Broken Pencil Wonders If the “Fine Ahtwerks” of Marc Bell and His Contemporaries Have a Place at Zine Fairs

by BK Munn
The current issue of Canadian indie culture bible Broken Pencil sports a cover feature titled “Zines vs High Art” and the article, written by BP assistant editor Laura Trethewey, ponders a “growing divide in the zine world” between old-fashioned cheap photocopied zines and a new generation of more expensive artist-produced zines. Trethewey sets up several easy and not always accurate binaries, including rich/poor, professional/amateur, graphics/text, style/content, and abstract/personal, to make her case that the presence of gallery shows, academics, art books and art prints represent a sea change in the anarchic diy subculture that gave birth to the zines and zine fairs and that these trends are essentially sucking the heart and soul out of what’s left of non-corporate culture.
Using the example of the recent “Not Bad For London” show and sale at the Michael Gibson Gallery in London, Ontario (featuring art by Marc Bell, James Kirkpatrick, Amy Lockhart, Jason McLean, Peter Thompson, Jamie Q., and Billy Bert Young), Trethewey argues that zines featuring the work of these artists are essentially “low level artifacts produced for the perusal of those who couldn’t afford to take home the real thing,” meaning the zines that the art was originally presented to the public in are not really zines at all but now function as exhibit catalogs for pricey original art. As evidence of this growth in the divide between classic zine aesthetics and the values of the gallery world, Trethewey describes the spectacle of pages from the Young/McLean/Thompson jam Uncle Pork Chop Scrapes Away the Summer selling for $1500 and mentions other works priced at $350 and $400 easily selling out at the show. This in comparison to lowly punk-style zinesters like Dave Cave, also mentioned in the article, whose self-promotion at zine fairs consists of a flyer reading “fuck you it’s a dollar.” The article goes on to quote comics/zines veterans Fiona Smyth and Billy Mavreas, and refers to several recent coffee table books on the zine aesthetic in its overview of the perceived clash between traditional and what one commentator calls “second wave” zines.
Of course Trethewey’s piece, like a good Broken Pencil cover story should, cops a certain funky-punky approach and reads as if meant to be controversial, with a little bit of a rebellious edge. Her tone and language are provocative, firmly anti-intellectual and anti-corporate (she tosses around terms like “highfalutin” to describe the content of some modern zines), but the whole thing is based on such a laughable premise (the zine world is becoming more expensive, slick, trendy, and –ugh– arty) that it almost reads like some kind of postmodern joke or Situationist prank. “Artists sell art for money?! Modern zines aren’t solely the work of underemployed luddite crybabies specializing in highschool poetry, the vagaries of the mental health system, poor penmanship, anticapitalist rants, and hard-core punk rock? Quel horreur! Épater la bourgeoisie!
Seriously? Trethewey’s earnest-seeming attempt to explore the divide between the authentic zinesters and the slumming posers reminds me of what Jello Biafra had to say about the “Fonzie punks” of the music scene, with their very firm ideas about what constituted punk music and style back in the 90s (hint: they targeted Biafra as a “sellout”). Sad to see the zine world fall victim to the sort of clubby exclusivity the article lambasts as the exclusive preserve of “the art world”. That is, it would be sad to see if I didn’t think the whole article was a put-on, finding controversy where there isn’t any, and treading in some seriously hypocritical horseshit along the way.
First off, using the London crew of doodlers as an example of the big dollar fine art world intruding into the precious alternative zine culture is the funniest part of the article. The show that Trethewey attended was a small-town celebration of a group of artists who came out of and are still part of a vital local scene of artists and zinesters dating back to the 80s. Trying to make a point about the trendy uniformity of modern high art zine production using this crowd as your example is a serious mistake. These folks, some of whom have achieved a modicum of international recognition within various tiny art ghettos, have long-ago paid their dues and have “zine cred” to burn. They are all tireless promoters of other artists, zinesters, and obscure cultural producers from their own scene and around the world, and no one of them (unfortunately, sadly, true) is getting rich for their efforts. Trethewey notes that it was “often hard to tell the artists’ work apart” at the London show. Rather than evidence of a trendy sameness germane to contemporary zine art production, couldn’t it have been her general unfamiliarity with the artists? Hell, I write a daily blog about obscure Canadian comic artists and I sometimes have trouble telling who did what in one of these zines myself (unless there’s a Lord of the Rings reference, then I know it’s Peter Thompson). Or maybe it’s the fact that the artists have all developed together and often work in a collaborative fashion characteristic of the London doodle and mail art scene, a tiny yet vital underground art movement documented in part in the Bell-edited Nog a Dod anthology, and reviewed favourably in BP I might add. The fifteen pages of the Uncle Pork Chop zine were the joint effort of three individual artists who, after a gallery commission of 50% and a 3-way split, probably ended up pocketing less than seventeen bucks a page. And I’m pretty sure they don’t have a sold-out art show every week, so that’s a hell of lot less than minimum wage, let alone the price of a limo to drive around to zine fairs in. Hardly evidence of the intrusion of the caviar-and-champagne high art world into crusty punk zineland. (Really, the prices these folks are charging are a criminal joke compared to what the guy who’s drawing Spider-Man this week gets for his original art, not to mention the elites of the New York gallery world or even weekend hobby painters who routinely sell their amateurish still-life watercolours at shopping mall co-ops for multiples of what the London crowd is getting. Art lovers of Canada! Buy more art from the Not Bad For London artists!!)
Just reading a typical issue of Broken Pencil anytime over the last decade should disabuse anyone of the notion that zines are stuck in some sort of low-tech, monochromatic time-warp. And as for punkish resentment of johnny-come-lately preppy art school grads from the ‘burbs? Forget it. The typical BP issue is chock full of reviews and interviews with zinesters representing a huge cross-section of society, from pop-culture fans to artists to cartoonists to diarists to crafters, and just as mind-bogglingly a choice of production values and formats, not to mention tons of professionally-produced books of non-fiction, poetry, and novels from small presses across the land. And the BP-sponsored Canzine festival, which Mavreas describes in the article as a utopian, non-judgemental space that keeps “everyone involved and together,” doesn’t exactly seem to be a class war battleground, littered with the corpses of silk-screen devotees who dared to charge more than a few dollars for their zine, to say the least.
And, really, glass houses, anyone? Delving even a few inches into the shadowy grey area where “independant” and “lamestream” media meet can be enlightening. Broken Pencil, like many magazines, galleries, artists, writers, and publishers in Canada, benefits from government grants (as well as corporate advertising –an ad for Steamwhistle Beer greeted me when I clicked on the BP website) and has been a stepping stone to “mainstream” publication for many contributors. The perzine patron saint Dishwasher Pete, mentioned in the article as an example of independent working class purity, is now an e-book from multinational Harper Collins and writer “Diswasher” Pete Jordan has been on Letterman and contributed to NPR’s This American Life. Trethewey herself writes articles about gourmet cheese for yuppie consumer guide Toronto Life. All a far cry from the world of photo-copied, pay-what-you-can zinester culture.
Are artists like the London gang of seven contaminating the zine world? I fucking hope so!


