Roll the Presses
Christopher Schulz’s Pinups Magazine may be the coolest thing to happen to print since McSweeney’s turned book design on its head. “When I had the idea for Pinups, I was fantasizing about print,” Schulz explains. “It’s really not something that can exist the same in any other form.” He’s not exaggerating, either: Pinups is an exercise in exploiting the core concept of a nude pinup: each issue can be pulled apart and reassembled into one giant 32” by 70” poster of a nude male.
Schulz is just one of a number of queer creators who are choosing to work in a medium that many say is doomed: print. As magazines and newspaper struggle with dwindling circulation numbers and ad revenue leached by the Internet, these auteurs have begun offering alternatives to the glossy, commercialized culture presented by traditional gay media.
Pinups, as well as other contemporary gay zines of its ilk are intended to be physical objects of art, not merely displaced Internet content that happens to be printed on paper. “As a kid, I was always drawn to design and there was something official and final about print—like it wasn’t real until it was printed in quantity and distributed,” says Schulz. In some cases, as with Pinups, print is the only way that the project could be done.
“I feel that with nude erotica, it should be more tangible rather than simply images on your computer screen,” notes Darren Ankenbauer, editor-in-chief of Handbook, a zine that recreates the classic feel of vintage gay magazines with black-and-white pictorials that have a definite erotic edge. “You can’t curl up in bed with your computer as comfortably as you can with Handbook.”
“Since Original Plumbing (a trans-centric zine) is a photo-based magazine, it’s especially important for it to exist past the screen,” says creator Amos Mac. “I want it to take up space and for people to be able to rip out a page and hang it on their wall. I want it to be in a dusty box in the GLBT archives in 100 years. Having it be web-based only would never make me feel the way I do when I have a finished product in my hands or see it on a shelf.”
It’s easy to use the terms “creators” and “publishers” interchangeably when discussing zines because, for the most part, they are often the product of a single passionate creator, or a small dedicated crew. “[There] are so many small publications out there I think it inspires more men/women to create something they are passionate about. It is very easy—if you know a page layout program—to create and publish your own zine,” says Ankenbauer.
While the do-it-yourself ethos to zine culture, there is more than the physical “copy-staple-fold” formula that goes into the creation of a zine. Zines are driven by the desire to represent yourself, your friends and lovers, and your culture. “When I decided to make Original Plumbing,” Mac notes, “I didn’t do it to make some sort of profit. I just wanted to get the models stories out there, my photos out there, some trans visibility out there. Nothing existed in magazine form that represented a FTM trans male experience, and I was sick of waiting around. I could see it in my head exactly how I wanted it to look, and I just took it from there and taught myself what to do next: choosing writers, editing, lay-out, finding a printer, etc.”
Small press boutique magazines and zines are created with a love for the medium itself, and a connection to the culture that mainstream publishers simply can’t match. In fact, this failure to connect with readers is one of the driving forces behind this new wave of queer zines. “Mainstream gay magazines aren’t giving us what we want to see,” says Schulz. “[They] don’t connect with creative types at all.”
Butt Magazine, the creation of Jop Van Bennekom and Gert Jonkers, is probably the biggest and most influential gay zine of the current crop. A combination of nude pictorials, essays, lengthy interviews and bright pink pages make it impossible to ignore. Its covers have featured REM’s Michael Stipe, Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, photographer Slava Mogutin, and writer Edmund White. Butt makes high art low and low art high, and isn’t afraid to ask interviewees graphic questions about sex any more than they are about artistic inspiration. While undeniably gay, Butt avoids falling into or promoting preconceived stereotypes about gay men. It’s about sex, about men of all shapes and sizes, about art and culture, influencing its audience as much as it portrays it.
Zines like Butt and Pinups often features models that fall outside of the mainstream media’s idea of attractive. Schulz’s models aren’t the hairless muscled men of fashion magazines and big-budget pornography. They’re softer, scruffier, and more realistic. “I remember wanting to make Pinups because there were too few magazines—only a couple small publications—putting out the kind of imagery I wanted to see,” he says.
Schulz’s sentiment is one that resonates in the gay zine community and their audience. “Naked images of men back in the day were so raw and natural that most everyone could relate to [the] models,” says Ankenbauer.
In fact, the sex is often front and center. “Sex is fun and it sells. Bodies are beautiful and exciting to photograph and write about. When you push boundaries, you’re creating new, exciting culture that makes people think, whether it gets them excited or angry. Pushing boundaries with self-expression is the whole point of art,” says Mac.
Rather than positioning themselves as alternatives to mainstream fare, some boutique zines, such as portrait photographer Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s Shoot, function as one-man exhibits of artistic expression. Each issue features a collection of images from a photo shoot, displaying a sequence rather than a single frame, that reveal a small piece of Sepuya’s relationships with his models. Shoot is at one end of a broad spectrum of what zines are, and what they can be.
While zines were once intimately regional, the use of the Internet has allowed them to flourish through on-line networking. In the past, getting your hands on certain zines could be difficult if you didn’t live near a store that carried small press publications, let alone the zine you were interested in. Now zines are created and distributed on a global scale. Most creators avail themselves of websites and blogs, and use social media to foster community. Tools like Facebook and Twitter help publishers stay in touch with their audience and to hook up with collaborators, while dedicated websites give readers a place to find and order zines.
Publishing hasn’t always been in the hands of the conglomerates, and it won’t always be in the future. As AA Bronson, director of Printed Matter, Inc. (a zine repository/museum/shop) writes in his introduction to Queer Zines (the closest thing to a written history and overview of gay zines): “Ultimately, the best models for the zines themselves are other zines: They are a community in constant communication.” While today’s crop of zines is building on the past, they’re also fueling one another.
Today’s zine creators are using the medium to represent their world on their own terms. They’re poised to succeed because they’re inspired by passion, not driven by the bottom line. “I worked incredibly hard in a short amount of time to get the magazine out there without using a second of my energy to think about something like profit,” says Mac. “When you don’t have any money to start with and you have the incredible support of a community behind you and everyone is excited for the project to exist, you don’t have anything to lose.”