Let's Make a Zine!

It’s possible that zine is a word headed for obsolescence, perhaps in a future where paper has been outlawed. Internet distribution has made screen consumption the default mode for looking at images. But just as the elemental activity of marking a surface with a tool—as ancient as human culture—cannot be wholly colonized by pixels, the humble codex continues to hang on, proving more durable than many expected. 

The “zine” owes its existence to two things: the irrepressibility of the author/designer/illustrator’s imperative, and the high costs of print production (once quite high, now much less so). The humble xerox machine spat out many a zine, along with countless saddle-stitched mini-comics. These forms have a democratic urgency that seems especially valuable today, when concentrations of wealth and power have disfigured our polity and our culture. Zines can range from graphic punk to something more elegant. But they always benefit from a strong sense of argument. Somebody needs to say something. 

This post is addressed to GT readers, generally speaking, but also particularly to my senior students, the emergent writers, illustrators and cartoonists in my fall capstone course Image + Story. 

Gang: your final project is to be a zine, understood in the broadest sense. I am limiting the content of the zine in only one respect.  Because time is short and you are still establishing your visual language, the writing problem should be relatively uncomplicated. Hence it is stipulated that your content should be nonfictional. If you prefer your output to be web-delivered because it is animated or cinematic, fine, we can manage that. If you want to distribute it online, great, but that’s not an obstacle to making a pamphlet first. It is easiest to learn through artifacts. 

This is NOT a significant limitation. Please see a variety of illustrated nonfiction examples at these links, compiled several years ago for a different course, but informative for our purposes. These examples are all fair game. 

Illustrated Nonfiction 1
Illustrated Nonfiction 2
Illustrated Nonfiction 3
Illustrated Nonfiction 4
Illustrated Nonfiction 5

Your project can be extremely personal, or it can be purely informational. Identifying subject matter is a good place to start, of course. From there, however, I would scope the project and write the text. It is easiest to build a project like this if you know the argument before you start. By argument, I mean a through-line. 




I used to be afraid of dogs. A daschund lived next door when I was a kid. He barked and barked at me. Once he got loose. He went for my ankle. I freaked. In middle school, I was befriended by a beagle. We went to Six Flags. But I was allergic, and had to cut it off. Years passed. Guess what? Now I live with an airedale. I am no longer afraid. 


Pretend that you just wrote the story about dogs above. That’s is your content. What to do next? Your first step would be to create a content dummy, or distribute the content across a given number of pages. 

Here’s a diagram for a pamphlet created with four pieces of paper. 


Here's how you might break that content up and distribute across your 12 page pamphlet:


Cover: My Darling, My Airedale, by me
IFC: endpaper pattern? 
Page 1: I used to be afraid of dogs.
Page 2: A daschund lived next door when I was a kid.
Page 3: He barked and barked at me
Page 4: Once he got loose and went for my ankle. I freaked.
Page 5: In middle school, I was befriended by a beagle. 
Page 6-7: We went to Six Flags. 
Page 8: But I got allergic, and had to cut it off. 
Page 9: Years passed.
Page 10: Guess what? Now I live with an airedale. 
Page 11: I am no longer afraid. 
Page 12: (illustration. no text.)
IBC: colophon
BC: price?


Your content dummy will be a physical version of the above, without design. You simply cut up the text and put it on the given page. Go get a cup of coffee. Now pick up the dummy and page through it. Does the content flow at the right pace? Is it too dense? Too sparse? Too herky-jerky?

Once you have gotten your content dummy where you want it, you can commence design. Illustrations should go in the holes you identify for pictures. 









Here are a few examples from a few years back: Eden Lewis (a Southern Christmas), and Sung Sub Kim (a wordless Apollo 11 story). 

The incidence of hot pink in all three of the projects I am showing on this post is completely coincidental. I never use high saturation color, which is part of why the Hebdo project feels sui generis to me; Gericke made me do it!

D.B. Dowd, Charlie Hebdo: Pugnacious Elegy, Ulcer City Publications, 2016. Front and back cover. Scott Gericke, graphic designer. I wrote a sort of prose poem about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and "illustrated" it. The project is very zine-like: created for a specific purpose, opinionated, aggressively visual. Most of the type has been stripped out. I printed the run of this thing but have never systematically distributed it. (Write to me if you want one.) 

Dowd, Pugnacious Elegy.  2016. There's a paragraph that goes on the left page about cartoonists--taggers, in effect--and how they "deface our satisfactions." Kilroy quote on the left, Philip Guston's painter (1975) quoted on the right. 

Dowd, Pugnacious Elegy. 2016. A tip of the hat to Le Charivari and Daumier's pear-king.  These drawings were made in 2015. The project feels differently resonant in the Age of Trump (let it be brief). 

Schematic, four-page pamphlet.

Dowd, Pugnacious Elegy. 2016. Did not strip out the text on this one. Concluding spread.  

Eden Lewis, Home for the Holidays, 2015. I can't remember the precise title of this zine, and at the moment I also can't lay my hands on the artifact. It's hilarious; I can tell you that much. 

Lewis, Holidays, 2015.

Lewis, Holidays, 2015.

Sung Sub Kim, Apollo 11. 2015. 

Sung Sub Kim, Apollo 11. 2015. 

Sung Sub Kim, Apollo 11. 2015. 

Doug DowdComment