  1. I might be enhancing the memory somewhat at this point in time. But this reminds me of a time back in the early 90s when i was first making zines with my buddy Jonathan. We had a couple of issues of a lit & arts zine we did called Nisrigion out and we got a call from TVO, Daniel Richler [the proto Neil Gaiman of Canada] hosted Imprint and they were looking for guests for a episode on the Zine scene.
    Did a pre-interview on the spot with a producers assistant on the phone, and it seemed to go off the rails when they asked if we felt Zines “embodied an intrinsic critique of main stream magazines”.
    Jonathan and I both laughed at that and said strait up no not really, we both liked the idea of working for a Magazine some day [him as a writer and me as an artist] but didn’t think anyone would hire us yet so it was a way to cut our teeth and have some fun – they seemed to loose interest in us and never had us on the show.
    Had a good laugh at them when the episode aired and Bruce LaBruce sent in a women described to me as his Beard by a freind in the gay community then, posing as him and claiming that all along he was really a girl.
    As i recall the segment digressed and bounced between ham-fisted efforts by Richler to trump up the anti-establishment idea of zines rather than an inclusive alternative publishing platform notion of them as countered by Broken Pencils founder Hal Niedzviecki and someone from This Ain’t the Rosedale Library. And the fake Bruce LaBruce tossing in off the wall responses designed to get a rise out of them all.

  2. This kind of “faux authenticity” snobbery is always silly, and it’s kind of a comedy act when you run into people who cling to this level of scenesterism. Back in the mid-90’s when Stephen Geigen-Miller and I were still putting out the mini-comic version of Xeno’s Arrow, I remember we got a two-page letter (handwritten and everything) from a zine reviewer of mini-comics, who lambasted us for, essentially, having production values that he thought were too high for mini-comics. He objected to my use of greytones “as a color,” to the fact that we were doing genre fiction instead of slice-of-life, and even, apparently to my naturalistic way of drawing cute cartoon characters, which apparently wasn’t “underground” enough for his tastes.
    The fact that I had devoted hundreds of hours and some small skill to making all of this supposedly “high-end” stuff happen on the photocopied page (on a budget of nothing and with no access to computer graphics), that this was a DIY project and a labour of love, not some corporate attack on the mini-comics world, didn’t really concern him. What mattered was that I was attacking his notion of what a mini-comic was supposed to look like, and this made us… what? Either poseurs, or sellouts, I’m not sure. All I know is I recall him commanding us to read a stack of Julie Doucet comics so we could see how it’s done. In short, he objected to our being influenced by what he perceived as the uniformity of mainstream comics, and his “solution” was that we should make small press comics uniform in a different way.
    Anyway, we got a good laugh out of this letter, and by this time we had already made so many wonderful friends in the mini-comic community who didn’t have these kinds of hang-ups (just a love of comics), that we didn’t think much of it. Which was fortunate, because if I had judged the community by that guy’s reception, I would probably have steered clear of them entirely and missed making some good friends. It’s hard to say that we ever completely fit into the scenester world of underground comics and zines—at least, not if our foot traffic at Canzine was anything to go by. But that doesn’t matter, because the “scene” is a byproduct, and not the reason for creating art. Anyone who forgets that has already missed the point.

  3. @Greg “I recall him commanding us to read a stack of Julie Doucet comics so we could see how it’s done.”
    Ironic, since Julie Doucet is the biggest “mini-comics-to-fine-art-world-sell-out” there is!
    (Just kidding, I love absolutely everything about Julie Doucet.)

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