Thursday, November 22, 2012

Looking for Signs

This is a slightly modified version of a piece I wrote for my old work's website about five years ago. At the time, I thought it was about my relationship with zines. Now I've got a more precise idea. It's about how I used zines to help me overcome my Aspergian difficulties in social arenas. Zines might be a bit of a dated concept, but I still love the format. It has the potential to be at once more expansive and more intimate than anything on the internet. And I like the physicality of them. I think they can still be a powerful tool for teenagers and young adults on the spectrum to overcome the social thresholds that are excruciatingly difficult to cross. A zine says, "here's a piece of myself. It has some words and thoughts I might have trouble digging up in realtime. But when they're out here on paper that we can both see, it's easier. Want to get coffee?"
I’ve tried four or five times to begin this article, an article about a thing I do that takes a lot of time and care, something that somehow is such a part of who I am, a natural extension of my being, that I have trouble describing it. In a way it’s like explaining why I wear shoes or metabolize hydro-carbons. Why do I make a zine? What is a zine?

It’s a kind of insanity surrounded by little scraps of paper I’ve photocopied and cut out from old books. Pieces of letters and postcards from friends. Original drawings, some comics, a kick ass cover illustration I really should have had to pay money for. Stories from friends who I’ve asked to give me stories because I know that life is more than just playing video games and drinking beer. It is, you know. Am I crazy for saying that?

Am I crazy? I spend a lot of time and a lot of money, money I could have spent on beer, photocopying and pleading for submissions and mailing and sharing a 40 page photocopied publication that has a new issue about once a year. It’s a zine called Bony Landmarks and people tend to tell me they like it. Perhaps they’re just being polite because they know I’m crazy.

But, seriously, you ask, what is a zine?

 I’m not sure I can do the paper and staples artifact justice on a computer screen. I think I can only really give you a clue. A clue and a quote.  The clue is that a zine is a very special kind of publication that relies much more on the creativity of those with big dreams and limited means than it does on advertising sales and circulation. You can’t find them at Barnes & Noble or Borders, but you just might find them amidst the jumbled reading materials in the corner of your favorite coffee shop. They pass between peers on high school and college campuses. They wind up on merch tables at punk shows and in anarchist infoshops and radical bookstores. And if you can find an independent record store, you just might find some in there. But most of the time, for me, they come in the mail because I’ve sent someone a couple dollars concealed in an envelope you made out of an abandoned art project. Or I’ve sent them my own zine to trade. 

I got my own start doing zines back in the 90’s. I had been playing around with making mini-comics. I had learned how to successfully fight the self-serve copiers at Kinko’s and make them do what I needed them to. Making comics was really time-consuming and my drawings were crude, but I really liked the finished product. If only I could make them faster. 

One day, I ran into a friend on the bus who handed me a zine. It was half the size of my last comic, but it didn’t matter. The thing had energy in its collages and its typewritten pages of true-to-life, aimless teenage wandering in a desert city. I realized that the free-reign and open possibilities of cutting up and photocopying together whatever the hell I wanted was a lot more exciting than just making comics. I could do it. I could make them different sizes, different shapes. I didn’t have to worry about what people might expect a comic book to be.

Around that same time I picked up a copy of the long since defunct Factsheet 5 from the used magazine racks at, you guessed it, Bookmans. Factsheet 5 was the zine community resource of its time. They reviewed absolutely everything and if you sent them $3 they’d send you a priority mailer stuffed with zines that they were done with. It was a crash course education on the possibilities.

Inspired, I ditched the mini-comic format and made something called the Twilight Zine. It was full of my semi-autobiographical fiction and comics as well as a couple light-hearted jabs at the alien abduction phenomenon that was going around at the time. I printed my friends’ rants. I satirically skewered my enemies, both real and imagined. I tried to be funny and smart and meaningful. I was trying to change the world, tear down the system and all that. Plus, I figured it would help with meeting girls.

