An annual festival in D.C. makes it easy for zinesters from different cities to find new ideas and each other.
On the way into DC Zinefest’s main hall, visitors first walk past a series of long tables piled high with curiosities: Pamphlets and papers of all shapes and sizes, some in color, others black and white, many with hand-drawn illustrations peeking around the text. The tables were available for consignment sales--if space could be found.
For Richmond’s Skinny Dipper magazine, a spot opens up as if by magic. At $20, it costs more than most zines, but it’s glossy and lush with photographs and original artwork. One of its creators scratches a Venmo address onto an envelope that will otherwise be used by organizers to collect cash from sales. Then, she drifts off in search of a burrito, leaving behind ceiling fans that spin furiously overhead, whining against the heatwave that had pushed D.C.’s July temperature into the 90s.
For its seventh annual summer event, DC Zinefest transformed Columbia Heights church (and well-known punk venue) St. Stephen & the Incarnation into a place for zinesters to meet, reunite, and seek inspiration.
The main hall was packed with visitors and a maze of sixty tables, all overflowing with handmade publications. Over the course of the day, nearly 900 zine enthusiasts slowly wound through the displays, browsing zines for sale or offering to trade their own zines, stickers, and art.
Luke Stacks is one of ten organizers who orchestrate DC Zinefest’s annual roster of events, which includes regular workshops and a Halloween event in addition to the summer fest. Over the past two years, he’s seen interest in the event grow. “We need to think about how we change registration to make sure that we’re capturing a lot of people, including a lot of different voices,” said Stacks.
To that end, DC Zinefest introduced a new program in 2017. Twelve grants and reserved tables were offered to applicants who would otherwise struggle to afford printing costs. Additionally, this year also featured panels on race and activism in response to feedback from past participants, who were hungry for the perspectives of zine makers whose work explored diverse identities and experiences.
The desire to hear voices that aren’t sufficiently represented by mainstream media is one of the key elements driving people to create zines in the first place. Hannah Cather is one of DC Zinefest’s organizers, as well as the creator of & their panties, a zine that curates women’s stories and art about their relationship to underwear. She believes that the enduring appeal of zines lies in the way they collapse the distance between the reader and the zinester who crafted each copy by hand.
“You’re accessing someone's voice in a way that you wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Cather, admitting that the question gave her goosebumps. “I think that’s what’s so great about being an organizer—knowing I’m helping to cultivate a space that gives people a voice.”
Organizer Fil Baird overheard Cather’s remarks and drifted into the conversation. He discovered zines through the punk scene and has spent the past decade exploring topics ranging from photography to wrestling through his own publications. He finds that zines fill a different niche than magazines or books in his media diet, offering an immediacy that other forms can’t.
“You can pick up something that has a very narrow focus and carry around something to read for a specific instance,” says Baird. “If you have a bus ride, you can just throw one in your bag and go.”
American zine culture can be traced back to the self-published pamphlets of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, exerting lasting impact on American political thought and culture. By the 1970s, zines were traded among artists already using the postal service as an exchange network. The notion of mail art, as it was called, is an idea that will be familiar to readers of The Crying of Lot 49, and serves as the basis for today’s proliferation of personal, self-published email newsletters.
“It’s like a multi-level marketing scheme, only nobody gets ripped off,” jokes Donald Russell. At George Mason University, he serves as curator of exhibitions across three campuses and works with students at Provisions Library, which has served as a research center in the heart of George Mason’s art school in 2012.
“[Students] get a lot of training with form and color,” says Russell, “but not a lot of training in how to do research into social issues so their messages can be informed and articulate.”
Russell first encountered self-published artist books in Rochester, New York, which was an epicenter of progressive thinking about video and photography during the 1970s. Now, he keeps four boxes of zines at Provisions Library as examples for students seeking to engage substantive messages through their art. (Across the U.S., Barnard College* has counted over 125 libraries that maintain zine collections.)
Unlike other art projects, which can easily run up a bill of hundreds of dollars in materials, anyone with a stapler and access to a Xerox machine is free to experiment with zine-making. “That’s the nice thing about DIY, the bar to entry is pretty low,” says Russell. “It’s very democratic.”
As a curator, Russell finds that the low barrier to entry means that zines also have little quality control, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Part of the aesthetic is that it is sort of raw, and you see something real,” says Russell. “Sometimes, something raw or kind of funky is just as powerful.”
Eric and Sara Gordon, a husband and wife team who tabled at DC Zinefest this year, have several projects including Vinyl Vagabonds, a music zine featuring reviews and stories. “We have a lot of things that we’re just compelled to talk about, and some of it’s humorous, farcical, just being silly,” said Eric. “[Sometimes] we’re just super passionate about a band or a particular record, and we want to sing it from the rooftops.”
While some cities have vibrant zine cultures that find their into to local bookstores and newsstands, they’re often more difficult to track down in the Nation’s Capital outside of events like this one. As DC Zinefest has grown, it has also brought the zine and comics communities closer. Dan Perlstein published his first comics when he was still in middle school. This year, he traveled to DC Zinefest from Providence, Rhode Island. He set up a table of comics he produced with several collaborators under the name Snack King Comics. (Their tagline: “Snacks for your feelings.”)
On this particular day, Perlstein was explaining Man Boy, a comic that follows the misadventures of an impoverished twenty-something and his cat, with stories that are designed to be collected and binge read.
Publishing Man Boy on a regular monthly schedule can be challenging. Everyone who works on Snack King Comics has at least one other job. Among Perlstein’s jobs include a teaching position where he works with middle and high school students. Recently, he helped his students transform their literary journal from an annual publication into a monthly one, sparking enthusiasm for writing and lively debate about what content to include—potentially initiating a new generation of zinesters.
A few tables away from Perlstein, Toni Lane chatted with a steady stream of visitors. Although she was a first-time tabler at DC Zinefest, she isn’t new to making zines. “I've always been making them, but I never called them zines,” says Lane, who is also a painter and photographer. “I just called them ‘my little books.’”
At DC Zinefest, she brought Ghetto Girls Rule, a series that explores life from the perspectives of over a dozen African American girls who live by grounding truths, challenging readers to define their own rules to live by. Lane also premiered a book she had created specifically for the event, which featured a compilation of paintings that she created in response to Black Lives Matter. She believes art can serve as a much-needed outlet during politically volatile times.
“This is a way a lot of people can get out a lot of the frustrations,” says Lane. “This is what art is here for. This is when the artists come out, even the ones who haven't done anything in awhile. That's important.”
As a new wave of visitors began to weave their way through the church, already hot with tightly packed bodies, Lane joked that next year, she’ll bring her art in the form of paper fans. “I think I’m going to do real well.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Barnard College.