Greyhound blues

Max Sparber

There is something about Aaron Cometbus that makes it seem as though he is writing the story of your life. A recent City Pages review of a new compilation of Cometbus’s self-titled zine began with the reviewer describing a lonely night in San Francisco that was nearly rescued when Cometbus emerged from a crowd, seized the author, and dragged him into Chinatown. It seems likely that every review of the so-called “Cometbus Omnibus” (titled Despite Everything and available from Last Gasp) might begin this way. The zine’s author, after all, is an inveterate traveler and scenester, and his long-running zine (20 years now) has often been a document of his travels.

I don’t have an Aaron Cometbus story to tell. Somehow, I have never met him, although he always seemed to be just on the periphery of my vision. I was a member of a five-person collective that ran an anarchist infoshop in South Minneapolis in the early ’90s, and, sometimes, at a punk show, somebody would point to a lanky figure, just on his way out the door. “There goes Aaron,” they would say. Or new issues of Cometbus would appear on our zine rack. When I queried when they had arrived, another collective member would shrug, and then say, “Aaron brought them by about fifteen minutes ago.”

No matter. Leafing through Cometbus’s zine, I see myself, and my experiences, reflected back at me. One story, submitted to Cometbus by a young woman referred to only as Cindy, was certainly contributed by a high school friend, now the editor of her own zine, titled Doris. I had an embarrassing crush on her for years, and often had wondered what had become of her. Her story tells of her brief, frustrating stay in the treehouse of a friend’s farm. So there: Among the miscellany of contents found in Cometbus, every issue of which is dense with cartoons, hand-written tall tales, maps (one, drawn by members of Green Day, tells of their early nationwide tour, long before they ever climbed the pop charts), there was a piece of my life. There was a longtime, and long-lost, friend of mine.

There are many pleasures to be had in Cometbus, in part because the zine looked to cover whatever its editor and authors found pleasurable. Unlike many punk zines in the ’80s and ’90s, he had turned away from band interviews and vague scene reports, and instead began to report on a much broader range of experiences. This was rooted in his own identity as a wandering punk, but Aaron Cometbus published any story that appealed to him. And the types of stories that appealed to him were generally those of strange characters and strangers experiences. He enjoyed small gestures of resistance: One of the few band interviews published in the zine is with a soldier, stationed in Berlin, who had started his own punk band. He enjoyed good stories: Cometbus is filled with first-person narratives, many submitted by readers, of poignant autobiographical moments. And sometimes the zine seemed constructed by mad cartographers: Little maps and street guides abound, in one instance taking readers on a walking tour of Berkeley, following the path of the renegade, doomed Symbionese Liberation Army. More than anything, Cometbus and his contributors liked to wander; when reading of the sheer distance of his wanderings, it is less surprising that he nearly crossed paths with me so often. He spent an awful lot of time in Minneapolis, his self-described home away from home, in part because of a thriving punk and zine scene (this was the heyday of the locally produced Profane Existence), but, from his descriptions of the town, in part because there was so much to see here. “I remember standing behind the Target Center as the circus was getting out,” Cometbus writes, “and watching all the clowns exit out the back door all serious, tired after a long day like any other working stiffs. They were walking their dogs, or going back to their hotel room with their family. Pretty weird.”

One of the greatest pleasures offered by Cometbus, though, is how thoroughly it documents a revolution. This sort of photocopied zine has fallen out of fashion lately. Even if the author managed to get free photocopies (and they often did; sometimes it seemed like the most common job for young punks was working the all-night shift at Kinkos), the act of making a zine could be costly and labor-intensive. The process of collating alone could take an entire evening, spent making little piles of legal-sized paper, stacking them, stapling them, and folding them. Zines were distributed, one-by-one, in hand-addressed envelopes, often in exchange for other zines. Our South Minneapolis infoshop had a library of thousands of zines, many, inspired by Cometbus, intensely personal. The authors of zines has a burning, often touching, desire to impress their personality onto a photocopied page, and then use those pages to develop a community, sometimes over a period of years (and, in Cometbus’ case, in a period of decades). All of this can now be done online, often in just a few hours.

We won’t see many more publications like Cometbus, with its crabbed, hand-written text, frenzied line drawings, typewritten manifestoes, and photocopied photo-booth portraits. There would be night in Minneapolis, in the early ’90s, when the city’s Kinkos would become filled with its strangest characters. Surly punks would work side-by-side with thin-armed, mass murderer-obsessed college sophomores, collating and stapling their own private projects. Elsewhere, feisty alternateens would fish through garbage cans to find lost notes and weird photographs, all of which they might tape into their zine. Everybody seemed to have something they desperately needed to say back then, and, were you to read these midnight publications a few weeks later in a comic book store or record shop, you inevitable saw yourself reflected back, sometimes literally: It was your photo that had been scrounged from the garbage. And, standing next to you, at just that moment, Aaron Cometbus was dropping off issues of his own zine.