Margarat Nee and Kim Schwenk love their zines. Nee opens up an overstuffed manila folder and proudly spreads them across the table like a winning poker hand. Some of the zines are in protective polybags and look to be in pristine condition despite their age. Others are decidedly more worn and frayed. There’s well over three decades worth of photocopied inspiration in front of us, almost all of which is filled with radical opinion, crass artwork and literary subversiveness. Pick one up and Nee or Schwenk are both quick to point out the origins and writers involved.
“That’s Leading Edge,” Nee says, pointing out one of her favorites. “It’s way text-heavy. Lot’s of good writing.”
“That’s John Reis’ music zine from the ’90s,” says Schwenk, pointing out another zine created by the guitarist of iconic punk bands Drive Like Jehu and Rocket from the Crypt. “There’s a lot of humor and snark in that one.”
For those unfamiliar with what a zine is, here’s a quick primer: Short for fanzines, most people agree zines began as self-published compilations of science-fiction writing. It was around the late ’60s that zines became more prevalent and a trademark of the counter-culture. Circulation was achieved primarily through trading and mail order. Still, it wasn’t until the late ’70s, and coupled with the genesis of the punk-rock scene, that zines really began to take off. Young music fans co-opted the format in order to write about the bands that weren’t being covered by the mainstream media. It helped that photocopying was becoming increasingly more accessible.
“If you worked at a Kinkos and were in the zine community, you were gold,” adds Schwenk.
The fringe popularity of zines wasn’t just exclusive to the punk-rock community. Nee points out her experiences putting out zines in the ’80s that mostly centered on topics of radical feminism. They could be highly serious or blatantly idiotic, and could tackle any number of countercultural issues.
And while one might think that zines would have gone the way of the typewriter and VHS players, they’re still produced, collected and traded by devotees.
“It started out as music journalism and was heavily dominated by white males,” says Schwenk. “But if you go to an event like San Diego Zine Fest, it’s now mostly people of color and the topics have been broadened.”
Be My Friend (1982)
For Nee and Schwenk, their devotion runs deeper than merely collecting and producing. They started Grrrl Zines A Go-Go in 2002 for the purpose of doing workshops in community venues on the subject of zine making. Schwenk points out that Grrrl Zines was one of the first organizations in the U.S. devoted to teaching zine workshops. Over the years, they’ve had workshops in youth centers and in the classrooms and libraries of local universities.
“It’s not just a fun, crafty thing. This is a serious thing,” Nee says. “When it comes to young people, there’s a literacy aspect. You’re creating it, you’re shaping it, and there’s no editor. There’s no grade or teacher telling you what’s right and what’s wrong. You can do what you want.”
“It’s a rite of passage, learning swagger, pissing off authority figures and thinking you know more than you do,” says Tom Griswold who, along with his friend Jacqui Ramirez, created SUBSTITUTE in 1977, which most enthusiasts agree was the first San Diego punk zine. “A lot of it is about finding your tribe. That’s always going to be the case.”
The Grrrl Zines A-Go-Go ladies will be starting with SUBSTITUTE and moving forward through time when they give a presentation at the downtown Central Library on Saturday, Jan. 16, at 3 p.m. It’s called “Publishing Punk: Zines in San Diego 1970s to 1990s.” Nee and Schwenk have been serving as unofficial archivists of local zines. What’s more, they’re starting to see more academic interest in publications that, while always serious to them, were often looked down upon.
“These are social records in a lot of ways,” says Schwenk, who adds that the Central Library now has an archive of local zines. “Nowadays, there are zine collections popping up all over in universities and that are being used by students in women’s studies, queer studies, music studies and all kinds of topics dealing with social histories.”
Quasi Substitute (1980)
For Nee, who grew up in the San Diego punk scene, it’s also about preserving the legacies of a lot of people—be they musicians, artists or writers—who otherwise would be forgotten.
“For us, there’s this history and archiving aspect of it,” Nee says. “There are people from this scene that have already passed away and that means there stories are gone. So I have this personal thing of wanting to preserve this history, but there’s this other side to it as well where I want people to know that this has been happening in San Diego for a long time and not many people know about it.”
The Jan. 16 presentation will be followed with one of Grrrl Zines’ signature zine-making workshops. The process of putting together a PowerPoint presentation on three decades worth of physical media has been tedious, but when asked if there were any noticeable differences between the current day San Diego zine scene and the past, Nee is quick to point out that the more things change, the more things stay the same.
“What’s most interesting is the repetition of concerns no matter the year: The police, all-ages shows versus over-21 shows, creating unity in the scene,” she says. “There’s always been a community aspect to it and the concerns don’t change that much.”
“Especially the police,” says Schwenk.
Both women laugh before Nee adds, “The refrain over and over again was don’t just complain about it. Make a zine, start a band, make buttons, go support other bands, don’t just complain about how tough it is. Do something. Be creative.”
Away from the Numbers (1980)