woman reading in the library
This year the Barnard Zine Library is specifically looking to add Covid-19 zines to its collection.

Photo courtesy of Aarushi Jain.

Back before blogs and social media, if you wanted to share your niche thoughts with a wider audience, zines were just the ticket.

Anybody could make and publish a zine — it might be one page, folded into a tiny booklet, or a stapled serial with many pages. All you needed were some ideas, some paper and access to a photocopier.

I wrote a monthly music zine for two years when I was in high school. When the pandemic pressed pause on my birthday plans back in March, I decided to mail a new zine to my friends who I couldn’t see. The Strange Times, which I designed like a small-town newspaper, now goes out to 90 friends around the world.

Zines never really went away — the New York Times wrote a story about how zines were back in 2011 — but the pandemic has made space for analog creative projects.

“It does seem there’s an increase in zinesters writing about the pandemic because that’s what everybody is experiencing,” says Liz Mason, the manager of Quimby’s in Chicago, a staple of zine distribution since 1991. She has noticed that people seem “interested in making and buying zines about healing, mental health and crafts right now.”

Making zines is the perfect outlet to process thoughts and feelings, document this wild year and stay connected to people who are physically far away.

Creating distanced community

At the start of 2020, Mindy Tsonas was starting a dream job doing creative workshops near Boston. Then the pandemic hit. But she used the time and space to figure out what she wanted to do with her life, and she started the Be Seen Project, a community of BIPOC activist artists and makers.

“The first seeds were planted five years ago while working through my own identities — as a woman, person of color, transnational adoptee, queer. Wouldn’t it be cool for people to be able to be seen in all the ways they are?” she remembers. When our world changed with the pandemic in March and the murder of George Floyd in May, Tsonas realized what she needed to create.

“As someone who is not white, it was important for me personally and professionally to create a community to reflect me and embrace me,” she says. She had wondered: “Can we change organizations and systems from the inside out, or do we have to tear them down and start from scratch? Creating the Be Seen Project was starting from scratch for BIPOC, leveraging creativity to push the needle on social justice and human rights.”

While considering ways to highlight artists outside of Instagram, she thought “a DIY, countercultural manifestation is just perfect for this project.” The first issue of the seasonal zine will be going out to supporters this month. She expects it will be 12 letter-size sheets folded in half and stapled, in an edition of about 100.

Katie Garth and Tracy Honn had been thinking about creating a project like the Quarantine Public Library for a long time, but the pandemic also set them into action. They met when Honn ran the printing museum at the University of Wisconsin Madison and Garth was a student there.

“I thought it would be cool to do a book-arts exhibit online that anyone could access and download,” Honn remembers. “Katie took it and realized it had potency now.”

The duo invited dozens of artists to contribute books that fit on just one sheet of paper. You print it out, fold it up into sixteenths, and voila — you have an art book. They’re DIY, distributable and shareable.

During lockdown artist Tricia Robinson taught herself how to make zines. The resulting project, Stay Home Collabs, is a collaboration with other artists.

Photo courtesy of Tricia Robinson.

“Time is really elastic and confusing right now,” Garth says. The artists like “having something direct, simple and discrete to do, having a deadline and knowing it will come to fruition. It’s nice to have a small anchor when everything else is really foggy.”

When they started, they worked quickly, thinking the pandemic could be over at any time and not wanting to miss the opportunity — which they now realize was wishful thinking — “but that was probably part of the success of it, having something feel urgent,” Garth says.

The first batch of artists was already invited to contribute before the George Floyd protests began, and in response, the duo created the Pocket Protest Guide, a quick introduction to your rights and tips for staying safe during demonstrations.

“It’s important to realize that these small containers don’t have to be casual creations. They can be a way of distributing form and meaning to people but having pretty ambitious content,” Garth says. “Something about putting work on paper gives you permission to do something you might not otherwise do. Printing it gives you distance in a way that publishing it online doesn’t.”

