Zine - Susie is a Robot #3

You’ll need to set aside some time to read Susie is a Robot #3. I tried to read it in fits and starts, pulling it out of my jacket pocket whenever I had a few minutes to kill, but it didn’t work; it just meant confusion and backtracking. When I started again and read it properly, the pieces fell into place.

It’s the structure that requires concentration: the zine runs for over 100 pages, spans—what, 20 years?, and jumps backwards and forwards without obvious signposting. This is jarring but makes perfect sense. It mimics LB’s thoughts and memories, as she grapples with the fallout from an assault by her partner, and tries to learn from how she and her brothers dealt with their abusive childhood.

LB’s writing is hardboiled, more Dashiell Hammett than Raymond Chandler:

i sat in a train car alone. lights passed, stations waved. a man entered and i heard the familiar sound of a beer can opening. hopefully a tall boy.

the tunnel was empty. i lugged an oversized winter coat, hung over my shoulder, remembering the days i pretended to be a hobo. a runaway child with a blanket tied to a stick and a can of soup as its only contents. my legs made it to my tree in the front yard and i hid until no one came looking for me.

the tree is gone now. my house is gone.

And this is definitely a noir story, with the faint light of friendship and hope set against the thick darkness of violence and despair. LB explores “[t]he overlooked gray” between victim and attacker, and wants to know “[h]ow I reviled my childhood abusers … but I can push my lover when I am drunk”.

Like the best noir tales, Susie is a Robot #3 describes the struggle of a decent protaganist to keep their head above water, against the drag of by the murky currents:

sometimes there are days like this that we get through. we always do. i know we’re going to make it. i swear.

You want them to make it—you know maybe they won’t, maybe they can’t. But you want them to escape.

LB, Susie is a Robot #3, 1/4 size, 104 pages. Available from Paper Trail and Stranger Danger.

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Zine Review: Lazy Boy

21 April 2008

Zine Cover - Lazy Boy

Mike Baker is a writer; a damn good one.

Lazy Boy is a collection of his stories, chronicling his sexual coming-of-age, but without descending to the level of mere pornography. His formative experiences, especially the awkward and ill-fated ones, are described with such passionate detail that it is impossible not to be drawn in.

Take this reaction to his rape by a boy called Bill:

I was cruel to never give him what he wanted, to tease him. That was wrong but I still hope he’s dead and that he died of AIDS or that he was shot in the stomach.

There is anger, regret, self-doubt and self-righteousness in those two short sentences. That rawness and complexity of emotion is characteristic of Lazy Boy. The subject matter ranges from the bitterness of regret to the joy of youthful experimentation, but it’s rarely one or the other. Mike is a complicated man, but he knows how to make sense of it on a page.

One thing that remains constant throughout the zine, is that it is hot:

… [T]here is nothing compared to seeing a regular man’s naked body. It has a fullness to it. I mean to say, it is something I can have and it looks like me. I think very pretty people are their own species. Fucking them would be like fucking a dog or and [sic] bear or cousin. It would be wrong. And so these men undressed and red skinned from the hot shower’s water and scrubbing themselves with their cocks only just getting thick and their balls hanging and warm were everything I wanted.

Lazy Boy is a blur of reminiscence and fantasy and self-analysis, and manages to get the balance right. There is more here than a blow-by-blow of a man’s early sexual conquests — it asks the hows and whys, too, and that’s why I’m sure every reader will relate to Mike’s stories and learn from them.

Mike Baker, Lazy Boy, 1/4 size, 40 pages.
Available from PXS, Gimme Brains, Stranger Danger and the author.

Zine Cover - Living Room #1

The premise behind Living Room #1 is simple: we are standing in the middle of a room, and with each page we learn more about it. By describing the things in the room, the author builds a picture not only of the place, but of the people who inhabit it:

There is a sewing machine in the middle of the room. It is a “Bernina Record”. It stands on a wooden table with red legs and a nice varnished top. Also on the table is a big Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar and piles of paper.

Each page describes a different part of the room, moving around it until we reach the door.

It is a brief zine, so there is not much more I can say without spoiling it. It is very matter-of-fact, at times just a list of objects: “Fridge. Chopping board. Grater.” This contrasts with other passages that convey the author’s judgment about the room’s contents: “The pencils seem very important.” In some ways this creates a peculiar unevenness, but it also creates in the reader the sensation of standing in the room and looking around, skimming quickly over some things and stopping to contemplate others.

I would very much like to read about other living rooms.

tracing_contact, Living Room #1, 1/4 size, 24 pages.
Available from Sticky.

