Meet the ‘Zine: Little Magazines

The history and significance of the zine

Which major magazine gave a voice to marginalized groups, political radicals, and alternative cultures in the 20th, 19th, and perhaps even 18th centuries? The answer is: none. Such groups had to turn to creating small, homemade publications called ‘zines’ (pronounced ‘zeens’) in order to find each other, share ideas, and create communities. 

A zine is defined as a “small-circulation, self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images, usually reproduced via a copy machine.” Many editions of a given zine include less than 100 copies. However, even with so few being produced, these little magazines have had a big effect.

While zines wouldn’t become a true alternative culture phenomenon until the early 1900s, many consider Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to be an excellent example of the medium’s ancestry. Common Sense was written to explain the radical ideas of the American revolution to the average, undereducated man. While the pamphlet had much more reach than any modern zine, it was created with the same goal: to share ideas that the big publishers won’t.

Sixty-five years after Common Sense came The Dial, a multi-issue magazine produced by Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emmerson that covered Transcendentalism, a radical religious belief at the time.

The first true zines saw the light of day in the mid 1920s, when young black artists in Harlem created a single-issue “little magazine” called Fire!!. The purpose of Fire!! was to “express ourselves freely and independently – without interference from old heads, white or [black].” Inside were illustrations, poems, and articles. Though the little magazine only ran once, it inspired the creation of many similar publications.

From the 1930-1960s, zines were most commonly produced to share science-fiction and horror content, including comics and short stories. It was a common belief at the time that such genres were “demonic” and “corrupting the youth”.  Around this time, a new type of zine saw the light. The “fanzine” focuses on an area of interest, such as a particular subject or fandom. Science-fiction fanzines became prominent during this 1930-1960s timeframe, also known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction”.

In the 1970s and all the way through to the ’90s, zines changed their focus once again, with the most prominent publications centering around punk music and culture. In the 90s particularly, riot grrrl punk was a focus. With the rise of third-wave-feminism, women shared ideas around sexuality, self-image, gender expectations, female rage, and much more through these little magazines.

With the rise of the internet, the necessity of zines has drastically decreased. Anyone can now get their message seen by thousands without ever picking up a pen or pencil. This isn’t to say that the zine has disappeared entirely, however. Zine workshops and clubs still run and operate, especially around college campuses, libraries, and other community centers. The focus of the zine has broadened, though most focus around music, poetry, art, and storytelling. 

Zines allow anyone with access to a copy machine to share the art and ideas of themselves along with any collaborators they work with. A zine is a fun and attention-grabbing way to share one’s work, especially in an age where everything is digital.

Look at online examples of zines: 

How to make your own zine: