In the middle of November 2009, my friend Leslie Perrine called me and asked what I was doing the following weekend. She and three friends had reserved a table at the Milwaukee Zine Fest, but one of them had bailed. Would I be interested in the vacant spot, she asked.We drove up early on a cold Saturday. I was still binding my minicomics as we rode North. Accompanying us in the car and at our eight-foot table at the fest were Ramsey Beyer and Matt Whispers. As we stood there all day, selling and trading zines, we noticed nearly half of the exhibitors were from Chicago! How funny that we would come up to Milwaukee to hang out with Chicagoans all day. On the way out the door at the end of the day, one of the organizers, Miss Nico, smiled, thanked us for coming, and then asked, “When is the Chicago Zine Fest?”
A Fest Is Born
Over a heavily fried vegan dinner at a bar and the late-night car ride back to Chicago, we discussed what a zine fest in Chicago might look like, when we might have it, and how we would organize it. By the time we got back to Chicago, we had agreed the Zine Fest would take place in late February or March. The four months of organizing were intense. The four of us had never planned something like this before, and we were all relatively new to the Chicago zine scene, so we reached out to a lot of local zinesters for their input. We met weekly, with meetings lasting upwards of three or four hours. We secured a space at Columbia College and spread the word.
On March 12 and 13, 2010, we held the first Chicago Zine Fest. Friday night’s events were packed. Quimby’s Bookstore, where we held our exhibitor reading was so full, people arriving late could hardly get in the door, and once the reading was done, Johalla Projects filled up for our art show and film festival. Saturday featured about 100 zinesters tabling at Columbia College’s Conaway Center. Workshops were held in one corner of the center, but it was difficult to hear the presentations because of the noise from the rest of the event.
We were happily surprised by the turnout. More than 600 people filled the aisles between the tables. As tablers interacted with each other and attendees, we knew this was something special. I think zine events—be they fests like ours, readings at bookstores, or work nights where zinesters keep each other company while folding and stapling—are important components of the zine community.
What's a Zine?
You’ve probably read a zine, and if you don’t think you have, you probably just didn’t realize you were. Zines are handmade periodicals, usually photocopied, and often made by one person or a small group of people. These people are involved in the zine’s creation from the spark of the idea to getting it in readers’ hands. This is different from other literary models, which usually involve editors and publishers who determine if a story is “fit to print,” and distributors who handle marketing and getting books/magazines in stores. More often than not, a zine’s subject matter covers something that is not very marketable, and the means of delivery to its consumers is by hand, by the author.
Zines are a very direct means of communication and expression between an author and readers. When you pick up a zine, you can see the traces of the author's hands quite literally: handwritten text, hand-drawn borders on photocopied photographs, the edges of paper caught by the photocopier. Most of all, you can be pretty certain the author of the zine has collated and bound the copy you hold in your hand. If you got the zine at a zine fest, you probably talked with the author and shook his/her hand.
Book publishers will often tout the number of weeks a book spent on a best seller list, or include a blurb from a more established author proclaiming the book’s worth. Magazine publishers might brag about their circulation rates. Zinesters get excited about the music they listened to while making the zine, and the letters they received since the last issue.
The most popular type of zine is the “perzine,” or personal zine, in which an author tells his or her own stories. Maybe it’s a compilation of diary entries, or an assessment of one’s life, or funny stories one might tell coworkers. Many times perzines are revealing and honest looks at serious issues the author might face, such as discrimination, abuse, depression, chronic illnesses, or just self-doubt. Often perzines are a way of working through issues and bringing those issues out into the open, to educate those who don’t face such issues, and to help others who do.
Other zines might focus on specific fringe political issues, music reporting on bands you’ve never heard of, or photo exposés of areas of cities you may never venture, lest you wish to risk a run-in with the police. Some zines are full of comics or poetry or fiction. Each person who chooses to make a zine gets to determine its subject matter, how it’s told, and who gets to read it, and the zine community supports these individual voices.
Chicago Zine Fest 2012
The third annual Chicago Zine Fest happened on Friday, March 9, and Saturday, March 10, 2012, and was built upon the structures of the previous two years. The leap between our first fest and our second one was easily quantifiable. We expanded the show to a second floor in the same building, and we more than doubled the amount of table space, exhibitors, attendees, and workshops. We invited new organizers, and new sponsors. We increased the programming hours by adding a Friday afternoon panel discussion and student reading, hosted by Columbia College’s Silver Tongue, and a youth reading preceding the exhibitor reading at 826CHI.
