Women’s zines make life an open book

‘D.I.Y. Autobiography’ exhibition highlights new collections of Chicago zines

The zine Taenia Pisiformis, or, Our Tapeworm, or, The Most Grossest Three Months of my Life has earned a special place in the heart of Sarah G. Wenzel and in the winter exhibition she curated, My Life Is an Open Book: D.I.Y. Autobiography.

Cover of "Taenia Pisiformis, or, Our Tapeworm"

Kristen Romaniszak, “Taenia Pisiformis, or, Our Tapeworm, or, The Most Grossest Three Months of my Life” 2005. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

“It’s the form that makes Our Tapeworm my favorite,” says Wenzel, the University of Chicago Library’s Bibliographer for Literatures of Europe and the Americas and one of the founders of the Library’s new zine collections. Created by zinester Kristen Romaniszak, Our Tapeworm has long, narrow pages that mimic the shape of the eponymous parasite at the story’s center. The item’s comics format, focus on personal experience, and apparent production process—hand-drawn and hand-lettered pages photocopied and stapled together—make it typical of a number of the zines on display in the Special Collections Research Center Exhibition Gallery from January 14 to April 13, 2013.

Zines, as the exhibition explains, are self-published, hand-made, self-distributed, non-commercial works.  Primarily produced in small print runs on inexpensive photocopier paper, they tend to be idiosyncratic in topic, appearance, or both.  

The range of topics covered by zines is large. Some cover music, others activism, and a great many explore personal life. My Life is an Open Book focuses on perzines (personal zines) produced by women from the 1990s to the present and acquired by the Special Collections Research Center over the last two years, as a decision was made to build new Chicago-focused zine collections at the Library.  Exhibition cases explore the physical form and production of zines, life writing, family ties, communicating narrative wordlessly, and “seeing ourselves as others see us.”  Accompanying the zines are other items from Special Collections, such as Michel de Montaigne’s Essays, which provide historical precedent for these contemporary autobiographical works.

The birth and history of zines is tied to the availability of inexpensive photocopying.  Although the term zine was inspired by science fiction fanzines of the 1940s and after, as Wenzel explains, contemporary zines were first created in the 1970s and took off in the 1980s as part of the punk counterculture.  The first punk zines, Wenzel says, were “very male—focusing on punk culture, music and radical causes.” These were soon followed by a wave of women’s zines emerging from punk women’s riotgrrl culture. Women’s voices have been prominent in zine culture ever since.

Why collect zines?

Some might be surprised to find an academic research library such as the University of Chicago’s collecting zines, but to Wenzel, who began collaborating with the Special Collections Research Center to do so two years ago, they are a logical extension of collection development work that was already underway. 

Buzz #3 cover

Corinne Mucha, “Buzz. No. 3: Stories of Superpowers, Smiling Sloths, Inferior Aliens, and Clocks that Stretch Time, Among Others” 2009. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

“We started collecting poetry chapbooks,” Wenzel says. “Sometimes the line between chapbook and zine is thin. And zines are a terrific record of what’s happening below the surface of contemporary publishing. We can use them to understand what is happening with outsider art and alternative publishing. During a period when it has become harder and harder to publish commercially, they seem particularly important.”

 “We’re interested in documenting Chicago publishing, and zines are a vibrant manifestation of a publishing tradition that is flourishing in Chicago,” explains Alice Schreyer, Assistant University Librarian for Humanities, Social Sciences, and Special Collections. The Special Collections Research Center is already the home of graphic arts, printing, and publishing collections such as the archives of Chicago-based printer R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company and of Harriet Monroe’s renowned Poetry magazine.

Wenzel now collects every zine with a Chicago connection that she can, through a standing order with Chicago’s well-known comic and zine store Quimby’s and by attending events such as the Chicago Zine Fest, which will hold its 4th annual event at Columbia College on March 8 and 9.  She also occasionally acquires zines from outside Chicago that she finds particularly aesthetically interesting.  And Schreyer is involved as a member of the Caxton Club in organizing this year’s Caxton Club/Newberry Library Symposium on the Book, which will focus on “Outsiders: Zines, Samizdat, and Alternative Publishing” on April 6.