And it kind of worked. Having a copy of the Twilight Zine in my hand gave me something, besides my cultivated veneer of zero self-esteem, to represent the best and cleverest of myself at a first meeting. I might not be able to come up with immediately snappy conversation, but I could hand over my latest tract of what it was like to be an unpaid intern working at the Aliens’ secret ChupacabraCorp headquarters. It eventually earned me some cool points with a couple indie-rock girls. Through various twists and turns of teenage/twentysomething drama, this somehow led to me crashing on a friend’s couch in Portland and somehow spark a relationship with my friend's housemate. I stayed there a week, but before I left, I gave her a copy of the Twilight Zine with my phone number on the cover. One thing led to another...

A couple years passed as I moved to Portland and found myself very involved in being a dad and a husband and working in used bookstores. I tried to keep my hand in at writing, but we were washing our own cloth diapers, putting together the most awesome DIY wedding, and of course I had that Sunday morning volunteer shift at the food co-op. Let’s just say having a baby is a bit more time consuming than anyone thinks it will be. We did, however, make it to the first Hip Mama Gathering in Portland, which fanned the lingering zinester ember within me

The next year I managed to scrounge enough Twilight Zine back issues to stock a table at the Portland Zine Symposium. I split the table with one of my first zine friends, Dr. Verno the Inferno. (A funny story about Dr. Verno. When he was still undergraduate Verno the Inferno he started sending his zine to my P.O. Box. It was full of some crazy shit. And some of the stuff in his accompanying letters were pretty specific to things I knew about and it almost made me feel like I had a stalker. How did he know this stuff about me? It was quite a few weeks before I realized that we both worked at the same movie theater. And had some of the same friends. And everyone assumed I knew he was making Spleen Zine. It was probably obvious, but I totally missed it.)
The year after that, we moved to Tucson. For me it was a return to my hometown. We staked a claim at a crappy apartment complex and I landed a job at Bookmans.
We only had one car at the time and I rode the bus a lot. One of the things that happens when you ride the bus is that parking lots become the enemy. Especially in summer. Parking lots are these huge, desolate sources of merciless blackbody radiation that you always have to cross to get between the bus stop and wherever it is you’re going.
It might have been heatstroke, but I began to see parking lots from the distanced perspective of an armchair anthropologist from the year 3100. Because the parking lot had no relevant function in my own life, I began to wonder about the curious customs of the great civilization that had left behind these monumental earthworks. Unsuitable for agriculture and prone to flooding, perhaps these structures served some ceremonial purpose. I wondered if it was something I could write a book about.

I decided I probably couldn’t make a book, but maybe I should try making a zine.

My Grand Unified Field Theory of Parking Lots never came together, but I started thinking more about the things around me as being cultural artifacts. And each of these artifacts could lead to some kind of meaningful interpretation of the lives of the people who created and used them.

This was part of the strange inner dialogue I had going on during my first year at Bookmans. I suppose I was really trying to come up with some kind of meaning for my own life. Sifting through the books on the trade counter, pricing them in the back room, shelving them on the sales floor. I was constantly in touch with so much information. There was obviously some meaning in there. There had to be signs. I was looking for signs.

I absolutely had to start doing a zine again. But how was I going to fit it all in. Spare moments only came in fits and starts and life was a constant struggle. Could I even come up with enough content on my own? And I really wanted to make an impressive, thought-provoking zine. Something even better than if it was my old semi-autobiographical, ranty fiction.

I wanted more people involved, and I wanted real stories. I wanted to document cultural artifacts, and, following a fascination I had developed for one of Bookmans’ non-fiction sections, I wanted true adventure. And I came to the conclusion that I needed to form an art collective.

I sent e-mails and asked friends if they’d like to join my art collective because I wanted to make a new zine about true adventure and cultural artifacts. I have some really trusting friends because I’m sure they had no idea what the hell I was talking about. 

In the end, my friends played along and we called ourselves the Look for Signage Art Collective. We put together three issues of Bony Landmarks between 2005 and 2007. They were pretty cool. And I met a few new friends through the process as well. They are friends who are scattered around the country, and I've never met some of them in person, but every now and then one of us makes a zine. And I keep looking for signs.

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