After the revolution

A new exhibit chronicles the power and glory of photocopied zine culture

Erin Adler

There should be a word for the special kind of irony that occurs when a countercultural figure or work attains mainstream appeal.

It could be reserved for only the most fitting examples – such as when white kids from the suburbs wear Che Guevara T-shirts or when Norton anthologized “The Communist Manifesto,” definitively rendering its once-radical message harmless.

Or, maybe, when an organization with “book arts” in its name sponsors an exhibit on comic books and zines, forms of expression once considered too geeky, subversive or political to elicit mainstream approval.

The Minnesota Center for Book Arts serves to legitimize the works with its exhibition Spot On: The Art of Zines and Graphic Novels.

The exhibit features zines, graphic novels and manga, a Japanese form of graphic novel. The works line the walls at the center, sit in glass cases and inhabit multiple bins around the exhibit.

They address a wide variety of topics, from the traditional superhero storyline in comic books to issues of mental illness in “per-zines,” or personal zines. Also on display are graphic novels representing the recent vogue for serious-minded comics, such as “Optic Nerve” and “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.”

Jeff Rathermel, the center’s artistic director, said the exhibit reflects a change in attitude about zines and graphic novels.

“People are starting to take them more seriously,” he said. “There is an ever-broadening group creating and showing interest in them.”

Though mainstream interest in zines and graphic novels is relatively recent, Rathermel said there has existed a “strong zine and cartooning culture” in the Twin Cities for quite some timess.

Zine culture: a history

Traditional zines gained popularity in the early 1990s as a way to express and publish ideas not typically welcomed by mainstream presses. Zines, like graphic novels and comic books, combine art with text, and many feature oppositional messages. Primarily printed on photocopy machines and distributed to friends and fellow zine aficionados, an underground zine culture developed in cities from Minneapolis to Portland, Ore.

Erik Farseth, a Minneapolis resident and zine editor of the J.Cruelty Catalog, said that in the mid-1990s, zines reached their pinnacle. A zine reviewing other zines, “FactSheet 5,” came out quarterly and covered thousands of publications.

“Zines covered everything from dishwashing to professional wrestling and queer politics,” he said.

Zines versus blogging

Today’s zine scene is a far cry from what it used to be, Farseth said. Multiple factors contributed to its decline.

“The Internet was a major factor but so were rising paper costs, the loss of national distributors, the end of ‘FactSheet 5’ and the growing consolidation of the media and entertainment industries,” he said.

Farseth said that in the last few years, many former zine publishers have turned to blogging on personal or topic-specific Web sites. Some “zinesters” have started “e-zines” as an inexpensive replacement for the traditional format.

Though Farseth enjoys blogging, he said, much was lost in the transition to the new digital medium, including experimentation with images, formatting and type.

From ‘hands on’ to behind glass

Given Farseth’s assessment of the state of zines, the exhibit at the center is particularly timely.

Rathermel, however, said he does not feel the two formats (electronic and paper) directly compete with each other.

“In some regards, the free distribution of hard-copy zines and the fast accessibility provided by the Internet both represent the democratic nature of zines,” he said. “The two complement each other.”

Rathermel said the Internet made the exhibit possible. It provided a way to call for submissions from a variety of media and zine publishers.

He said he made a special effort to make the exhibit as authentic as possible. This meant providing plenty of zines to page through, in addition to those in display cases.

Rathermel said he also wanted to accurately represent the diversity of graphic novels, zines and manga today.

“There are more graphic novels in particular that are centered around women and characters of color now,” he said. “Things are getting a little bit more real, and we wanted to represent that.”

What’s in a name?

Notably missing from the exhibit are the words “comic book.”

While Rathermel downplays the significance of calling the comics on display “graphic novels,” he said there is a tendency to associate the term “comic book” with humor and children.

This somewhat political move, which might anger fans of classic comic books, demonstrates what the center already knows – words and the ability to control and produce those words amount to power.

“Zines and graphic novels are really an extension of what we do here. They are just one more way to communicate, one more set of people to serve,” Rathermel said.

Comic books and zines now being given the status of legitimate art forms, rather than being considered the sole territory of teenage boys, is significant indeed.

Let’s just hope the “geek-to-chic” movement doesn’t go too far, or the next Magic: The Gathering tournament will be at the Walker Art Center.