Editor's note: Katie Haegele lives near Philadelphia, where she writes and creates zines. Obsessive PowellsBooks.BLOG readers (we mean that in the best possible way) may recognize her as the author of an article Brockman linked to in the Book News of August 24. Today we offer the first in a series of posts from Katie. Look for another the week after next.
Every other week I review a new YA book for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and I've been amazed to see how much wonderful stuff is being published for younger readers these days. Case in point: a new William Blake biography by a Canadian writer named Michael Bedard. As a biography subject, Blake is always a crowd-pleaser, I guess: he was eccentric, inventive, and pleasingly in touch with his dark side. But as Bedard tells us, the crowds were not always pleased with Blake. In addition to being a painter he was an engraver — that's how he put all those fabulously bizarre illustrated poems of his on paper — but he never got much commercial work as a tradesman. His style was too weird. It was also too labor-intensive, which made him expensive and unpopular as the industrial revolution got underway and even engraved prints got the assembly line treatment. Furthermore, because he worked at a trade, the art establishment never quite accepted him as a "real" artist. They called him crazy and he never made any money and he and his devoted wife Catherine printed up a handful of copies of each of his so-called illuminated books and ate dust for dinner.
The day I finished the biography I happened upon an online interview with another English artist I really admire, also named William, who happens to be totally alive at this very minute. There were some startling parallels. In this interview, the punk musician, painter, poet, and self-publisher Billy Childish talked about attending art school in the 1970s and being laughed at for loving Van Gogh, who wasn't as popular then as he is now. (When Blake attended art school in the 1770s, he got laughed at for loving Michelangelo and Raphael, who weren't as popular then as they are now. Hm.) Childish shrugged off the criticism and went on to write volumes of poetry and novels that he prints and sells himself — much like Blake, who manipulated the copper-engraving medium he'd already mastered, bought himself a printing press, and produced his own books. I was excited and moved as I thought about the similarities between Blake and the self-publishing revolution that has meant so much to me as a writer (and a reader). William Blake was a zinester, I thought to myself. He was DIY. He was totally punk rock!
For those of you who aren't sure what zines are, the best way to describe them is as small self-published journals or magazines. They can be handwritten or typed, illustrated with original comics or cut-and-pasted images from magazines or old books, hand-bound or stapled. Some look no-nonsense, just black-and-white words photocopied onto plain paper. Many are more like art books, and just one that I know of is made entirely by hand on a letterpress printer. Zinesters sell their creations for a few dollars through zine distributors called distros, at zine gatherings, or at a few very clever bookstores. They've been around since the 1930s or so, when they were mostly for and by fans of science fiction. These days you can find zines about food, feminism, babies — you name it. Maybe there's even one about science fiction food for feminist babies. It's wide open.
There's another interesting feature to all this. The Internet, with all its opportunities for free self-expression and the potential of a worldwide audience, has not slowed down this interest in handmade books (though it has facilitated their sales). The reason — I think — is this: the satisfaction that comes from providing the means of production of your own printed material goes beyond the obvious benefit of bypassing a publishing industry that may have different ideas than you, the little artist/toiler, about what your work should be. The satisfaction of making a zine is at least in part in the MAKING itself. It's physical, it's tactile, it makes use of the knowledge of existing crafts, skills, and trades to achieve a new end. Just as Blake did all those years ago.
Oh you guys, I get so excited about this stuff. I'd love to hear what you think about it.
Books mentioned in this post