It’s been two weeks since I attended the Chicago Zine Festival (CZF), but I still feel the aftershocks of love, community, excitement, and exhaustion. In my experience, zine festivals and alternative comics expos are designed with accessibility in mind. There is no entrance fee or admission cost is very low, events take place during typical non-working hours, and organizers are as mindful of dietary and accessibility needs as their budgets allow. CZF is no exception.
On Friday night the festival offered a panel titled Permission Not Granted: Women of Color and the Politics of Zines, and an exhibitor reading that featured eleven zinesters who presented a wide variety of prose, poetry, and comics. Workshop Chicago hosted the festival for the evening, and the organizers provided free snacks and drinks. Saturday’s exhibition and workshops took place at Plumber’s Union Hall, with gender neutral bathrooms, elevators, food trucks outside providing nearby, reasonably priced food, and a quiet reading room full of zines for people to seek refuge from the trying nature of a busy, noisy crowd. I was able to enjoy workshops, meet awesome zinesters, and blow some hard-earned money on really rad stuff without missing an hour of work.
If you’ve never attended a zine festival and are a little wary of going, I’d like to give you a taste of the wonders that await you. I’ll discuss a couple of the panels and readings that made CZF a diverse and engaging experience and give you a taste of what it’s like to walk the exhibition floor.
Permission Not Granted: Women of Color and the Politics of Zines featured Leila Abdelrazaq, a comic artist whose work often focuses on the Palestinian cause, Sarah Gonzalez, a teacher who not only makes zines but also uses them in her classroom, and Monika Estrella-Negra, founder of Audre’s Revenge Film and Black and Brown Punk Show Chicago. The panel was moderated by Monica Trinidad, a founding member of Brown & Proud Press. Each panelist presented or read a bit of their own work and discussed using zines to elevate the often-erased voices of people of color in their communities.
I was particularly struck by Estrella-Negra’s description of using her zines, film and other work as a method of, as she brilliantly put it, “creating spaces for spaces that have never held space for us.” Each of the panelists use their work in this way. Gonzalez discussed putting her students and community members in zines to show them that their art is as valuable as traditionally published work; Abdelrazaq recalled using zines to disseminate information on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement against Israeli Apartheid, and Estrella-Negra talked about critiquing horror films that devalue black and brown people. It was a fantastic panel, and, as a horror fan, I left particularly excited to find more of Estrella-Negra’s work.
On Saturday I only had time to attend one panel: Drawing Out the Issues: Comics Journalism, led by the Ladydrawers Comics Collective. The Ladydrawers, in their own words, are “an unofficially affiliated group that researches, performs, and publishes comics and texts about how economics, race, sexuality, and gender impact the comics industry, other media, and our culture at large.” During the panel, they explained a bit about their methods, the motivation behind collecting data on woman and non-binary people in comics, and their latest, biggest project: The book Threadbare. (Watch out for a review of Threadbare on WWAC soon!)
As someone who is familiar with the Ladydrawers’ work and has a general idea of the how difficult the comics industry is for women, trans, and non-binary creators, I was still surprised to learn that the term “comics” is so highly gendered that many femme-identified people won’t even identify as comics creators. Yikes. The Ladydrawers’ drive to present this kind of crucial information through an accessible, widely disseminated medium like comics was incredibly inspiring. Because their workshop took place during the exhibition it wasn’t very well attended, but it was excellent, and I highly recommend future CZF attendees make time to check out the Saturday workshops and panels!
I won’t discuss all eleven of the zinesters who participated in the reading, but each them was wonderful. As we moved from serious topics to humorous stories to melancholic reflections, the audience—and it was not a small audience—laughed, sighed, and fell into hushed awe together. To give you an idea of the range of stories, poems, and comics we enjoyed that night, I’ll highlight a few standouts: Rachel and Sari, the zinesters behind Hoax, a queer, feminist compilation zine that you can contribute to, Jonas Cannon, known largely for his zine series Cheer the Eff Up, and Marnie Galloway, whose hardcover book In the Sounds and Seas just debuted at TCAF.
Sari read a selection from Thou Shalt Not Talk about the White Boys’ Club, a zine that addresses how punk circles that feel they are being radical and progressive often fail to address white privilege, and Rachel read a new piece that listed reasons why the word “tender” is terrible. While these readings were very different, Rachel commented on how people often use their minority identities as shields against facing their privileges. This, and other items on the list, circled brilliantly back to Sari’s examination of how punks avoid actively combating white supremacy.
Cannon read his piece after a few more serious readings and, in a rare move, told a hilarious story that had the whole audience in stitches. Slowly but deliberately, Cannon guided us through the emotional roller coaster of spending an evening in a bar and realizing that the band’s entire set is actually one song, “Slow Ride,” performed the exact same way, over and over. I never want to attend a Slow Ride concert, but I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing it through Cannon’s eyes.
Galloway’s reading was a beautiful, interactive presentation of a comic. Her zine Particle/Wave presents two stories that both meet in the literal middle of the zine; it can be read starting with either cover. Galloway projected the comics for us to see and read us each story. It was a deeply emotional wind-down to the event; one of the stories describes a ritual mourning and left me embarrassingly teary-eyed. (I’m not a fan of public crying.)
The experience of walking the exhibition floor is the hardest to describe. It is at once overwhelming and exciting; the space is filled with table after table of gorgeous art, buttons, stickers, and unique creations such as books folded into cassette tape holders and brightly patterned cootie catchers. These wares beckon to your wallet, asking to empty it. However, the exhibition floor is very crowded, and attendees must balance interacting with zinesters (fun!) with navigating around oodles of people (less fun).
I am not a big fan of crowds and am always nervous to meet artists or creators whose work I admire, so the combination of both kinds of nerves can make the exhibition a difficult experience. However, I had multiple awesome, energizing interactions with zinesters that helped me deal with the social roller coaster of fighting through a crowd. Each time I paused to compliment an artist on their gory horror prints or hilarious joke-zines, I remembered that once I managed to get through all the people, I’d get to meet another awesome, endearing zinester.
If, like me, you get crowd-nervous, I would recommend having a friend or two along who can help you process each interaction and fill up the awkward moments with chatter. I didn’t take advantage of the quiet reading room until the end of the day, but had I been able to get there earlier I definitely would’ve taken a break to read some zines and shut out people for a while.
When I left Chicago Zine Fest, I was overwhelmed by how connected I felt to this fast, complex world of self-publishers. The mainstream media we consume feels so far away, but in just a couple hours I’d had real conversations with real people whose art now filled up my backpack. There’s something special and magical about that experience that can’t really be described. You’ve just got to go see it for yourself!
Chicago Zine Fest organizers: Thank you for everything. You’re wonderful. I hope you spent the last two weeks napping. I can’t wait to go to next year’s show!