Broken Pencil, Canada’s only journal of zine culture and independent arts, turns 20 this year. Founder Hal Niedzviecki is now a culture critic and fiction writer who has published 10 books since the magazine’s inception. In a conversation with current Broken Pencil editor Alison Lang, Niedzviecki reflects on the magazine’s early days and how zine culture has changed (and survived) over the past two decades.
How did you and (former Broken Pencil co-editor) Hilary Clark find publications to feature and review for the first issue?
We were just discovering everything. For us, it was all new. Everything seemed the same. There was no distinction between Geist or a zine. We had a callout and people started sending shit. And I went to a bunch of stores and bought stuff.
In the first few issues you included reviews of everything from SubTerrain and This Magazine to a series of pagan newsletters being produced in B.C. The scene then was really underground, very anti-everything, sort of punk, and there was still that belief that you could be edgy. You had the feeling there were certain types of cultures that were really separate from the mainstream and uncolonizable.
Can you define anything that felt particularly Canadian about some of these early ’90s zines?
There was an onslaught of publications that couldn’t decide whether they were zines or literary magazines – like Zygote, out of Winnipeg. There was Asleep at the Wheel, and Urban Graffiti out of Edmonton. Blood & Aphorisms was also half zine, half “it” magazine. It tried to become a mainstream lit magazine, but it didn’t work out. Jones Ave. was a poetry zine out of Toronto that verged on a literary mag. Caustic Truth was another.
It was a unique Canadian genre – these magazines had literary pretensions but didn’t want to go all the way. They had edgier content. It was pre-Internet. It seemed like there was more need and more space for that kind of thing. There were bookstores and record stores and video stores where you could bring your publications. The Internet killed a lot of good things.
There were outposts of super cool zines – they felt like the cornerstones of these small towns. You could read a zine and get a sense of all the personalities, all the cool bands, and all the places people hung out in these communities. We don’t really have that anymore. Not to be nostalgic or anything, but it was a different time, and in some ways, it was more awesome. There would be constant references to certain stores, certain venues, certain scenes. I remember zines like Montreal’s Fish Piss that published early work by Golda Fried and Jonathan Goldstein, and certain comic anthologies like Sunburn out of Winnipeg, and Don’t Touch Me, published by Dave Howard. To some extent they were aspirational.
There’s not as much of that gleeful nihilism anymore that I associate with the ‘90s. It seems like zinemakers aren’t that ironic today. The zines are much more earnest and emphatic.
That’s especially true if zinemakers see that act of creation as more of a steppingstone to something else – some sort of career move. But at that time, in the ’90s, we had that slacker gen-X kinda thing, and people had this view: “We’re not going anywhere!” Looking back at it now, I see that in fact people didn’t want to go anywhere. They were happy in their own misery. There was less insecurity about the world, the economy, climate change. You could easily say: “Okay, I can screw around in my twenties and then go and get a job in my thirties. Who cares?” Now it’s like, “I only have one chance!”
Did you find reading zines opened doors for your own creative evolution?
Yeah, definitely. Broken Pencil emerged out of my writing fiction. I never made my own zine, but I published in at least 10 of them and I wanted to get more attention for this whole scene that I really loved. All of my non-fiction writing started from developing a critical voice writing about zines.
This story appeared in Q&Q’s 80th anniversary feature in the April 2015 print issue.