(Note: The first part of the introduction to this series of posts is located here. Maybe with the next installment, the actual series will begin. Or maybe the whole thing will be all “Introduction.”—STDPM)
In 1989, Mike Gunderloy, about whom I’ll have more to say a little later, published a booklet collecting the answers given by dozens of small-press magazine (or “zine”) publishers to the question, “Why publish?” (That booklet is available online, with Gunderloy’s permission, in PDF format.) It covers just about every imaginable reason why someone would want to go to through the toil, expense, and emotional turmoil of creating and distributing a small print publication.
“Why publish?” It’s a good question, because one thing that most publishers discover, when they publish something, is that a large portion of the world’s population would prefer that they didn’t. And the vast majority of the remaining people don’t care one way or another.
I was involved in small-press publishing, in one form or another, on and off, from roughly 1988 to 2000. I’ve been trying to get back into the game this year … slowly and incrementally. It’s hard work. It can be rewarding (not financially, of course), but it can be emotionally wrenching, even heartbreaking. Sometimes people don’t like what you’re doing, and they let you know by writing bad reviews or yelling at you in person. More often, they ignore you completely, which is much worse.
Still, I never contributed to Gunderloy’s “Why publish?” dialogue, because I never had a good answer. Actually, the question never really occurred to me. I wanted to publish because I wanted to publish. As long as I’d been aware that it was a thing you could do, I wanted to do it.
The tougher questions, from my viewpoint, were what to publish, and how.
Everything I know about the what and how of do-it-yourself publishing—whether you want to call it underground, small press, zine culture, mail art, whatever—I learned from a hospital file clerk named Harvey Pekar.
OK, maybe not everything I know—but pretty much everything I feel about self publishing came off the streets of Cleveland, in the form of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comic books.
The basic philosophy I derived from Harvey’s example is simple: Do everything yourself that you possibly can; only get help from people you can trust (the blunt way of putting it is, people you can control or whose work you can reject); and compromise as little as possible.
Like a lot of people, my introduction to Harvey was one of his appearances on “Late Night With David Letterman.” (Years later, Harv’s tumultuous visits to Dave were dramatized in the critically acclaimed movie about Harv’s life and art. )
The first time I saw Harvey on Letterman was, I think, his second or third time on the show—he was flogging Doubleday’s new paperback collection of early American Splendor stories.
I fell in love with Harvey immediately. The next morning I hustled over to Lakehurst Mall in Waukegan, Illinois and bought American Splendor and read it straight through three or four times in a row.
Harvey Pekar, for the benefit of those who don’t know, wrote stories about his day-to-day life working at a Veteran’s Administration hospital, about the sad, happy, and mundane things that happened to him and his co-workers and his family. He sketched comic-strip outlines to go with the stories, using crude stick figures, and then cajoled, browbeat, begged, and bullied artists—most famously, R. Crumb—to illustrate them. He gathered the stories up and made them into comic books—black and white newsprint with color covers—which he paid out of pocket to have printed, trimmed, folded, and stapled. He distributed the books himself, largely by mail. He wasn’t supported by any advertising. He didn’t answer to the Comics Code Authority. He wasn’t even a part of a collective, like “Zap” and some of the other 1960s undergrounds. He depended on other people to draw the pictures, but otherwise, it was all Harvey.
So, when the idea surfaced during my third year of college that our cornfield-situated Compass Point State U. could use some kind of alternative or underground publication, I never had any interest in doing something “small time,” like a photocopied newsletter, something that looked like a church bulletin or a collection of recipes bundled up for a PTA fund-raiser. I figured, if Harvey Pekar could put together a “real” comic book, then we could publish a “real” newspaper. The whole deal—newsprint, offset press, thousands of copies. Why not?
There were a few other small rags in town being published by various lone nuts, so I knew it was possible. One of them—the notorious “DeKalb Nite Weekly”—consisted mainly of ads, and one or two “cheesecake” photos of coeds and other aspiring models (its claim to fame being that that it had published the first modeling shots of local girl Cindy Crawford).
Another local tabloid was the mysterious “Vigilante,” which appeared to have been a “grudge” publication financed by somebody with a number of grievances against local politicians, the exact nature of which I never quite figured out.
The difference between them and us was they had some money, and we didn’t. But, we figured, we just have to raise a few dollars and find the cheapest printing press in the area. How hard can it be? We can put out a paper just as “real” as these bozos.
So that’s what we did.
Not coincidentally, one of the first articles we published was a piece about a Postmodern Lit class using Harvey’s book as a text.
By that time, I had started buying Harvey’s comic books directly from Harvey, by mail. I got his address (a PO Box) from a book I had purchased at the same time I bought the American Splendor collection—a bizarre trove of pre-Internet fringe culture information curated by Ivan Stang, called High Weirdness By Mail.