Tables sold out faster than the year before, even with twice as many table spots. Despite this enthusiasm, there were a lot of doubts about our second year. Tabling was split between the first and the eighth floor of the Conaway Center—would people visit the eighth floor, or would more than half of our exhibitors be sitting, staring at each other all day? What if not enough people come to attend the fest this year? Would the trip be worth it for those who traveled from long distances (including Germany and New Zealand)? Luckily, those fears disappeared as attendees flooded the aisles again.
Internally, we felt things needed to be improved upon. The fest’s doubling in size felt appropriate; there was no lack of interest in tables or workshops or in attendance from the public. But the six of us who organized the fest last year were overwhelmed by its size, and instead of standing back and taking note of months of hard work, we spent the day scrambling to make sure everything was running smoothly. We agreed not to expand in size, but instead focus our energies for the third fest on internal improvements: better volunteer coordination, more defined roles for each organizer, fewer workshops with longer running times, a focus on diversifying the subject matter covered by our invited guests.
This year we added and modified a few aspects that we think improved the fest. First, we actually removed a few tables to increase traffic flow and to remove “bad” table locations that were tucked in the corner of rooms. We also made the basic unit of table space half of a six-foot table, which allowed us to increase the number of exhibitors (even with that effort, we had a long waiting list). We heard feedback from participants needing a quiet space within the fest to get away from the din of hundreds of conversations, so we created a reading room. Attendees could escape to the reading room and read zines in peace. Within the reading room we are also installing an art show of work by exhibitors.
Since our first meetings at the end of 2009, we’ve committed ourselves to the same sorts of values that drive the zine community, and have viewed this as not our fest, but the zine community’s fest. The zine fest is an all-volunteer organization: tables are cheap to reserve ($20 for a full table, while other large literary or craft fests might charge more than 10 times that much); admission to the fest is free. We seek out advice and input from anyone who has something to say about the fest, and try to engage critics of decisions we make—both to explain why we made the decision, and to better understand what they don’t like, and how we can accommodate them. The sponsors we seek out are local businesses and organizations who hold similar values, and the support we seek from them is moral support, not monetary. We encourage donors to support us with in-kind donations of food to feed our exhibitors, or gift certificates to give out as prizes at fundraisers. We’ve turned down larger businesses’ offers to “partner” with us and only seek out support from local businesses that we think are doing good things.
This commitment to being a service for our community and engagement with a more informal economy comes back to reward us. Beyond feeling good that our principles are intact, individuals and businesses are eager to support the fest. Spaces, supplies, and services for events are donated for free, and friends of the fest offer to set up fundraisers for us! People are eager to volunteer to put up flyers around the city and promote the fest. This keeps our operating budget low and lifts some of the work off our shoulders.
We also try to keep programming decisions in line with zine culture’s ethics. For example, exhibitors are not curated, table registration is first-come, first-serve, and our readers are selected by literally pulling names of interested exhibitors out of a hat. Involvement in art shows and film fests has come through open invitations, and we invite and have implemented programming ideas from the zine community.
When planning each year, we try to continue the aspects that worked, as well as embrace changes to the structure to keep the weekend fresh and positive. This year, our group of organizers has expanded to six individuals: two founding organizers, two organizers from last year, and two brand new organizers. We try to look at each issue that comes up with both a base of knowledge from previous years of organizing as well as fresh eyes to keep the fest from becoming routine. Our meetings are still three or four hours long, and the discussions intense, but there are a lot of jokes and laughter mixed in to the conversation.
It’s difficult for me to look into the future for the Chicago Zine Fest, to imagine how it will change in the coming years. No doubt it will continue to evolve to meet the needs and great ideas of its participants, but its form will not be determined by a singular vision. Ultimately our goal is to promote and celebrate a form of self-expression that we feel is very accessible, and our energy will be placed primarily in that direction.
Neil Brideau was raised and educated in Western and Central New York State. He is co-organizer for both the Chicago Zine Fest and the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE). He works full-time at Quimby’s Bookstore, plays in the band James P.B. Duffy, and draws minicomics about friendship disguised as tales of supernatural calamities befalling children. He is vegan, a fan of flat track roller derby, and rides his bike year-round.