with the generic surly guy at the counter, however, I was pleased to have my case bolstered by a random interlocutor. He had noticed the interaction, recognized the zine, and now stepped up to purchase a copy directly, showering me with literary praise as he simultaneously circumvented the middleman. I turned back to the counter, attempted my most sardonic, withering “no one’s gonna buy this crap, huh?” gaze, and, upon then winning the blazing victory of being allowed to leave three copies on consignment, retired to the stoop outside where I bantered a little with my new-found friend and ally.
Brief interaction #2: At a house show in Carrboro, a few weeks later, I spotted my new friend from NYC, sitting in a corner. I remembered that he had told me he was in a band and that they would be touring through my town soon. He was slumped over by a makeshift merchandise stand, deeply engrossed in something happening on his iPhone. His thumbs moving with reptilian efficiency, tapping out a message to someone somewhere else, he did not look up when I approached.
“Hey, do you remember me? We met in New York,” I said.
“Uh, huh,” he said, monotone, still not looking up. He seemed irritated that I was interrupting his thumb-typing flow and waited, eyes averted, for me to give him some piece of information that he might care about. I was at a loss.
“So, um…” I stammered, lingering awkwardly. “Yeah. So. We met there. And, uh, yeah.” I was overcome by a feeling of self-recognition: the countless times I have been the out-of-town visitor, acting just like this, hiding behind a book in the corner, projecting a self-defensive shield to communicate: don’t talk to me. I can sympathize, but what if I were a fan of his band, eager to meet someone I looked up to? How would I feel right now? What message would I be receiving? Didn’t we both make the choice to be here, voluntarily, in our positions? Do It Yourself may be a command, but here is a question: are you doing it for yourself or by yourself?
We are all entrenched in hierarchies, economies and social structures we’d rather not be involved in. DIY, as a concept, challenges those modes of existence because they are premised, at their most basic level, on consolidation of power, on acquiring the leverage to get other people to Do Things For You. I am uncomfortable with this dynamic, whether I’m the employee or the boss. So I tend to gravitate towards scenes and cultural moments where there is some attempt to level those relations. You are doomed to disillusionment, of course, if you mourn the failure of your utopian ideals to function in the real world; doomed by definition, because utopian ideals are illusions, gauzy veils beneath which the blunt mechanics of our interactions are always still visible.
I lingered too long, he finally looked up at me and instantaneously his demeanor changed. He greeted me warmly and we made amiable small talk: I was, it turned out, someone worthy of his time.

Al Burian has been making zines since his early twenties. A former columnist for Punk Planet, he has published two collections of his zine output, Burn Collector (2000) and Natural Disaster (2007), as well as a book of comics entitled Things Are Meaning Less (2003).

Illustration by Matthew Daley