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The Humans Would Like a Word

What's more personal than reading a letter, more aesthetically interesting than your average glossy magazine, warmer than the Internet and responsible for redeeming reading itself for at least one man on Earth? Zines, according to documentarian Joel Biel, whose film $100 and a T-Shirt is just part of Microcosm Publishing's Cocoon: The Road Trip--a zine, video and book tour stopping at Reader's Oasis at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 9 (3400 E. Speedway, No. 114).

For those not familiar with zines--which can also be written 'zine, though I firmly believe they've earned the right to drop the apostrophe since they're much more than abbreviated magazines--Biel defines them this way:

"They're basically a self-published magazine where your intention is more to express yourself before making money, so even if you're selling it, you're generally not having print advertisements or goals beyond sharing yourself or teaching something or having fun.

"It's quite a bit like reading a letter," he adds. "It makes you really feel like you're reading something intimate, sharing openly. There's really no bounds to what's covered; that's the thing that people (who aren't familiar with zines) don't understand. There really aren't any limitations to what's acceptable."

While zines tend to get pegged as what Biel calls "a youth culture thing," he points out that a lot of zine authors working today are in their 30s, 40s and older, and covering a staggeringly broad field of subject matter.

"About 10 or 11 years ago," he says, "I'd given up on reading, mostly because of school and having been fed books that I wasn't interested in. I was going to see a lot of rock shows then, and there were a lot of people bringing zines that they'd made and either giving them away or selling them at the shows. I started picking them up, and it got me interested in reading again. It was some of the best writing I had ever encountered up until that point, so I started pursuing it, writing to addresses and following every lead I could until I had enough information to satiate my interest. And now, it's really the central focus of my life."

Due to Biel's accumulated zine knowledge, he became known as a zine expert around the Portland area, where he lives, and began getting invitations to teach students at the University of Oregon and local high schools about zines. After showing one high-school class what Biel considered "a sort of lackluster documentary (about zines) that I didn't think was comprehensive enough," he decided it was time for a better film to be made, and he started pressuring people in the community to get it done.

"When I couldn't get anyone else to do it," he says, "I resigned myself to having to do it myself." The result, $100 and a T-Shirt, took him 2 1/2 years to complete.

What makes a man devote that much time to the scribbling of strangers, packaged in ways that Biel admits are often "less than aesthetically appealing?" (It should be understood that there are some remarkable exceptions to the grubby-little-booklet norm--zines with beautiful illustrations or printed in the shape of matchbooks and piglets.)

"Zines are off-the-cuff," says Biel, "really honest and personal in a way that's hard to find in our society today. People are sharing information and their feelings, and maybe they're comfortable expressing something (in zine format) that I wouldn't encounter in my day-to-day life.

"Most of my education has come from reading zines about topics that I wouldn't have pursued otherwise," he adds. "I learned how to fix bicycles from a zine; I've learned about the different processes of socialization--I mean, to be a woman or a queer in society, to have that reflection on what they have to go through, that's something I wouldn't experience otherwise. You get a lot about music that you never would otherwise, and history ... there's one zine about the abuses that are happening to women who go across the border between Texas and Mexico, how women are turning up missing, and it's not reported in the news. You don't get that anywhere else."

While the kind of personal reflections of zine authors might set tech-savvy readers comparing them to bloggers, the two forms of direct-delivery communication have some substantial differences.

"You can't take a blog on the bus," says Biel. "And the thing that people talk about a lot in the video ($100 and a T-Shirt) is that the nature of the Internet is a lot colder than zines. People (online) have a tendency to be blunt and even mean, less respectful of other people's ideas and opinions. With zines, it's a lot more laborious to get to the point of printing and distributing, so hopefully the writers think more. ... "

Biel is currently traveling with Dave Roach and Jack Saturn. Roach, who started publishing a zine about his experiences as a substitute special-ed assistant, turned his writings into a full-length book, On Subbing. Jack Saturn's zine, We Ain't Got No Car, is a 256-page missive that Biel describes as "mostly about human interaction.

"A lot of the people who show up (at tour stops) know what zines are, or maybe think they do but have never made a zine, and want to," says Biel. "There are parents and kids ... we never really know what to expect. The best audiences, though," he adds, "are always when you see punks sitting next to grandparents."

For more information, call Reader's Oasis at 319-7887 or visit www.microcosmpublishing.com.

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