‘Zine scene

Fanzines’ anti-corporate stance and lo-fi aesthetic have long made them a favourite with both graphic designers and readers. Anna Richardson examines the history and culture of a wilfully disreputable medium

What defines a fanzine? And when does a fanzine become a magazine? Some say that happens when a bar code goes on the publication, but according to Teal Triggs, Professor of Graphic Design at the London College of Communication and author of a forthcoming book called Fanzines, ’For me, [a fanzine] is about intent and the authorial position, both from the written and the visual standpoint.’

The fanzine emerged in most people’s memory with the Punk movement, but the period prior to that – from the 1930s to the 1950s – had already seen the birth of the contemporary ’zine through science fiction and rock ’n’ roll. Even at that time, fanzine producers were interested in the immediacy of the message, Triggs says, and while they were more formal, there was a similar notion of communicating with like-minded individuals.

’The designs of the publications, and the way contributors weren’t just writers, but also illustrators, set the stage [for the future development of fanzines],’ says Triggs. ’[Fanzines say] a lot about an individual producer, but also about a moment in time – they have great value as a social document.’

The fanzine presents ’a human voice outside of mass manipulation’, writes Triggs in Fanzines. But just as important as that voice are the form of the fanzine and the way it is made, both elements that feed the understanding of what is being communicated.

The form includes the layout (often visually chaotic), the choice of typography (either handwritten or, as with early fanzines, typewritten or using rub-down lettering), and production techniques (whether mimeographed, photocopied or computer-generated).

’But the fanzine is also a graphic object, with its form and the DIY process by which it is produced providing some understanding of a history of design and popular culture,’ adds Triggs.

As fanzines have evolved and appeared in different guises, their core aim has remained. ’It is fascinating that the notion of individual producers making their mark on a publication for like-minded individuals has been consistent throughout,’ says Triggs.

Unsurprisingly, many graphic designers have a passion for fanzines – the tactility of the object providing an irresistible lure.

Many designers are fanzine producers themselves, but the fanzines Triggs gets really excited about are at the other end of the scale. ’I really like a certain unknowingness in a fanzine producer,’ she explains. ’To impose a particular aesthetic is very difficult. I’m quite fascinated by some of the lesser-known fanzines, because they really come from the heart – there’s a naivety that’s beautiful in these productions.’

The Riot Grrrl fanzine, for example, deals with feminism, but has a certain femininity at the same time. The visual language used contains hearts, flowers and stars – ’a prettification’ of the hard-edged content, suggests Triggs.

There is now a trend towards using production methods such as letterpress, and playing with different kinds of bindings or with the form itself. ’It’s almost as if the integrity of the lo-fi production techniques is inherent to what a fanzine is,’ says Triggs.

Many are also pushing the boundaries of that definition – Paper Radio is an online radio programme-cum-fanzine, for example, and the use of social networking and new media is also being explored.

Despite the advent of increasingly sophisticated publishing software that democratises magazine production, the DIY authenticity fostered by early fanzine producers has not been lost. According to Triggs, ’zinesters continue to operate on the margins of the mainstream, with a healthy disregard for the traditions of professional design studios and the conventions of literary publishing houses.

Fanzines by Teal Triggs is published by Thames & Hudson on 4 October, priced £19.95

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