Creative McGill students are building a niche community centred around zines—small-sized, low-circulation publications. Historically used as a tool for marginalized groups to publish content, zines house dialogue that does not ascribe to mainstream rhetoric. Now, groups of university students are using zines to address pertinent social and political issues.
On the McGill campus, students have used zines to start alternative conversations. For instance, F WORD Montreal is a biannual publication that was started in Winter 2014 by a group of like-minded McGill students frustrated by the lack of feminist publications on campus. Judy Huang, U3 Science and Immunology, has been part of the collective since 2015 and believes a close-knit community is central to zine culture.
“[The] heart of zine making is the community itself,” Huang said. “[Zines] are often more niche than literary magazines or scientific journals […which] makes [them] a really great platform to link students together […] to find other people who are interested in the same things.”
While the collective accepts members from all over Montreal, the F WORD community is mostly comprised of McGill undergraduate students. The publication features original visual and written content that discusses feminism, and holds launch parties for like minded individuals across the city.
“As a collective, we also hold events to celebrate and promote our zines,” Huang said. “We usually try to feature other Montreal artists, poets, musicians, and more.”
Though F Word is a venue for broadly feminist content, for many student associations, zines are a means to raise awareness for their unique mandate. McGill’s Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (MORSL), which aims to promote religious literacy on campus, has been publishing its own zine for 18 years. With five instalments per year, Radix collects student poetry, short fiction, visual art, and photography—all on the theme of religious literacy.
“As Radix is specifically designated by MORSL as McGill’s student spirituality magazine, we act as a medium for McGill’s creative body,” Radix editor Mackenzie Roop, U4 Arts, said. “In this way, Radix really serves a niche community.”
Roop aims for Radix to be a space for students to express their spiritual needs and conflicts. She believes zines are especially well-suited to this purpose, because zine-makers work outside of traditional publishing channels, allowing for more freedom in content and style.
“It feels good to be able to have a space for thoughts that seem to have no direct application [and] to recognize and work the inner perceptions and beliefs of one’s life, which are kept separate and thus often deemed ‘less important’ than professional or educational pursuit. It’s quite a magical and special safe space for all beliefs to come alive together, as a living and breathing process, but also a physical reality.”
While all of Radix’s issues dating back to 2000 can be accessed digitally on the MORSL website, Roop believes that the physicality of zines plays a role in their popularity.
“The translation of the invisible mental and emotional processes, God, [and] the spirit,[into the] physical has been [at] the forefront of human pursuits for millennia,” Roop said. “A zine is the very essence of this [translation].”
Roop’s broad definition is useful insofar as it pinpoints the expressive freedom of the medium. But because some zines are produced at a larger scale than others, the term “zine” can be an elusive classification. Zoe Shaw, U3 Arts, is an editor of The VEG, one of McGill’s student-run creative writing zines. She believes that the label comes with a certain flexibility.
“I’m not entirely sure what we would consider a zine,” Shaw said. “When I think of zines, I think of small handbound chapbooks, but of course, it can mean other things. To me, a zine is really what you make of it.”
The VEG, founded by McGill students 14 years ago, is based in the McGill Department of English and publishes student contributors’ prose and poetry alongside visual art. The current team has worked to make its issues smaller and more portable, which Shaw hopes makes the content feel approachable.
“One of our favourite things to do when we publish a new issue is to just leave it around everywhere,” Shaw said. “In the Department of English, we have all these debates about the materiality of texts. But it’s really fun to be able to read poems in a [small book] you can take out of your jacket pocket or [from] between the pages of your agenda.”
The VEG is primarily based at McGill […] but tries to foster connections outside of McGill and encourages alumni in Montreal to stay involved.
“The founders really just wanted a place for younger readers and writers to be able to access the artistic work of the community at and around McGill,” Shaw said. “We’ve had a McGill [alumnus] who is doing a graduate program at UM help out because he was in the neighbourhood. The VEG is really a community open to anyone who catches on, and can keep up with our schedule.”
As The VEG is open to submissions from all over the world, the zine has featured contributors from cities such as Toronto and Las Vegas. Shaw recalls one fond experience of communicating with an artist based outside of Montreal.
“The contributor was involved in the Toronto creative scene, but he was able to come to the launch and perform,” Shaw said. “It was this pure moment of swapping between communities.”
The Department of English Student’s Association (DESA) recognized how zines bring individuals together by hosting a zine fair on campus earlier this semester. The student association elects a VP Journals & Affiliates every year, who works to strengthen connections between the English department and local literary publications.
Sylvie Schwartz, U3 Arts, is the outgoing DESA VP Journals. While she works primarily with academic journals, Schwartz believes that self-publishing is a crucial avenue for university students.
“I think self-publishing is mainly important because it showcases student work,” Schwartz said. “Especially at McGill, [which doesn’t have] a fine arts or creative writing program, self-published journals and other related organizations are the main resources for students to showcase their creative output.”
To discover new zines, McGill students can head over to Quebec Public Interest Research Group (QPIRG)-McGill at the corner of University and des Pins, which maintains an extensive zine library. However, zine culture extends far beyond the Roddick Gates. Since 2002, Montreal has hosted EXPOZINE, Canada’s largest annual comic, small press, and zine fair. With vendors sharing content produced in both English and French, EXPOZINE has been vital in creating a space in the Montreal community to showcase alternative publishing. Another downtown resource is ARTEXTE, a library, research centre, and exhibition collective which held a zine-making workshop at McGill in January 2018..
The burgeoning zine community speaks to the limits of traditional modes of publishing. For students plagued with dense syllabi, reading and making zines can be a unique source of comfort.
“The low circulation of zines makes it easy for a person to put all of [themself] out there and express a degree of emotional vulnerability,” Huang said. “It really lends to a softer reading experience.”
For Shaw, reading zines on her way to campus has rekindled her interest in creative writing.
“I spend three hours commuting a day on public transit [and] it’s hard to just bring out my Norton Anthology of Shakespeare on the metro,” Shaw said. “I took some of the zines lying around in my house, and began reading them. [As] it is my last semester, it’s been really nice to get little snippets of poetry and short fiction and essays while I’ve been standing on the metro. It refreshes my mind, and reminds me why I read poetry.”
As finals season rears its ugly head, and textbooks and MyCourses tabs gather strength in numbers, leisurely reading can feel like a distant memory, and creative pursuits a long forgotten pipe dream. Picking up a zine can remind us that reading and writing don’t need to be dictated by a syllabus, rigorously edited and fuelled by caffeine—there is a whole community of zine makers and readers out there who are the very proof of that.