Divided into categories based on things like political cranks, religious kooks, artists, poets, and unclassifiable oddballs, High Weirdness gave me my first exposure to the Mail Art genre, and its kid cousin, “zines.”
Sending off requests for information and SASEs to addresses in Stang’s book quickly became a near-obsession, and I was disappointed if I didn’t get at least four or five off-the-wall catalogs, leaflets, and postcards in my mailbox every day.
Through High Weirdness, I found a periodical that Stang described as something like a “respectable” version of his book—a monthly magazine called “Factsheet Five,” published by a guy named Mike Gunderloy.
“Factsheet Five” consisted of reviews—short capsule reviews of fanzines, art zines, poetry zines, etc.—and Gunderloy (and his co-editors) reviewed everything that was sent them. The publishers’ addresses were included with the reviews, as well as the asking price (most zine publishers just wanted postage, or a copy of your zine in trade). I still thought the Xerox fanzine culture was something apart from what we were doing, and not something I wanted to get into, but I subscribed to “Factsheet Five” anyway, to feed my “weird mail” habit.
“Factsheet Five” broadened my picture of what zines were. My previous impression of Xerox mags was that they were just fanzines—home-brewed appreciations of somebody’s favorite science fiction show or rock band. For example, the DeKalb/NIU-based zine THIS, which focused on the Chicago punk scene, was a great piece of work, and I loved to read it and dug that they were covering that material, but I didn’t have any interest in pursuing that route, as a physical object. I was still hung up on newsprint—and huge press runs.
But as I was finding out, there were all kinds of little magazines out there—there weren’t any rules or conventions or formats that somebody wasn’t breaking.
And even though I wasn’t interested in publishing zines myself, I wanted to support them … or at least cover them in my own grandiose media empire.
Here’s an article from the “Public Address System” about an art and poetry zine called, CEHSOIKOE, which was published by a college classmate named John Porcellino, who has gone on to achieve a measure of fame, if not fortune, in the comix world.
CEHSOIKOE was nice, and John’s comix were great (and still are), as were some small-press comix produced by another campus artist, Joe Chiappetta, but something about the traditional zine format still didn’t appeal to me. I didn’t like the fact that most zines attempted to mimic a commercial magazine’s format—with issue numbers, tables of contents, masthead, departments, a letters column, etc.—but in a crude (to varying degrees) rendering. To me, in my frame of mind at that time, that made them seem “fake”—not an actual medium, but an imitation of a medium.
Then I met John R., Xerox key operator, painter, madman, and prolific publisher of some 800-odd issues of a completely bewildering and infinitely variable magazine called “Catalyst Komics.”
And by infinitely variable, I mean that an issue of Catalyst Komics could be just about anything. Not only did John avoid any conventional trappings of a zine—Catalyst Komics issues rarely resembled a traditional magazine, and in particular they generally lacked any metadata that would provide clues as to origin, provenance, meaning, or purpose—they might not even be made of paper.
For example, as one rare book collection’s catalog listing states: “Library has: several issues from late 1980s/early 1990s.; Includes hypodermic needle encased in wax.”
One issue of Catalyst Komics consisted of a mousetrap that had been secured in the “armed” position with epoxy resin, with an issue number stenciled on the back. Another one—labeled a “time battery”—was made of two coins—a 1970s Deutsche Mark coin and an ancient Greek coin (possibly fake) wired together.
I don’t have a lot of John’s print magazines from around the time I met him, but here’s an example of one that I think dates from the early 1990s (in an “exploded” view):
John R’s stuff got it through to me that a zine could be anything—no rules at all. It could stand alone, and stand for itself. And zines were cheap and simple enough to produce without begging for anyone’s help. For distribution, there was “Factsheet Five.” I didn’t have to dump papers in campus buildings and risk getting cussed out by janitors and university administrators. I could send a copy to “F5” and let the orders come to me.
But here’s what really converted me.
One afternoon, I was hanging around the campus radio station. I don’t remember why. I must have been watching some friend DJ. John R had dropped by the station earlier that day and had dumped a pile of the new “Catalyst Komics” mag on a table in the air studio.
An hour or so later, in comes one of the station management people—a mulleted coke-fiend with a porn ’stache, whom I’ll call _____, for obvious reasons. Anyway, _____ bursts into the room, red-faced and limbs flailing, as usual, and he grabs one of the “Catalyst Komics.” _____ starts riffling through the thing furiously, and with every page he turns, his face gets redder and his eyes get angrier. Finally _____ barks, “What the @#$% is this?!,” throws the magazine down, and storms out.
That was when I decided I wanted to make some Xerox mags.
To be continued.