Zine - La Boca #2

E Parrott’s second issue of La Boca is exciting from the get-go, before you even crack it open, thanks to a cleverly designed cover. Its bright brown card-stock is painted with white and pink blobs, which are made sensible only by the photograph printed on them by the copy machine.

This design sensibility and obvious mastery of the equipment shows through in the body of the zine, too. Photos have been manipulated through the photocopier to exaggerate light and shade. Grainy reproductions are given definition by hand-drawn lines; sometimes whole sections — a notebook here, a scarf there — are replaced by sketches.

The result is a striking clash of the real and the unreal. Parrott looks at the world and sees abstractions and ideas and feelings to which others are oblivious. She sees tenderness in a friend’s actions, and fraternal connections between different Beatles albums. “everything has connotations.”

I was fascinated by a passage in which Parrott imagines herself as a man:

listening to iron and wine I think of him–– 20-something, huge beard, mellow look on his face. and all the associations that go along with an image like that. yes, that’s what i want. and, like i often do, i imagine myself looking exactly that way, forgetting for a second that i can’t grow facial hair, or have masculine features at all, and that short hair says something different on a girl, that even that mellow look is different on a girl.

There follows a powerful discussion of gender identity. It’s not a fully-fledged manifesto; there is anger there, but Parrott admits “i need to think more about it”. The power of the section — just a couple of pages long — comes from this introverted caution. It conveys the author’s real discomfort with being a woman: “sometimes … i notice the sound of my own female voice and wonder how anyone takes me seriously.”

These thought-experiments give La Boca #2 great depth. By taking the real world but giving it a twist — whether by wondering what if the author was a man, or by reducing a photographed cat to a line-drawing — the reader is forced to look at things from a new, unexpected perspective. It is a sophisticated technique, and integrated just as effectually in Parrott’s words as in her pictures.

La Boca #2 has an almost paranoiac awareness of the layers of possibility that exist around us:

we live on the edge of something, it scares me. who says things will happen as expected, things could just go out of control.

One day, hopefully, they will.

E Parrott, La Boca #2, 1/4 size, 48 pages.
Available from Loop.

Zine cover - Telegram Ma’am #11

Previous issues of Telegram Ma’am I’ve read (#9, #10) have been mostly-chronological records of significant events in Maranda’s life, occasionally shooting off on interesting tangents. Issue 11, though, takes a different structure: in order to break her writer’s block, she uses each letter of the alphabet as a prompt for a brief blurb on a different topic — it’s almost like reading Dick Bruna’s angsty perzine.

These little stories lead off in every direction; past, present and future. Mental health features prominently, but notwithstanding a couple of trips back to the hospital and some problems with prescriptions, the tone is significantly more cheerful. In the introduction, Maranda says “as long as I can still create, I know there is hope.” The vignettes about her craft and zines show she’s happiest when she’s making things to share with others.

I thought one story (under “Ottawa”) captured the spirit of the zine nicely. The influence of Little Acorns on Maranda’s life goes beyond a cool tattoo design, as she explains:

[O]ne day [a woman] watches a squirrel from her window gathering nuts for the winter, and decides that if this squirrel can take care of itself with the harsh winter coming on, so can she. So she takes care of her problems just like those acorns: one at a time.

The alphabetic structure works well to highlight Maranda’s own acorns. What seem to be daunting problems are broken down into discrete parts. She can chip away at them one at a time, whether it’s by adding a splash of colour to her wardrobe, organising Baking Days with her friends, or learning to like her surname. It’s nice to read about the little rays breaking through the storm clouds.

Maranda Farthing, Telegram Ma’am #11, 1/4 size, 24 pages.
Available from the author (E is for Etsy!).

Zine cover - Telegram Ma’am #9

In 2006 and 2007, Maranda Farthing was hospitalised after trying to commit suicide. It was her attempt to escape:

When the darker part of my mind took over, I needed to find a safer place, a place where I could take a break and get some help. To get to that sort of place, I had to hurt myself.

Telegram Ma’am #9 takes the reader to that place with Maranda. First, briefly, to a rehabilitation centre, then to a psychiatric hospital for seven days, and then to the beginnings of her post-hospital life. It is a story of panic and pain, but also of love (a mother who made the difficult decision to take her daughter to the hospital) and care (a nurse who uses what might have been “standard nurse-to-patient textbook stuff” to calm her patient).

Maranda is very good at describing her situation in a way that encourages empathy rather than pity. I think it is because her inquisitiveness and perceptiveness come through so strongly: if she was going to be in hospital for a week, she was going to scour the library and wander the corridors:

Earlier, I ventured the hospital grounds on my own. I simply went downstairs to find the cahnge machine and get myself a drink, but I wondered what the others might think of me, an obvious patient in my casual clothes and ballet slippers, confused expression on my face as I explored the hallways. Would they sense I was from the Mental Health Ward, or could I pass for a “normal” patient?

