Zines. Short for magazine or fanzine. Small-circulation publications, usually made on a cheap library photocopier. Usually a thousand copies or less of each issue, if there is in fact more than one issue. You’d think that they’d be the sort of thing that would slip under the radar, but as Underwater Basket Weaving proved, academics can study anything. As it happens, the Graphic Arts department at SMU is lousy with people that study zines; it falls to me, as the SMU Archivist for Visual Arts and Ephemera, to collect them.

Time was, most of the zines were outlets for paranoid schizophrenia on the Francis E. Dec level or extreme right- or left-wing conspiracy nuts. That was still true for a lot of them, but of course those weren’t the ones my faculty wanted me to collect. Like everything else that had once been an authentic mode of expression, zines have also been appropriated by hipsters. Now the field is full of people with art, design, philosophy, or literature degrees taking an inordinate amount of time and their parents’ money to try and design an zine that looks like it cost $0.50 to xerox.

So I write to peers in Berkley, New York, Austin, Ann Arbor asking for them to collect what zines they can find and mail them to me. I get piles of zine comics (the creators spell it with an X, comix, but I reserve that term for authentic stuff) trying desperately to be edgy and relevant and socially conscious. They typically wind up somewhere around “pretentious” instead. Then there’s the reams of bad prose poetry, cut up and pasted onto a sheet of notebook paper before xeroxing to make the tired odes to revolutionary consciousness and Free Tibet seem more authentic than the regurgitated leavings of petit bourgeoisie in denial.

I carefully place them into big acid free boxes while people come by to look and write impressive-sounding papers about these grassroots artforms. I haven’t the heart to tell them it’s astroturf.

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Once they had properly tied me up and set me in a chair–not to mention making unambiguous gestures with their weapons–I was willing to listen to the Elrinists’ demands. “What’s it called?”

The lead Elrinist withdrew a piece of paper from his pocket and reverently unfolded it. “Dirk Chiseler and the Gilded Alchemist of the Sargasso Sea,” he said. “Parts I-XIV, in Astounding Tales magazine. July 7, 1938 thru January 17th 1939.”

I stared at him, thunderstruck.

“Well, do you have it in the archive or don’t you?” he cried. “It’s on the list on your website.”

“Well…” I said, examining the instruments of pain, both blunt and explosive, the Elrinists carried. “Let me get this straight. You want a run of a lousy pulp adventure story from a half-rate magazine?”

“It is the only copy in existence,” the head Elrinist said. “We seek it for the wisdom it carries, delivered from our Mission Commander’s mind before he began his great work. Surrender it to us…or die.”

The deadly seriousness in his voice was too much, and I couldn’t restrain my laughter any longer.