Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi "The Book of Zines"

By Blake de Pastino

AUGUST 18, 1997:  Last year, the Harwood Art Center staged one of the best pop-culture exhibitions in recent memory. In it, the gallery walls were riddled with little finishing nails, each one sporting a binder clip that held a copy of an original fanzine in its jaws. There were zines about punks and prostitutes, zines made from soda cans and a surprising number of zines--for whatever reason--about nude lesbian bicyclists. But the beauty of it was that you were invited to take part in the show, to unclip whatever zine you wanted, sit crossed-legged on the linoleum floor and read it. It was beautiful. The show was about making contact. It was about the personal interaction between reader and zine. It was--for the lack of a more important word--cool.

But now, the cool factor of zines has come under some pretty strict scrutiny. Over the past few weeks especially, fans have begun to wonder if zines are still the independent voices they once were, and they're wondering in part because of a new anthology, The Book of Zines. Published by a mammoth New York publishing house and compiled by an editor of one of America's biggest magazines, The Book is an anthology of articles culled from zines around the country, pasted together and served up for mass consumption. Critics are calling it a big sell-out, a scheme that coaxed zine-makers into shucking off their integrity and suckling at the sugartit of corporate publishing. But in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Because the fact is, the much-hyped Book of Zines is so superficial, so poorly mounted, so overly enamored with its own coolness, that it poses a threat to nothing but itself.

The Book was cobbled together by Chip Rowe, an editor for Playboy and part-time zine-maker. As a natural collector of fanzines, he probably had no trouble gathering up 60 samples and throwing

them into a book. And in Rowe's immediate defense, it must be said that many of his selections are stellar. Will Pfeifer of Underbelly, for instance, ponies up a brilliant piece about the hidden meanings of The Family Circus. The editor of Berkeley's Cometbus delivers a kidney-punching prose poem called "Punk Rock Love." And the one local zine to make Rowe's ranks--Reign of Toads by Kyle Silfer (an occasional contributor to Weekly Alibi)--offers a neat piece of sang-froid in the face of technological chaos. So this is the good news: The writers who contributed to The Book are its saving grace.

But ironically, this also makes The Book of Zines, in other ways, incredibly disappointing. Because, as an effort to bring zines to the attention of the mainstream, The Book does absolutely nothing for the zine-makers. The first thing you notice, for example, is that Rowe takes many of his selections from America's biggest, best-known and least zine-like zines, like Ben Is Dead and bOING bOING. And even then, his selection is paltry, since most of the excerpts come from the same zines over and over, like Bust, Hitch and--what's this?--Rowe's own zine Chip's Closet Corner! (He actually publishes his own work twice in this book.) The sad but inescapable impression here is that The Book is far more concerned with publicizing zines--and already popular zines at that--than it is about highlighting the lesser-known sleepers or illustrating the spangled variety of self-published periodicals, or even looking into what these zines as a genre have to say. Rowe's effort is much more about product than it is about process, or even people. And the closest thing we get to a justification for this is his opinion--which he repeats to delirium in his introduction--that "most zines suck."

That attitude may also explain some of the other, more tangential problems with The Book of Zines. Like the fact that contributors got paid just $25 for their trouble, and that Rowe admittedly made unspecified "changes" to some of the excerpts. But the relief of The Book of Zines is that it's too shallow and cheap to jeopardize the purity of the medium. There have been lots of other zine-related books to come about recently, and there will surely be more to come. But for now at least, it seems safe to say that zines have kept their cool. (Owl, paper, $14.95)


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