Factsheets, Funny Folks & Freaks: Christopher Becker recalls his DIY days in the '80s and '90s zine scene
This essay is related to the Ann Arbor District Library exhibition "'Sorry This Issue Is Late...': A Retrospective of Zines From the '80s and '90s," written by curator Christopher Becker, former editor of Factsheet Five and now a library technician at AADL.
Let me start at the end.
I was living in San Francisco in one small room of a shared apartment. Piles and piles of zines—self-made, usually photocopied publications—surrounded my bed and computer so that they were the first and last thing I looked at every day.
And every day there were more, threatening to spill into the narrow walkway I had created in the room.
I worked at Factsheet Five, a magazine that printed reviews and contact information for over 1000 zines every issue, and a year earlier I had taken over the day-to-day operations of the magazine and moved it to my bedroom.
In the mornings, I rode my bike to the post office to pick up the mail, sometimes up to 50 pounds. Through a combination of multiple messenger bags, panniers, and bungee cords, I brought the mail back, looking like an overburdened caricature of a tuktuk driver from Thailand. All the mail—the zines, so many zines, the letters, the issue requests and subscriptions, the packages of books and CDs, had to be sorted and then the day’s work began: reviewing.
It was a dream come true to work at Factsheet Five and I’m sure I’ll never have such a rare experience again in my life. It felt thrilling and important to be at the heart of so much creativity and live vicariously through all the lives of the zine publishers.
But lately, staying on top of the flood of zines and the reviews was overwhelming and I was exhausted.
I began to understand why Mike Gunderloy had left the magazine he had founded, why Hudson Luce had only published one issue after he got it, and why R. Seth Friedman, who then took over, had handed the daily operations to me after several years.
While preparing "Sorry This Issue Is Late...": A Retrospective of Zines From the '80s and '90s," I found an old letter from Ashley Parker Owens, publisher of Global Mail, an invaluable guide to the mail-art movement, who expressed what many zine publishers ended up feeling after many hours, days, weeks, and years of publishing their DIY projects:
Sad to hear you’re burnt out on F5. Eventually, it would end somehow. So long as you’re sure you want to give it up now, you won’t be sorry. Global Mail seemed very important to me at the time, but now I am glad to be rid of such a huge albatross.
Now, it all seems so pointless. And very expensive in so many ways. I certainly have nothing material to show for it, and very few enduring friendships from it.
It was hard to imagine Ashley walking away from Global Mail. It was even harder to imagine me leaving Factsheet Five—a huge part of my identity that I had lived and breathed for years. Even before I worked there, Factsheet Five was an enormous influence on how I viewed society, music, and politics, and served as a strange and beautiful guide on how to live a creative, meaningful life. So it was hard to allow myself to think of a life without the magazine.
But that’s the decision I came to. Issue #64 would be the last.
Despite my decision, I loved zines and always will. Zines are a way to connect with people unlike anything else in life. It’s almost more intimate than letter writing (remember that?) because people reveal things about themselves—their lives, thoughts, and loves—openly and at a distance from their audience which frees them to be honest. Or goofy. Or sad. Or anything at all.
I still remember the joy of opening an envelope from a stranger and getting something that they made, often with a little note attached—a handwritten response to a question I had asked, or a compliment I had made about a previous issue. That connection through the mail with people all over the country, just regular people writing or drawing their lives, was magical.
It’s also the utter pointlessness and noncommercial aspect of zines that I loved so much. For the great majority of zine publishers, there was no “breaking even.” You never ask someone who bought a coffee if they were breaking even; they paid for it because they enjoy it. Zines were just like that: You spent money on photocopies and stamps and once in a while you got a dollar in cash back in the mail, but you did it because you loved it.
Sometimes I see zines for sale online and they are very well produced, serious affairs for $10 or more. And you pay for them using an online pay service. And it comes as a PDF download. While they are not overpriced as payment for someone’s labor—and I’m glad someone can be recognized for their work and maybe even make some money off their passion—it does seem like a far cry from the immediacy and personal nature of zines in the ‘90s. There was something undeniably real and human about writing your address on a piece of paper, sending cash in an envelope, and then licking a stamp to send some small part of your body through the mail in exchange for a zine.
Of the zine categories in Factsheet Five, “Quirky” was usually our favorite. Someone would detail their passion for bottle openers or hopping freight trains or Toho monster movies or life as a food server or eraser carving or Esperanto, or anything. There was seemingly no end to the variety of interests out there that someone wanted to write about.
Most people were not so focused on one sole theme and wrote about whatever they felt like in every issue. Those zines went into the “Medley” section. One had an experiment to watch the movie Oklahoma! synced up to the audio from a Dead Kennedys album. (It didn’t work too well, but was really funny to read.) Another had lists of pretend band names like Texas Chainska Massacre. There was a bike ride story that began, “This is how I know when I’ve gotten to yr house: the dead squirrels.” Someone wrote about meeting up with Doug “Pinhead” Bradley at a con. There’s was an appreciation of KONA – Monster of Monarch Isle, and another where someone failed a Japanese final because they spent the day masturbating instead of studying. It goes on forever.
