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Putting zines back on the scene

Zines come in a variety of sizes, colours and designs, but they all come from the same place: the photocopier. [Photo © Rachel Gilmore]

Zines come in a variety of sizes, colours and designs, but they all come from the same place: the photocopier. [Photo © Rachel Gilmore]

Write down an idea. Use as many expletives as you like. Or don’t. Maybe try something thoughtful, emotional, intimate. Cut-and-paste cat heads onto human figures from magazines. Or, hand-draw your deepest, darkest thoughts. No matter how you do it, you’ll find yourself at the photocopier, ready to share your work. This is how you make a zine.

A zine (rhymes with “green”), an abbreviation of “magazine,” is a form of self- or collaborative publication. Zines are printed in small circulation and vary in topic. They can be anything from queer, feminist essays to love letters to musicians, and everything between. Born from the anarchist and punk culture of the late ’70s and early ’80s, zine culture in Ottawa seemed to have all but disappeared in recent years. But in true do-it-yourself fashion, one passionate zine creator resuscitated the culture in her backyard.

Max Critical discovered zines when she was 15. For the next year, she tried her hand at making her own, before stopping for seven years. This changed two years ago when she found a solution for her own zine impulses—the Ottawa Zine Off. Critical co-founded the event, which encourages local writers and artists to develop zines, in old-fashioned hard copy, to exchange with the rest of the community. By asking friends to work their creative juices, she said, the event became a sort of communal deadline.

“Everyone was asked to make something and come together to show each other the finished product,” Critical said. “It worked well. A lot of people made zines.”

This promotion of community has brought many Ottawans together to share their work in zine format. After its first incarnation, Critical moved the event from her backyard to Pressed, a local café, to accommodate larger numbers.

New wine in an old bottle

Enough to go around: Ottawa Zine-Off co-organizer JM Francheteau (standing) exchanges his zine S.O.P. with a few zinesters.

Fair trade. At Ottawa’s Zine-Off, co-organizer JM Francheteau (standing) exchanges his zine S.O.P. for other zinesters’ work. [Photo © Fraser Tripp]

The November Zine Off had the most attendants co-organizer JM Francheteau said he had ever seen at the event; he estimated a crowd of over 50. A number of the zines were akin to early publications, like Cometbus or Maximumrocknroll of the punk era, but elsewhere the content diverted from the classics and was strongly 21st century. Participants exchanged their work for any of the other dozens items available that evening, including, but not limited to, zines about grunge-rocker Mac Demarco, an art zine of Kanye West in various outfits and a collection of Francheteau’s own poetry under the title S.O.P., or some. old. poems.

In just two years, the culture has matured considerably, according to Michelle Duquette, a zine enthusiast who moved to Ottawa from Toronto to pursue her undergrad in literature. She said that larger cities like Toronto have well established zine cultures, with independent book stands and libraries, but that it’s rare to see events there like the Zine Off.

She said the original community, formed from a group of friends, had changed: “We were all colleagues, and people were connected. And now it’s literally a forum for anyone. There’s a lot of new faces; there’s lots of variety in age and discipline.”

Francheteau agrees: “We’ve seen a real explosion in terms of the number of people who show up for the events and the number of people who are doing zines locally. We’ve gotten a lot more people to come out of the house and maybe try something they wouldn’t have done otherwise.”

‘People were making zines. But without any forum for people to trade and talk, they didn’t find each other.’ – Lily Pepper, zine rack curator

He said the November Zine Off showed substantial turnover from prior events: “I didn’t recognize a lot of the people here. More people are becoming interested in it, or at least different ones are becoming interested in it.”

Francheteau said he thinks a lot of this turnover comes from word-of-mouth advertising, at least for the younger high school crowd that is beginning to take an interest.

“I suspect there’s likely turnover of older people as well; some lose interest maybe, or no longer require the stimulus the Zine-Off provides to encourage their work.”

This participant fluctuation in a city like Ottawa has a strong effect on its zine scene, said Alison Lang, editor-in-chief of Broken Pencil, a Toronto-based magazine about zine culture. Having lived in Halifax, Lang explained that certain cities where people grew up or went to school begin to feel small, resulting in an exodus of young people to cities like Toronto or Vancouver. She said people then notice a lack of community feeling in these larger cities and might return to smaller, tight-knit places like Ottawa—thus invigorating the local culture.

“Even if people grow out of zines, even if they think they grow out of their small towns, that part of them that was a self-starter that made zines, I feel is always there,”she explained. “Once you embark on that sort of journey, it’s always kind of within you, and you always have an interest with it.”

Emerging into view

Ottawa’s zine scene was bolstered by one such self-starter in Lily Pepper, who moved from Montreal to Ottawa two years ago. According to Pepper, the Ottawa scene has traditionally worked underground; however, Pepper said,  zinesters never disappeared here.

“I think that people probably were making zines. But without any sort of a forum for people to trade and talk, they didn’t find each other.”

Shortly after arriving, Pepper began curating zine racks at Pressed and local record store Gabba Hey. These racks create a regular spotlight for local zinesters and zines that, Pepper thinks, will bring attention to the movement.

One stop shopping: The zine rack at Pressed carries a varied selection of local zines on sale for three to five dollars. [Photo © Fraser Tripp]

Local produce: The zine rack at Ottawa’s Pressed café offers work for sale for $3 to $5.
[Photo © Fraser Tripp]

Meanwhile, Pepper has produced YOW! Ottawa Writers Write About Ottawa, a compilation of reviews and intimate impressions of the city. To create YOW!, Pepper recruited some close friends, many of whom had never worked with zines.

Groups of new zinestars, like Pepper’s friends, are part of what is keeping the culture alive, according to Lang. She said the culture is infused with a new generation of younger people who aren’t well acquainted with classic, punk publications like Maximumrocknroll but who nevertheless have something to say.

A familiarity with zines, past or present, is not required: You don’t need to know anyone in order to join in, Pepper explained. And with such an open and growing community, you don’t even need to produce a zine to participate.  But, as all the Zine Off posters say, “wouldn’t it be cool if you did?”

[Front page art courtesy of Alanna Yaraskavitch]


The era of punk rock zines that began in the mid ’70s was revitalized in the early ’80s by the increased number of photocopiers in stores like Kinko’s, according to the Bingham Center Zine Collection’s Brief History of Zines. Zines of note from this period include Cometbus, first published in 1981, and Maximumrocknroll, from 1982.

The ’90s saw the rise of feminist and queer zines, including Conscious Clit, Kikizine and Bikini Kill.

A zine sampling

This poem is from JM Francheteau’s collection S.O.P. Its formatting, meter and subject matter provide an example of zines’ varied and eclectic selection of material.


The hope’s eventually

I’ll be smarter than this, write a little better

cook grilled cheese that doesn’t black to the skillet

lie on my taxes on purpose

but the other day backroomed at Gabba Hey

a girl who looked like Pat Benatar

let me huff from her film canister

full of nail polish remover


so this might be as good as my brain’s likely to get


I sniffed hard and held—

the discarded Ford Windstar’s

backseat I’d buckled into just        flew


like witnessing the slow expansion of the universe

as a two minute road trip


like the view from my eyeballs

as they rolled down my sinuses


like        nyufgh


like what might generously be called drug

abuse in a dim, dirty room


and anyway,

when my friends said it was time to go


I had to ask