What’s A Zine, And Why Does The New York State Public Library Have 10,000 Of Them?

“It’s hard to say what defines a zine,” writes co-author Mike Gunderloy in The World of Zines: A Guide to the Independent Magazine Revolution. “They’re created by one person, for love rather than money.”

Think of a zine as the distant cousin of saratoga living; whereas an editorial staff of writers, editors, photographers, designers and others tend to SL‘s eight annual issues, a zine would be the product of just a single person (or persons) with limited resources to his or her name. In turn, print runs would be minuscule, and publicity for the zine’s release would be slim to none. Which raises the question: How can you enjoy something that few people know exists?

Enter Gunderloy. For a decade, he acted as Editor in Chief of Factsheet Five, the first ever meta-zine to review other zines, large and small, from all corners of the globe. In 1992, after a decade of monthly zine-review zines, he decided to focus on computer programming and donated his collection of more than 10,000 titles to the New York State Library in Albany. It takes up more than 300 cubic feet.

Curious eyes are sure to find curious titles. Brimstone: Journal of the Ancient Brotherhood of Satan. Brat. Dumpster Dive. Liver and Lights. Drivel. There are zines for wrestling fans (Combat Sports “The Champion of Sports Fanzines since 1978”); LGBTQ readers in the Albany area (Community – “The Capital District’s lesbian, gay and bi newsmonthly”); science fiction lovers (The Dragon – “The Magazine of Fantasy, Swords & Sorcery and Science Fiction Gaming); price-conscious comic book enthusiasts (Comic Buyers’ Guide – Price Guide); and everyone in between.

And Gunderloy reviewed them all. “In fact, one of Gunderloy’s policies was to review everything that was sent to him, no matter how obscure or offensive,” writes Stephen Duncombe in Notes From the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture. According to Duncombe, the subjects listed in Gunderloy’s first issue included anarchism (Church of the Anarchist Avatar [The Gospel According to Fred the Pelican]), computer programing and “experiments in extrasensory perception.”

“Gunderloy did a really good job at a really thankless task,” says John Marr, editor of Murder Can Be Fun since 1986. Marr’s comically morbid zine functions as an anthology of strange crimes and unusual disasters, like the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. “Being the gatekeeper as it were, people depended a lot on their zines being pinned and whether he gave a good or bad review was a big deal. And he was very even-handed.”

Ironically, Gunderloy’s exhaustive zine was originally born of laziness. Factsheet Five was meant to save Gunderloy from the tedium of re-writing his opinions about zines in letters to each of his friends. “Finally one day I said this is stupid, I’ve written the same things five times to five different people. I’ll publish it, it would be simple, it would be easier…that was Factsheet Five #1.”

After Factsheet Five‘s circulation grew past 10,000, Gunderloy became a quasi-spokesperson for the zine community and self-publishers alike. In ’88, he wrote How to Publish a Fanzine; the following year he wrote a 54-page zine entitled Why Publish?; and in ’92, he and Janice Goldberg wrote The World of Zines.

As for the answer to “Why Publish?”: Gunderloy says that zines empower publishers and readers to take control of their personal media. “Certainly, the very act of taking over the entertainment portion of their life and dictating, ‘Here’s how it is, and here’s how it should be’ is inherently opposed to being fed your stuff by the mass media.”

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