On "Zine" by Pagan Kennedy and the Wacky World of Self Publishing

I wrote this for librarything's "Early Reviewers" who sent me a copy for free. I recommend you head to the Santa Fe Writers Project to grab your own copy. It really, really is great: http://www.sfwp.com/the-books/

Self-publishing is a weird old thing. Why go to all the effort of creating something that often will only be read by family and friends, but takes you weeks or even months of effort to produce, then costs you too much money to get printed, and then can be incredibly difficult to distribute to complete strangers? Why not just do it electronically or just try and get it published properly? It’s surely just pure self-indulgence…

Well yeah, in a way it kind of is. And I say that as someone who has been happily, and not cheaply, indulging his silliest ideas for about five years now. I am struck with a deeply silly idea (what if I wrote something like “Roy of the Rovers” but from my own perspective of not caring or understanding a single thing about the kicking game?) that makes me chuckle and then doodle it down and hope it makes someone else laugh as much as I did (if you want to find out if that person is you, by the way, the resulting “Roy of the Rovers” parody is called “Johnny Kickfoot” and can be found in “The Common Swings Variousness Spectacular” available from, well, me). So in many ways it’s, yes, indulging myself in a very real way. But it’s also a wonderful way of spontaneously taking an idea and getting it down on the page very quickly. To me this is one of the most profoundly wonderful things about zines and mini comics: it’s quick to produce and is frequently (once you get the hang of doing them) pretty much the equivalent of opening up your head and allowing the ideas to plop out directly onto the page.

And the delight of it all is… you don’t have to care or worry about what readers might think about it. You’re not doing it for them. You’re doing it for you. No second guessing. As long as it’s not entirely self-obsessed, boring navel gazing that you’re producing (that’s what blogs are for, surely) you’ve got a good chance of finding someone who finds what you do enjoyable. I’ve had many baffled looks at my zines, but I’ve also found that one thing usually appeals to each person who reads them. Just one thing. And it’s usually the most unexpected thing in the world. My wife’s favourite was a kid’s book idea I basically knocked up on the spot about a vain pony called “Carl the Splendid Horse”. Just mentioning it sends her into giggles and I have no idea why. And I don’t’ think about it too much either, because by then I’m usually trying to think of another silly gag to make someone else chuckle.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I understand a lot of the world that “Zine” comes from. I may not have been creating an autobiographical, mainly text based zine like Pagan Kennedy did, but by golly did this book resonate with me. Kennedy started “Pagan’s Head” as a way of not trying to second guess what other people – and Pagan herself - expected from her attempts to write the Great American Novel ™. This was the Great American Novel’s idiot, carefree brother who just gadded about on the sofa and watched the telly while his precious sibling vexed for hours pondering how many times is too many when it comes to saying “said” on one page. In other words, this was a spontaneous, slight, silly, wildly creative outlet for the kind of ideas that she deemed unusable for her “proper work”. And before she knew it, that spontaneous, slight, silly and wildly creative outlet had actually become, in many ways, as important – if not more so - as the Proper Novel itself.

And that’s because a zine is like a dialogue. A dialogue between the creator and the reader. It’s a letter to people you initially know and then, hopefully, some you have yet to meet. It’s a bulletin straight from your brain. And having Kennedy’s insights into the creative process – and then being able to see that creative process itself – are fascinating. In many ways the quality of the zine itself is not important (although, handily, “Pagan’s Head” is a great read as it moves slowly from self-indulgence to finding a very real and confident voice, as Pagan moves towards the more themed issues: it’s a lovely companion piece to something like John Porcellino’s “King Cat Classix”, a similar collection of juvenilia slowly becoming bolder and more adventurous as the writer and artist grows in confidence in using his skills) – it’s the story of how it got there that really holds the attention.

Because in many ways zines, mini comics and the whole world of self-publishing are more about the journey than they are about the destination itself. Many novels suffer from being so focussed on the destination, they don’t take the time to enjoy dawdling and take in the view on the route. In the hurry to say something important about the human condition, writers don’t suddenly get waylaid by a comical cat or an unusual street name. The zine writer absolutely thrives on those tiny details. Most zine writers and mini comic writers couldn’t give a stuff about the destination. Some of them have barely left the house. Some of them could probably knock out ten issues of something based purely on their front door. Which is why they’re so wonderful. They’re entirely the work of a creative mind wanting to scoop out the overflow from their brain and pin it down on the page. Even the dullest zine or mini comic can contain something uniquely brilliant and vivid. And to read someone’s story about how they progressed along that route makes it even more wonderful. A great, great book.


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