Telegram Ma’am #9 is hard to read. Not because it’s badly written, or boring — far from it. It is hard to read because it takes the reader through a difficult period in Maranda’s life and makes us feel like we are there with her. Not sharing her experiences, exactly: more like witnessing them from close by, unable to do anything to help. Fortunately Maranda has the strength to get through without our help, which is what makes us want to keep turning the pages.

Maranda Farthing, Telegram Ma’am #9, 1/4 size, 32 pages.
Available from the author, but maybe sold out.

Zine Review: Scam #5½

30 November 2007

Zine cover - Scam #5½

Arnold Zwicky wrote an interesting post for Language Log recently, about the blurred edges of technical and everyday words. He pointed out how “the common-language use of epicenter for the central point of an event” is slightly different from its original jargon meaning: “Technically, it’s the location on the earth’s surface over the place where the earthquake event happened, undergound.”

When Erick Lyle named Scam #5½ “The Epicenter of Crime: The Hunt’s Donuts Story”, borrowing the phrase from a news broadcast, I suspect he was using epicenter in the common-language sense. But the technical meaning is perhaps even more fitting, because Hunt’s Donuts — beneath the “OPEN 25 HOURS” neon sign — was the point where the underground centre was reflected on the surface. It was the place where the petty criminal underworld of San Francisco’s Mission district met the world of the upstanding citizenry.

You can read part of the Hunt’s Donuts story in a March 2000 article in the SF Weekly. By that time it was called Magic Donuts, and the city was trying to force the new owners to shut the place down, using their tactic of suing “Mom and Pop” store owners for social problems beyond their control. But if you want the full story, the real story of Hunt’s Donuts on 20th and Mission, you need to read Scam #5½.

In Lyle’s story, the Magic Donuts dispute is just the latest episode in a long history:

… the story of Hunt’s is both less and more than news. Its a rumor, an illicit history, the pull of the gravity of the epicenter of crime. At 20th and Mission, battles to control the identity of the Mission have been acted out again and again, between ever changing sets of police and thieves over the years. In the story that follows we have the Irish cop who shut down the mission’s Latino bars as his father shut down the city’s gay bars. We have the young kid who couldn’t beat the Hunt’s sponsored team on the baseball diamond who grew up to try to shut down the shop as police captain. We have the Latino teenagers who hung out in front of Hunt’s framed for a cop’s murder in the famed trial of Los Siete de la Raza.

Hunt’s Donuts was a microcosm of the Mission community, capturing both its successes and its failures, its hopes and its tragedies. Established by a pillar of the business community but condemned by the police, it was simultaneously a place where families would buy donuts after mass on Sunday and a place where drunks and junkies would trade goods of dubious provenance. In Scam #5½, Lyle brings the place alive on the page.

We see Hunt’s through the eyes of its owners, its customers, the growing Latino population, the police — both sympathetic and otherwise, the drunks, the punks, and the yuppies moving in and gentrifying the Mission. Ultimately, Lyle is sad about Hunt’s closing after 52 years as a Mission institution, and it is easy to see why: love it or loathe it, Hunt’s Donuts was in the thick of things. Scam #5½ is a comprehensive social history and a pleasure to read.

Erick Lyle, Scam #5½, ¼ size, 32 pages.
Available from Paper Trail, Needles + Pens, McPheeters and Microcosm

Zine cover - No Better Voice #30

In No Better Voice #30 Jami has opted to stand back and showcase her friends’ work. She has pulled together a disparate collection of contributions; some are fictional, some are factual, and there is no apparent overarching theme.

The strongest piece is from Christina LaRose. It is the story of a young girl progressing through a ballet school, and it is a love-hate story. It is the story of an abusive relationship, of a culture that inflicts physical and mental pain but promises happiness: “a world of pain—a world of pain ensconsed in a smile”.

I was drawn in by the first-person perspective (perhaps it is autobiographical?) and despite having no experience of ballet lessons I could nonetheless feel the horrible conformist pressure being put on the protagonist. Her body is the wrong shape, and she must be bound to eliminate unsightly curves:

When I get home, I pull the First Aid kit out of the medicine cabinet and roll ace bandages over my breasts, my waist, my hips. I am a shrinking creature, a mummy. I jokingly wrap a bandage over my face. Dad walks by and laughts.

“You’ve bandaged yourself out of existence!” he says.

I smile yes, yes, yes beneath the medicinal smell of the cloth covering my eyes.

While No Better Voice #30 is worth reading just for this story, there is plenty more to read. I also enjoyed Jenny Bloomer’s “Shark attack!”, a story about how wearing a dress turns her into prey at the bar, a target for sexual predators. It is evocatively illustrated by LB.

For something a little different, Shaun Allen has contributed a fascinating short history of the Revolutionary Union Movement in the US auto industry in the late 1960s and the 1970s. The movement was made up of several small union locals that challenged not only employers but also the tame-cat United Autoworkers, which had a poor record on including black workers in its leadership positions. Inspirational stuff, though the movement was short-lived. It’s nice to see some history in a zine like this.

Jami Thompson (ed), No Better Voice #30, 1/4 size, 32 pages.
Split with Marked for Life #2. Available from Eye Candy, Stranger Danger and Paper Trail.

Zine Review: Skin Deep #2

7 November 2007

The importance of zines to fascist organising is explained in White Noise:

Over the years an underground network of nazi skinhead magazines[,] “skinzines”, had been constructed. … With the politicisation that being in contact with other skinheads brought, it was common to find that an address over a period of time went through three stages: a skinzine address; contact for a skinhead crew; then finally a contact point for a fascist organisation.

Zine cover - Skin Deep #2

With that in mind, Deep Skin #2 is a must-read for anti-racist campaigners. It is a beautiful skinzine written by a violent racist… poet. Make no mistake, this is a serious bonehead: “Its for the dude who doesn’t want to be a total gay if he is just trying to write some poems. So you can fuck off.”

The zine is characterised by childish handwriting, naive sketches, bad spelling and a preoccupation with homosexuality. A sample:

Regret I had one time

knife
I am sorry I forgot you at home
knife
I am sorry you didnt get to party
knife/since dad that homo left you are
my best friend
knife
the block of concrete meant nothing
to me
knife

Like all good satire, Skin Deep #2 is effective because it is so accurate. Poems about “knife” and boots and being “too fucking tough / to have friends / or love” skewer the ultra-masculinity of the racist scene. And when the nazi twins are in the headlines, complaints about “weak” kids books are spot on: “my son doesn’t need some fuzzy tiger teaching him how to be a fag”.

I hope some real boneheads accidentally read this zine and see what utter morons they are.

Anonymous, Skin Deep #2, 1/4 size, 36 pages.
Available from Microcosm.

Zine cover - Marked for Life #2

It’s easy to see why Sage Adderley describes the tale of her young family’s move to a new city as a “love story”. She and her husband, Garrett, seem genuinely to have fallen head-over-heels for Philadelphia during a brief visit — less than a day — during a family holiday.

Their excitement is palpable from the outset:

We parked and got out of the car to let the girls stretch and we began being tourist. We walked away from center city and towards the more residential area. We saw multiple community gardens, sides of buildings covered with mosaic tiling and city parks filled with children. My husband and I fell in love. We looked at each other knowing that we could call Philadelphia home.

There begins an exciting adventure as the Adderleys tumble towards their new goal, crashing through obstacles like finding work and accommodation, transporting belongings, and settling their young daughters in a new town.

Sage’s descriptions in Marked for Life #2 would make anyone want to live in Philadelphia. She sees a place of history and culture, with free concerts and community gardens, churches and bicycles and craft markets. Her daughters, Emily and Bella, have made new friends and enjoy visiting the Philadelphia Zoo, which Sage regards as “[t]he best zoo I have been to.”

Love stories can be tedious if all we hear are the lovely things the besotted says about the object of their affection. A good love story recognises that there are two parties to a relationship, and gives us an insight into both. The real joy in reading Marked for Life #2 is in learning about Sage’s ideas and hopes for her family. Her love for Philadelphia is not for its streets and buildings, but for its multicultural community and the opportunity it provides her children to learn and play and grow.

These issues were raised by Mike Kraus in A New Tomorrow #23, through his introspective consideration of the role of place in his life. Sage doesn’t slow down much to reflect in the cautious way Mike does — she is too busy with home-schooling and concerts and family visits and proselytising Philadelphia — but the two zines sit very comfortably together, and I recommend reading both alongside each other.

My own plans to move to another city with my partner are still some months away, our train fares are paid, and we have signed on to start new jobs when we arrive; yet I still feel apprehensive about leaping into the unknown. It is very reassuring to read about a spur-of-the-moment intercity move that has been so successful, and that has made Sage and her family so happy. I will be keeping Marked for Life #2 near to hand to remind me that these ventures should be more exciting than scary.

Sage Adderley, Marked for Life #2, 1/4 size, 32 pages.
Split with No Better Voice #30. Available from Sage’s own Eye Candy, as well as Stranger Danger and Paper Trail.