Here's a tip for young writers: At some point in your career, you're going to produce the worst thing you ever wrote, so you might as well get it out of the way early. The worst thing I ever cranked out was a short story called "The Man," published in the debut issue of the Subterranean in 1986. It was about a would-be messiah who runs around Harlem doing the inverse of everything Jesus did: He gouges out one man's eyes, breaks another guy's legs, devours human flesh and blood, and kills himself in the end. I'm too embarrassed to report the content of his suicide note, but I will confess to writing a passage in which "Police Chief Gardener" finds a rotten apple in his lunch and throws it out without taking a bite.
If you haven't heard of the Subterranean, it's probably because our circulation was in the mid two-digit range. Also, we kept changing the name. The first issue was called Subterranean Tales of the Yo-Yo Satellites. The second was Subterranean Thermonucular [sic] Maggots. The third was Subterranean Disposable Portable Premarital Synthetic Neon Diet Plastic Fitness Fibre for the Family. Our editor-in-chief, Ken Larson, was a cartoonist, and so the publication consisted mostly of comics, especially comics that had been deemed unsuitable for our high school newspaper. But there was room as well for my bad fiction, for some friends' bad fiction, for some funny collages, and for a venomous attack on the music and moustache of Lionel Ritchie.
I just Googled Ken to see what he's up to today, and discovered not only that he's still cartooning, but that his website actually mentions our defunct publication. "The $30 net profits were tragically stolen in 1987," he writes. "This, along with having better things to do at the age of 17, ground the enterprise to a halt." I'm amazed: I never knew we had profits at all.
The Subterranean is on my mind because I just went to a reading at the Cockeysville public library in Baltimore County, which has just started to add zines to its stacks. Zines are eccentric homebrewed journals like the Subterranean, and also eccentric homebrewed journals that aren't much like the Subterranean at all. They're filled with stuff that's either too weird or too ordinary to have a home in the mainstream press; there was a brief flurry of stories about them in the late '80s and early '90s, and then the Web came along and the old media mostly forgot about those xeroxed, stapled, low-tech precursors to the blogosphere. But the medium itself never disappeared, even as its sensibility percolated into the mainstream, influencing everything from Wired to Cartoon Network's Adult Swim.
In Cockeysville, five local writers read selections from their self-published papers. Sean Stewart of Thoughtworm recounted his unsuccessful efforts to teach his cats to use the toilet. Davida Gypsy Breier of Leeking Ink presented the Hollywood version of the worst job she had ever had, starring Jessica Lange as her absentee boss and Zsa Zsa Gabor as the kind eccentric who, on losing her home, moved into the workplace with her parrots. Patrick Tandy of Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore! read a profile of Conrad Brooks, a Mobtown native whose Z-movie career stretches from Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda to the new Super-Hell 2, a picture that Tandy somehow got roped into himself as he worked on his story. The Hungover Gourmet's Dan Taylor offered an engaging appreciation of Philadelphia's much-maligned Veterans Stadium, and China Martens sold me a copy of Mamaphiles, a fine zine for parents.
Today you can find such journals in dozens of archives around the country. The most famous is located at the Salt Lake City Public Library, which has accumulated 6,000 zines since it started stockpiling them in 1997; it was a direct inspiration for the Cockeysville collection. But most zine libraries are privately owned. Titles like The Inner Swine and Brew Not Bombs are geared to a niche audience, so it should be no surprise that the niche has been in the forefront of preserving them.
I wish some institution had been collecting North Carolina's zines when we were putting out the Subterranean. Maybe our words weren't worth preserving, but there were plenty others in the area that were. There was Southern Lifestyle, billed as "all the print that's fit to eat"; and Nu Rite, which once published an entire issue in poster form; and Eat My Shit, whose title led to trouble with the Post Office; and Deregulator, one of my first exposures to libertarianism. The latter was edited by Rick Henderson, who went on to work for Reason from 1989 to 1998.
Rick and I aren't the only Reason writers with zines in our past. Peter Bagge started his career with a self-published tabloid called Comical Funnies. Brian Doherty wrote the wide-ranging Surrender, whose constantly-changing subtitle parodied that of a certain public policy magazine. (One edition bore the slogan "Free Minds, Free Markets, Free Health Care." Another announced: "Free Minds, Free Markets, Free Leonard Peltier.") Julian Sanchez informs me that "when I was all of 14, I put out exactly one issue of a cheezy stapled-together thing called The Scream…I doubt anyone outside of a couple dozen people in about 3 suburban towns in northern New Jersey ever saw it." Jeff Taylor gets extra nerd points for contributing to Carolina Command & Commentary, an entire publication devoted to the board game Diplomacy. Reason itself began as a zine 37 years ago: The word wasn't around back then, but what else would you call a stapled stack of mimeographed rants by a student at Boston U?
Deregulator and Surrender have both been revived as blogs, by the way, reflecting a migration of homemade media from the copy shop to the Internet. But the Web will never completely displace the printed zine. An active website is supposed to be updated constantly; if you don't post to your blog for a month, it looks abandoned. A zine can appear only once or twice a year and still feel fresh. It's a series of completed projects, not a perpetually open-ended enterprise—a different medium with different strengths, even as it draws on the same do-it-yourself spirit. As long as paper, staples, and Kinko's survive, it will too.