Neubauer Family Assistant Professor Hillary Chute and others in the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality have already expressed interest in the Library’s growing zine collections, and Wenzel imagines that, over time, they will be useful to those studying sociology, politics, autobiography, underground publishing, and history. Chute, who had an opportunity to review the nucleus of the collection before it was cataloged, responded that “What I’ve seen of the collection does a great job of aggregating Chicago-focused work in a way that is a real representative sampling, and shows the range of different formats and themes.”

As Chute notes, several themes are prominent in the collection, including music, activism, and archiving. “Especially for zines about Chicago history, the activist-oriented work is fascinating and conveys real information, too; these are historically and socially relevant,” Chute wrote. “The activist zines that also have a historical bent—or actual pamphlets from earlier periods—are particularly compelling and will be of interest to a range of students.”  

Artistic intentions

Although zines are self-produced in small runs and do not look like traditional literature or art books, the featured zinesters in the exhibit consciously choose to create stories and visual narratives that provide interesting artistic opportunities, that connect personal lives with broader themes, and that engage audiences in artistic or critical dialogues with their work.

“I look at stories as a found object—something I can manipulate and disguise in order to make something new” explains Corinne Mucha, whose exhibited zines include Buzz, I Hate Mom’s Cat: and Other Tails, and My Alaskan Summer.  “While my work may still have some ‘tell-all’ qualities, I’m not really interested in the confessional nature of autobio comics. Writing stories about your life is another way of taking control of them. . . . It’s another kind of magic trick—an old tire torn apart, twisted up to look like a snake.  It’s not a tire anymore, but it’s not really a snake either.  It’s something else entirely, and whatever personal experiences the reader brings to the table can help make it something new.” 

Zine cover: The Fish & the Monkey

Marian Runk, “The Fish and the Monkey,” 2009. Special Collections Research Center, The University of Chicago Library.

Another featured zinester in the exhibition, Marian Runk, writes that she chooses her form to take advantage of “the power of the specific to indicate the universal,” as well as the zine’s ability to engage her audience.

 “I am drawn to incorporate cartooning—essentially a process of simplification and reduction—into my work,” Runk explains. “As the details of a face or environment are reduced, so the opportunity of the viewer to identify with a character or locale may increase.  I seek to further bridge the distance between my work and diverse audiences by focusing on the basic unit of one person relating to another, which when multiplied and placed into context, begins to get at the narrative of a place or community. . . . Whether by aversion or affinity, I hope to move my audience beyond mere visual pleasure and into the realm of emotional and critical engagement.”

Events celebrating the exhibition

To celebrate the exhibition, raise awareness of the new zine collections among researchers, and give zinesters and audiences an opportunity to engage one another directly, the Special Collections Research Center will be hosting an opening event on February 22, beginning with a reception at 5:30 p.m. and then readings by zinesters including Grace Tran, Danny Resner, and Carrie Colpitts at 6:30 p.m..  This event is free and open to the public.

On February 27, Hillary Chute will speak to the Library Society at the Special Collections Research Center, offering a brief history of different contemporary forms of autobiographical practice, from zine-making to autobiographical comics to photography and filmmaking.  Professor Chute will assess the rise of formats like comics and zines to address the self, offering a history of their emergence, and suggesting how they conceptualize the self, as well as how they are taking their place in the academy.  Prior to Chute’s 6:45 p.m. lecture, Sarah G. Wenzel will give a 5 p.m. tour of the exhibition.  The lecture and tour are free and open to the public.

On March 7, librarians will host a Make-a-Zine workshop for UChicago students from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in room 028. Refreshments will be served.

Associated web exhibit

A great many images from the zines on display in the gallery can be seen in an associated web exhibit.

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