Fandoms sometimes get a bad rep. And, you know what, that’s fair—in any fandom, there’s always going to be those small but vocal minorities of die-hard followers who often make certain corners of a fandom unpleasant for casual fans. I would love to talk about fandom at large, and the various stigmas attached to it—but for today, I have something else on the agenda. Instead, I’d like to shed some light on a more wholesome, admirable aspect of fandom, one that isn’t all that well-known, but should be: fanzines.

A fanzine, as you may be able to piece together from the name, is a portmanteau of “fandom” and “magazine”. “Zines”, as they’re even more colloquially called, are non-official, non-professional publications produced by fans, for fans. And they’re not a recent phenomenon—it may come as a surprise that they date as far back as the 1940s, to a time when the Internet wasn’t available to instantly connect people to others who shared their hobbies. Instead of forums or Tumblr or social media, there were classified ads in the newspaper and local conventions at which you could buy or sell these zines.

The first fanzine (first published in May 1930 by the Science Correspondence Club in Chicago, Illinois).

It might sound like a lot of effort for something that the creators of the zine sometimes don’t even profit out of, until you remember that back then, without the instantaneous connective nature of the Internet, finding fellow enthusiasts of a niche group was far more difficult than it is today, and spreading fan content was much harder. And there’s intrinsic satisfaction in creating and sharing fanworks, too, whether it’s self-indulgent fanart or exploratory fanfiction. When you have niche interests, you want to be able to talk about them and share them with others who share your same level of passion—zines were, and still are, a way to do that.

Now, zines have changed a lot over the years—back in the old days, it was all science fiction zines, comic zines, and zines for things you wouldn’t traditionally associate nowadays with mainstream or popular fandom (but definitely had respectable followings back then): punk and rock n’ roll zines, sports zines, horror film zines, and so on and so forth.

Zines these days are centered much more around what you’d expect from “fandom”: popular anime series, big movie franchises, TV shows with massive online fan presence, and so on. Smaller zines may exist to cater to smaller fandoms, lesser-known movies or manga or comics; zines may also exist to cater to niches-within-niches, such as those centered around a specific character or ship (meaning a relationship between two fictional characters, if you’ve been living under a rock for the past ten years) or a specific theme (steampunk, fantasy, summertime, Elizabethan; even especially if the original work never incorporated those elements).

A zine, with much additional merch, centered on three of the main villains in the popular manga and anime series My Hero Academia.

But why do zines still exist today, you might ask, if you can find pretty much anything you want from a fandom with a single search query on Google? After all, you have sites like Tumblr, DeviantArt, LiveJournal, Fanfiction.Net, Reddit, AO3, all free and widely-accessible and there within the click of a mouse. The answer is that it all circles back around to the concept I mentioned earlier: niches-within-niches. Sometimes, you’re a die-hard fan, and sometimes, you have a little money to spare and want physical memorabilia of your favourite characters from your favourite show. It’s a little (or a lot) like merchandise that you might see the official IP-owners selling through official channels—a bit worse in that the quality isn’t professional, but a lot better in that it’s bonus content in the form of art and stories (and even physical merch like pins, posters, and T-shirts).

You might have noticed by this point that I seem to have a very vested interest in this topic, and you’d be right. I’ve participated in the fanzine realm of fandom before, both as a consumer and as a producer. And, though I’ll be the first to admit that I’m somewhat biased, I think the existence of fanzines is an amazing thing. It’s an example of a group of complete strangers joining together and managing to achieve something real and substantial (that takes no small amount of time and dedication), purely based on a single shared passion.

It’s hard to grasp just how much effort is put into zines until you’ve actually been there behind the scenes yourself. You need to set up your platform, whether that’s Tumblr or Twitter or both or whatever else; you need to recruit “moderators” in charge of promotion, visuals, layout, editing, shipping, finance; you need to filter through potentially hundreds of applications from artists and writers who want to be in your zine; you need to keep all your contributors on track throughout the creation process (and without fail a couple of them will drop out or just straight-up ghost you); you need to put together the final book itself, as well as order any added custom merchandise; you need to promote your zine to the fandom and get those pre-orders in; you need to manually package and ship out bundles to fans all around the world.

The less enjoyable form of shipping.

In short—it’s not a walk in the park. But at the end of the day, it’s an enterprise that brings a sense of pride, enthusiasm, and community to what might be a very large and normally impersonal fandom.

If you’re a contributor, you come out of it with something sleek and physical and real, that you can hold in your hands and flip through and enjoy, and in which you can see your own work. You may or may not have turned a profit (maybe you have, but it’s a for-charity zine—those are extra-commendable), but all the same it’s a testament to the effort you’ve put in, and knowing that other fans across the globe bought the zine for your art, or for your writing, is a thrill all on its own.

If you’re a buyer, you nevertheless appreciate that the reason you can hold this zine in your hands (a zine that you’ve possibly been eagerly awaiting for months) is because of the dedication of fans just like you (but good at creative stuff), who’ve volunteered their free time to help undertake this behemoth project. And for a fair price (around $20 for a physical copy, more for merch), you get to geek out at an anthology of talented content catering to all your favourite things.

The enterprise of fanzines is one that many people—even fans—still don’t know much about. Most of the people I’ve mentioned zines to have had no idea what they were, but after an brief explanation would generally react with some degree of curiosity and an “oh, that’s pretty cool”. Zines are a lesser-known aspect of fandom culture that provide a much-needed counterpoint to the common view that fandoms are a toxic mess of opinionated super-fans; something that detracts from the average fan’s experience, rather than adding to it. But zines are the very definition of something that comes directly from fandom and that enhances one’s experience—they’re a true labour of love, and firm proof that yes, fandoms can actually be pretty damn awesome.