A short history of zines

Today’s zines grew out of early sci-fi and football fanzines, amateur political press, punk and Riot Grrrl – all defining themselves in opposition to the mainstream. The diversity found in the zine scene today derives from the complexity of the web of sources for the contemporary zine.

Anita Pisch looks at some of the major influences on today’s zines.

Similar to the debate over the definition of zines, the history of zines is complex and multi-faceted. Almost everyone agrees that one immediate precursor to the contemporary zine was the fanzine, which was a phenomenon of the interwar years of the 20th century. Fanzines appeared around sci-fi nests, arcane knowledge about sporting codes, and socially inhibiting pursuits, and were already established in the 1930s and 1940s.

Martin Luther, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine – zinesters?

Martin Luther, 95 theses, Ninety-five Theses

The first zinester? In 1517, Martin Luther pinned his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Painting by Ferdinand Pauwels (1830-1904)

There are many other potential forerunners to the contemporary zine. Some claim the first zine dates back to 1517, when Martin Luther pasted his Ninety-Five Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg.

Others describe Benjamin Franklin as a zinester. Still others look to 17th century British pamphlets promoting moral and political points of view, and then to the American Revolution, abolition of slavery, the labour movement and the civil rights movement, all generating zine-like pamphlets. There is a general consensus that Thomas Paine (‘Common Sense’, 1776) was an early American zinester.

Angry and absurd

Artists magazine, 291, Katharine Rhoades, Agnes Ernest Meyer, Marius de Zayas

Artists magazine 291, Katharine Rhoades, Agnes Ernest Meyer, Marius de Zayas – 91, No 3, 1915, published in New York City.

Several writers claim an affinity of spirit (although no direct lineage) with the Soviet samizdat, and also American literary and cultural journals and dissident newspapers, amateur press associations, little magazines, artists magazines (particularly those by the Dadaists and Surrealists), artists books and mail art.

The American underground press has a strong kinship with the zine, as it also involves scamming supplies, and the use of pseudonyms and strange or absurd titles.


Cover of the last edition of BLAST, the literary magazine of the British Vorticist movement, a movement heavily influenced by Futurism, by Wyndham Lewis


MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL punk zine, No 368, January 2014

MAXIMUM ROCKNROLL punk zine, No 368, January 2014

The contemporary zine flourished from the 1960s, and through the 70s and 80s, continuing to build on the fanzine base to promote and establish a counter culture. Punk and anarchist zines gained prominence 30 years ago, when they were created in opposition to the glam and gloss of official publishing. However, this was really a discrete development, created by people who had no involvement with fanzines.

Zines wanted to be an alternative to mainstream publishing and their emergence in all their multi-faceted forms precisely coincides with the time when publishers developed more high-tech strategies for consummating their products.

Mike Gunderloy, Factsheet 5, No. 64

Cover of Mike Gunderloy’s Factsheet 5, No. 64


When Mike Gunderloy’s ‘Factsheet 5’ emerged in the United States in 1982, reviewing zines across all traditions, the notion of the zine as a discrete form emerged and a community of zinesters was created.

Gunderloy, who primarily issued his zine as a swap for zines to be reviewed, did not categorise zines by genre, but listed them alphabetically, resulting in readers browsing titles on every conceivable topic as they meandered through the reviews. This had the effect, in pre-internet days, of creating a zine community without geographical boundaries that was perpetually in conversation with itself.

Riot Grrrl

Jan Radway, “From the Underground to the Archive in 10 Years: Girl Zines, the 1990s, and the Challenge of Historical Narrative” from National Humanities Center on Vimeo.

The early 1990s saw the flourishing of the Riot Grrrl movement and third wave feminism, which both adopted the zine form to give voice to women’s (and third wave girls’) perspectives that were largely absent from mainstream media.

Alison Piepmeier argues that most zine histories are focused on a male-dominated publishing trajectory, which leads inevitably from early revolutionary pamphleteering to the explosion of the punk/anarchist zines of the 1970s. In this scenario, women, who were again marginalised in the white, male, middle-class punk scene, began creating their own zines to give voice to their own tastes and preferences.

Alternate feminist origins for the feminist third wave and Riot Grrrl zines were the scrapbooks of 19th century women’s clubs, continuing on through the mimeographed manifestos of second wave feminism.

All of these diverse and dissident strands can still be found on the zine scene today. In contrast to mainstream publishing, every voice and viewpoint, no matter how marginalised in general society, has a right to be heard. By making it specific and personal, zines allow us to experience alternate perspectives, through the eyes and in the shoes of the people for whom these are their everyday lived realities.



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