Zines in the “Sex” section were mostly handled by my housemate John Held Jr. He was one of the most singular individuals I’ve ever met. He had two dominant personality traits: tireless mail artist and notorious pervert.
As a mail artist, he’s recognized as one of the world’s authorities on the history of the movement. I never quite understood it, being an outsider. There was always a lot of excited murmuring about Fluxus and Ray Johnson and I was party to all the infighting in the network regarding who stole whose work (or spouse).
As a reviewer of sex zines, John was perfect. He was proud to share all of his proclivities with you and if you didn’t think they were OK, well, that was your problem.
Playful deception was also a big part of John’s life. As a librarian archivist, when he couldn’t identify people in photos, he would just write anyone’s name that he thought should be in the picture. Hired to archive the materials of the Oneida Community in New York, he stole a lot of it, which he tried to sell at antiquarian bookshops. And he used to masquerade as the son of the artist John Held Jr. but was once publicly confronted by Held’s widow who threatened to sue him. In a big way, John represented the kinds of colorful people that you could meet in the zine world—outside the mainstream, living free, doing their own thing.
Being surrounded by zines from all over the country, an idea began to cement in my mind. The real groundbreaking, most interesting and edgy stuff wasn’t happening in the big coastal cities and cultural capitals, but in out-of-the-way places like Cleveland, Beloit, Bellingham—small places with no glamorous air about them.
Years earlier, I co-owned a coffee shop with my brother Kevin and sister-in-law Gayle in Port Huron. Wow, we were not cut out for the business world. I think this is best illustrated by an ad we took out in the college newspaper that was nothing more than an old engraving of a cat riding a dog, our phone number, and the words “more mondo for your money.” What does that even mean? We didn’t know but it sounded like the kind of place we would want to check out.
Of course it didn’t make anyone else curious. It didn’t help that we used the slogan “We peddle smut” in our event flyers. Is it any wonder we were not a very popular place? In part we were reacting to the stale, small-town life of Port Huron and a downtown cabal of business owners that wanted Port Huron to be the next Frankenmuth.
But one of our most exciting days ever was when we featured a zine show in January 1994 with 55 Michigan zines from across the state. I hung them all from our ceiling at chest level using fishing line. It wasn’t New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles putting on a zine show. It wasn’t even Detroit or Ann Arbor. It was shitty Port Huron. By the time I got to Factsheet Five, it seemed obvious: the weirdest, most interesting zines, music, comics, and ideas didn’t originate in Manhattan, but in the small forgotten places.
There were shortcomings to the zine world, though. After reading hundreds and hundreds of zines, they can get tedious. The punk aesthetic and seemingly endless scene reports started to make my eyes want to cry, and some zines were just overproduced and boring.
Despite first appearances, there was also a lack of diversity both content-wise (where were the zines about painting miniatures? cross-stitch? tractor pulls?), and demographically (why did it feel like such a young white man’s domain?)
Looking back, was it right to marginalize some zines in the “Queer” section? In issue #64, I reviewed a zine called Chess Pride about gay and lesbian contributions to the game of chess, and to bolster the small section of queer zines, we stuck it there. But who wouldn’t want to read that? I was happy to work at a place that promoted queer visibility with reviews of zines like Teen Fag and Anything that Moves, but maybe we wouldn’t sequester them in their own section today. I don’t know.
I know there are other people making zines now and that zines are different and that’s great. But the first time I saw zines was in a tiny bookstore in Chicago that had rabbits and other pets running around the store. There were random nibbles in the pages of anything you might buy. Today that kind of improbable world seems like a distant dream.
I don’t want to share your Spotify playlist. I don’t want to download a pdf of your zine or read something online. I want you to spend a whole weekend making a zine of crazy stories about bad jobs and worse dates, lists of your favorite B-movies and why they would be better with Ruth Buzzi, maybe some reprints of Luhey comics, and then photocopy it all in the middle of the night. Make a mixtape to go with it of sound effects in between your favorite songs, then stuff all of it in an envelope decorated with the most ridiculous stuff you can cut out, and mail it to me.
A week later, I’ll get it and it will be the best thing that I’ve ever gotten in my life.
Christopher Becker is a library technician at AADL.
"Sorry This Issue Is Late ..." runs December 5 to January 31 at the Ann Arbor District Library's downtown branch, 343 S. Fifth Avenue. For more info about the exhibition and to view a video by Christopher Becker talking about zines, visit aadl.org/zineexhibit.
I can't wait to see this! I…
I can't wait to see this! I was a zine publisher and collector in the 90s and to have my zine listed in F5 was a real badge of honor. This brings back a lot of memories of Ben Is Dead, Dishwasher and other notable ones. I donated my whole collection to a university zine collection in Montana or Wyoming.