Zines and underground comics of the 1980s and 1990s

Zines and underground comics of the 1980s and 1990s

A blogpost about various 'zines, underground comics and alternative publications I was exposed to during the late 1980s and 1990s.

If you've been on the radical left for any amount of time, you've probably heard of ‘zines’. A shortening of the word ‘magazine, zines are described by Wikipedia as “most commonly a small circulation self-published work of original or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier”. Usually they are the size of what were once, and are now more frequently called, pamphlets. Now they are mostly political tracts, passing between infoshops and lending libraries, while mainly being read by those in the orbit of the anarchist and anti-authoritarian scenes. Zine Library is a good example of this. But at one time, zines performed essentially the same function as blogs and online social media do now, provide a platform for people to connect with each other and express themselves.

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, zines and underground comics exploded out of the punk and hardcore scenes they incubated in and became a small but recognized segment of popular American culture. The majority of these were made by individuals and had a readership in the dozens, but some had circulation in the tens of thousands. Some zinesters got book deals and appeared on late night TV.

I was only a kid during most of this period, but I know of it through my dad, who was an active participant in the mail art, zine and underground comic movement of this time. Most of what I remember of what he created were tales of working at the post office (see above image), drinking and strange, goofy humor. What my dad made was the stuff I most tried to emulate, but I was also exposed to hundreds of other publications. Most of them are now faded memories, but others stuck with me, partially developing my views on life (for better or worse!).


Raw Magazine

Raw was considered the cream of the crop as far as underground comic artists were concerned. Big names like Art Speigelman, Peter Kuper, Kaz, Mark Beyer and R. Crumb were all contributors. Maus, one of the most famous ‘graphic novels’, was originally serialized in Raw. As a kid, Raw represented the strange world of adulthood. Much of what appeared in the pages went over concepts, material and stories that were more meant for mature audiences, and were confusing. That’s probably why I technically was not allowed to read my dad’s copies, instead having to sneak into where he kept his stuff. I was that drawn to this mysterious, avant-garde, chaotic publication.


Basil Wolverton

For years, I drew comics and weird charecters. Making my own zines with titles like Cutt Comics and Oval Radio, they were a mishmash of collage, cartoons and writing. The original version of my first libcom blogpost was in a 2006 zine I made called Rural Rage. With drawings, more than any other artist, Basil Wolverton’s crazy images influenced what I put on paper.


Dishwasher

Dishwasher was the effort of Dishwasher Pete, who had a goal of working a dishwashing job in all 50 states, while writing about his experiences doing so. It was my first real look into working life and the life of those who worked low paid, dead end jobs. There was something noble and egalitarian in the mere existence of Dishwasher. The views of a lowly service sector guy were as much worth hearing as anyone else. Pete's adventures eventually turned into a book and he appeared on the David Letterman show.


Maus

Art Spiegelman's Maus was the only thing my dad let me read in Raw. Looking back, I think he did this because he wanted me to know about our Jewish heritage and what this meant. It's the story of Spiegelman's father, who was a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust. The story itself is almost too much to deal with, especially as a kid. But it did lay the ground for a lifelong opposition to authoritarianism and racism.


Factsheet 5

Factsheet 5 was a huge publication, made up of reviews of zines people had sent in. One could get an overview of the entire culture from one issue, and decide to send away for what interested you, with the cost and address included with the reviews.


Amy & Jordan

Mark Beyer's Amy and Jordan, like Maus, originated in the pages of Raw. It was a bleak comic strip about a couple and all the dark, horrible things that happened to them. The strips's portrayal of the city was dystopian in nature and built to make its inhabitantsmiserable. Groups of monsters and creatures administered tragedy and fear, which the couple could never escape. Despite this, there was a childlike quality to the art and how Amy and Jordan began each new situation healed and back to normal.


The Jungle

Peter Kuper's illustrated version of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle is simply amazing. Being originally from Chicagoland, moving to the packinghouse town of Dubuque, Iowa and coming from a family who lived off a union job, it fit in perfectly to concepts I understood, taking them to their logical conclusion (working class power and resistance).


Punk Planet

Overall, Punk Planet was the most important publication in the alternative press to me. Originating from a split in the still-running Maximum Rock N Roll over the latter's trajectory towards a 'punk purism', PP broadened what a punk zine good be. During the 1990s, it was one of the only place you could find out about how the sanctions on Iraq were effecting actual Iraqis. They ran indepth reports from soldiers about to be deployed to Afghanistan and stories on the relaunched SDS, among other things.

Eventually, like many other independent publications, they folded due to increasing costs and declining subscriptions, but they left a significant impression on many people. On the music side of things, a book was released that features a ton of reviews they did of bands and musicians.

After PP folded, I lost track of zines and the alternative press. I'm not even aware of the more popular publications anymore. The little I've seen seemed to tell me that the culture has narrowed demographically. But during the culture's heyday, it was much different and I'm thankful to have been exposed to it.

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Dec 16 2013 03:06

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ernesto_hombre
Dec 18 2013 08:38

Many thanks for the reminisence of a few of these zines. My reading started much earlier with the underground comics of the late 60's and 70's, but I remember reading a lot of 80's and 90's stuff as well. Not the same range as you perhaps as I was living in Australia and New Zealand by then and only some of the U.S and British stuff was imported.

I remember RAW very well and always enjoyed it and I remember the small little Maus supplements-great stuff. I never saw Punk Planet, though I was never particularly a punk myself, more of the radical hippie I guess. But I had seen a few issues of Maximum Rock 'n Roll and there were a lot of local punk zines being produced at the time downunder, many associated with the broader anarchist scene of the period.. Some of them we sold at Jura Books in Sydney through these years.

We also had a few issues of Factsheet Five which was always an amazing anthology of all things weird and wonderful. Hard to justify selling it in an anrchist bookshop sometimes, when it also contained info and reviews of the right-wing nutter/fascist publications as well as those of the broad left. But that was part of it's mystique I guess.

Another I always enjoyed was World War 3 Illustrated comic, which I understand is still in existence though I've not seen a copy for a few years. And Processed World was another great zine too, decrying the madness of work in the modern world. Many others come to mind too, but suffice to say they all helped to fill in the gaps pre computer and internet age.

I for one still miss their informative pages. Cheers mate...

Juan Conatz
Mar 26 2014 16:26

I've never read WW3 Illustrated much. I didn't even know it existed until I stumbled across it (and Class War's newspaper btw) at Quimby's in Chicago in 2005 or so.

FYI, Processed World is on libcom.