Honn agrees: “Zines are the perfect way to meet the moment.”

Documenting an uncertain time

Libraries and archives have been paying attention to independent publishing for many years.

The Library of Congress Washington Center for the Book started “Sheltered in Place: COVID-19 Zine Diaries Project” this year. They’re collecting pandemic stories from people living in Washington state to hold at three libraries and to potentially include in a zine anthology.

“There are very low barriers to creating and publishing zines, so this facilitates storytelling in our communities and allows libraries to really expand on their local collections,” Sara Peté of the Washington State Library says. “Because there are less barriers to publishing zines, that also means that it is a format that more easily allows those with marginalized voices to tell their stories.”

The zine format can be a comfort, a creative outlet to work through issues, and it can be a way to get offline. “As the school year starts again, I am hoping that this project might be for teachers to share with their students,” Peté says.

The collection of the Barnard College’s Zine Library, run by Jenna Freedman, focuses on zines made by women and non-binary people.

“It’s important to me that zines come out of an anarchopunk, DIY tradition, that there are politics behind them, and generosity,” she says. “People who make the zines I most like to read are people who are writing for a peer community, to share experiences and knowledge, or to self-document life for people holding marginalized identities. People writing for peers don’t have to explain themselves or meet external expectations.”

This year, they’re specifically collecting Covid-19 zines to add to their archive. “I like to read what people wouldn’t say online, what they want to limit to a smaller audience,” Friedman says. People who made zines before the pandemic are still producing them, but there’s also been a big uptick in new zinesters. “It seems to me that there are a lot more first-time and zine-a-day zine makers since quarantine started, in no small part thanks to Malaka Gharib’s workshops.”

Gina McMillen started a 100 day project creating zines and posting them to her Instagram account. They’re funny and inspired by her everyday life as a mom.

Harnessing creativity

I had noticed Malaka Gharib, too. She’s the author of “I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir,” about being first-generation Filipino-Egyptian-American. Like me, Gharib started making zines when she was a teenager. Reprints of her high school music zine, Sever, are available in her shop.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was making them to process what was happening,” she says. But committing to regular publication without an end date was too much. “I am still getting used to the new schedule of working from home — and finding a replacement for sitting at a coffee shop and drawing, too. I now make little zines in breaks in my day.”

Her most recent zines have been about moving to Nashville from Washington, D.C. — they’re little diaries documenting the transitions in her life and in the world. The zine workshop Gharib led for the Believer (which you can watch right here) drew almost 600 people of all ages to the livestream. “It was so heartwarming to see people making art together,” she says.

Many people are using zine collaborations as a coping method. Tricia Robinson of Montreal created StayHomeCollabs in response to the Covid-19 pandemic to try to help artists financially. She had always wanted to try making zines but didn’t know where to start. During lockdown, she taught herself how to design, print, package and ship them from home.

“I needed something to pour my creative energy into and wanted to collaborate and help other artists, too,” she says. “It really inspired me despite everything being so uncertain and stressful.”

It’s an idea anyone can replicate: “Collaborative zines are a great way to get together with other artists who are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings during the pandemic as you,” she says. It’s both a creative outlet and a source of income.

Gina McMillen of Phoenix started freelancing as an illustrator at the end of 2019 but felt stifled sitting in front of the computer for so long. She decided to bust her creative block with a 100-day project of making a mini comic zine every day.

“I have always loved the DIY creativity behind zines,” she says. “My zines are mostly funny and inspired by my everyday life as a mom of two.”

McMillen started noticing quaranzines in March. The #quaranzine hashtag on Instagram has 7,300 posts and counting. Then in June her feed was full of zines about social justice and systemic racism. “I’m sure zines aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”


Grace Dobush

Grace Dobush


Grace Dobush is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and the author of the Crafty Superstar business guides. Grace has written about business and creative entrepreneurship for publications including Fortune, Wired, Quartz, Handelsblatt and The Washington Post. 

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