The first L.A. Zine Fest took place over six hours in a series of low-slung hallways above the Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. It was the week after Valentine's Day in 2012 and more than 100 self-publishers — many of whom had never before shown their projects in public — sat at tables selling a variety of small-batch paper goods to the more than 1,500 attendees who crammed the halls of the makeshift venue. From handmade chapbooks to one-off graphic novels to social-justice pamphlets, most of the items on display were produced by scrappy artists with nothing but scissors, a pen, a glue stick and a photocopy machine.

I was one of those artists.

Armed with a Kinkos-run's worth of personal zines, including one made from diary entries my mother kept while pregnant with me (there is an appetizing photo of my bloody C-section birth on the cover), plus back issues of L.A. Record (an independently published music rag for which I've long written and designed), I signed up for L.A. Zine Fest not knowing what to expect.

The summer before, I had taken a road trip to the Portland Zine Symposium, the longest-running festival of its kind in the country, where I ran into several other Angelenos who were also making these weird little DIY scrapbooks. Why did we have to drive to Oregon to find like-minded people from our hometown? There must be more of us, we surmised, but in a city so spread out, how could we unify a bunch of disparate creatives, each of whom was using this old-school medium in a totally different way?
Turns out we weren't the only ones thinking about finding some glue to bind together L.A.'s underground print lovers.

“The point of having that first fest was just to get these people to meet each other,” says Rhea Tepp, one of five organizers who made that first L.A. Zine Fest happen. “I think a fest speaks to the tactility of the medium we're dealing with, too. Online is helpful at the beginning, but face-to-face interaction is crucial. We wanted to see what could happen after everyone met each other in person.”

Zines from MC Sunflower Jones at L.A. Zine Fest 2013 at the Ukranian Cultural Center; Credit: Sarah Bennett

Zines from MC Sunflower Jones at L.A. Zine Fest 2013 at the Ukranian Cultural Center; Credit: Sarah Bennett

What happened went beyond Tepp and the other planners' wildest zine-nerd dreams. In the last four years (the fifth annual L.A. Zine Fest takes place Sunday, March 6, at the Majestic), Greater Los Angeles' once-simmering community of zinesters has boiled over to include the creation of workshops, classes, bookstores, circulating libraries and an entire micro-economy of festivals all dedicated to independent publishing.

Before 2012, L.A. had a few craft fairs that included print components and an annual swap meet–type concert held at Meltdown Comics. But if you really wanted to buy zines and connect with the people who made them on a greater level, you'd have to travel, as I did, to Portland, San Francisco or Chicago – the big three of zine fests.

Today, there are nearly a dozen local events where you can attend panels, participate in workshops and browse and purchase the latest from artists, writers, activists and makers, including IE Zine Fest, OC Zine Fest, L.A. Art Book Fair, Blk Grrrl Book Fair, OC Anarchist Book Fair and Long Beach Zine Fest (which, full disclosure, I also help plan).

“I recently saw online that there's a list of places to get zines on Yelp,” says Daisy Noemi, one of the L.A. Zine Fest's first-year tablers, who volunteered with Tepp and artist Kenzo Martinez to organize this year's event. “Five years ago what would have been on a list like that? Skylight? Family? Now zines are so accessible that there's a whole list of where to buy them. You can Yelp that shit.”

Zines at L.A. Zine Fest 2014 at the Helms Bakery; Credit: Sarah Bennett

Zines at L.A. Zine Fest 2014 at the Helms Bakery; Credit: Sarah Bennett

Part of the popularity of zines stems from their endless versatility and rejection of the digital over-saturation of our everyday lives. Traditionally half-letter size and spine-stapled straight out of a black-and-white photocopy machine, zines (short for “magazines” or “fanzines”) were originally made to be cheap and portable for maximum message dissemination. Today, however, zines are a catch-all term used to describe all kinds of low-circulation, special-interest periodicals produced without the help major publishing houses.

Over the years, zines have come in handy for everyone from political radicals to LGBT outsiders to cutesy cartoonists to die-hard music fans, and with final products these days ranging in size from matchbook to folio, and featuring a range of crafty accents — such as specialty paper, unique printing methods and hand-sewn bindings — many blur the line between art and print publication.

Whether they cost $1 or $10, are about food or identity, are being made in Cuba or in Inglewood, zines embody a DIY spirit that unites all who make them.  

“[Zine-making] is an experience for people existing outside of the mainstream. Sometimes that means people who have the privilege to choose to exist there, sometimes not,” Tepp says. “And when you value something that the mainstream can never provide for you, you have to find each other. That's why this community is so powerful.”

L.A. Zine Fest, Majestic Theatre, 650 S. Spring St., downtown; Sun., March 6, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; free. lazinefest.com.

LA Weekly