Joe Biel is one of the most influential people in the country when it comes to zines. Not only does he write and publish his own zines, he also publishes and distributes hundreds of zines and books with his company, Microcosm Publishing. Some of his publishing ventures, such as Stolen Sharpie Revolution and On Subbing: The First Four Years, have sold so many copies that it would make a major New York publishing house green with envy. Joe has also caught the film bug, producing documentaries like $100 and a T-Shirt, which offers an entertaining tour of Northwest zines and their history.
KS: What cities in America are the best zine cities?
Biel: I guess in terms of volume it seems like Portland, New Orleans, and the Bay Area are the highest. About a dozen others tied behind those. In terms of resources, I think Portland and the Bay Area are a good head and shoulders ahead of anywhere else.
KS: What's the strangest zine you've seen?
Biel: Whew.... I'm kind of a sucker for jokey/tongue-in-cheek kind of titles. There's plenty of things that are so strange that I can't even figure out what is being discussed or going on. Much of the time, it's inside jokes that just don't translate. But I really think that aspect of the medium is its strongest point...that you can write about anything and people will read it; at least curiously.
The strangest in recent memory was a series of loose pages called 86 the Onions. Each one had a simple line drawing graphic and text that was loosely social commentary. One page featured a pimply teenager playing video games with the text "Video Games Saved Me From Masturbating and Going Blind. Thank You, Video Games." That was pretty strange.
KS: Do you ever distribute anything that you disagree with? How much of a censor do you use when choosing the titles you'll distribute?
Biel: In some senses, yes. We are an organization that decides what to distribute as a group. There are 5 of us who sit down and talk about each title. Obviously there has to be some room to compromise there. I don't think some of our literature is terribly thrilling, but it's just not for me. I understand why it would be important to someone who hasn't encountered certain kinds of theories or such before. Other titles, I disagree with the conclusions, but I think that is the point of distributing them. It helped me develop and shape my own views on the subject or at least reinforce them.
KS: What magazine or book have you read lately that might surprise people?
Biel: Some people are surprised I read at all from knowing me as a teenager. I just read Paul Hawken's book Growing a Business. That is somewhat uncharacteristic of me. It's not a straight-up business book though. It's probably the single most recommended "progressive" business book, and it was really great; suggesting worker ownership and ways to make people feel respected and be invested, how to hire people, and ways to develop organically without following a painfully rapid model of growth.
KS: What is the biggest misconception about zines?
Biel: That they are all written by unemployed teenagers or hobos; people who aren't dealing in the "real world." I can't stand that one.
KS: What do you have planned for yourself in the next year?
Biel: As an individual, I'm working on 5 new documentary videos ??? one about the unique and varied bike lane characters in Portland, one about the Martin Luther King assassination, one about the board game RISK, a zine-like one about my childhood, and one about how passenger rail is going the way of the dinosaur in the United States.
As an organization, we are trying to think of new books to publish that don't fall into the niche section of every bookstore they end up in. We are also constantly dealing with growth and the resulting problems. Particularly those of having to reject so many titles each week. Trying to evolve without a total facelift.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir