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Behind the Zines : So what if they aren't 'real' journalists. Do-it-yourself magazine publishers are offering a peek into fringe cultures, oddball obsessions and unsung life styles.


Ben Is Dead. Screambox! bOING bOING.

These are a few of the zines-- idiosyncratic, home-grown publications abounding with erotic comics, features on performance artists like Torture Chorus, instructions for making your own CDs and ads for nose rings and pheromones.

Thanks to the increasing affordability of photocopying and desktop publishing equipment, practically anyone can be an ersatz Citizen Kane.

"We've created a whole magazine and nobody knows anything about journalism," says 24-year-old Darby Romeo, creator, publisher, editor and--according to the masthead-- femme fatale of Ben Is Dead, produced in her apartment.

Skip the newsstands. You can pick up the zines at independent bookstores like Amok on Vermont in the Los Feliz area, at Tower Records and at some coffee houses.

Some are free. The cost of many is about the same as mainstream magazines--$2 to $4. Articles and ads run to the young and underground in books, music, videos, clubs, fashions.

Each offers a peek into a different fringe culture, oddball obsession or unsung lifestyle. Some are slick; others, a couple of badly typed sheets stapled together. Circulations range from a handful to the thousands. A few manage to keep a fairly consistent production schedule, although irregular appearances appear to be the rule.

All are idiosyncratic. Most are naughty and irreverent. Frequently, zines are tasteless.

As to an all-encompassing definition, "it's one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it things," says Mike Gunderloy, an Albany, N.Y.-based archivist and co-author of the recently released "The World of Zines," a catalogue of more than 400 such publications.

"The best we were able to do (for a definition) was 'a zine is any small publication that's done for love rather than money.' "

Among the most venerable here is Pasadena-based Flipside, which has been around for more than a decade mixing poetry and fiction with reports on underground rock and roll and youth culture--common themes in the zine world. Its production values seldom rise above tightly packed type and cheaply reproduced black-and-white photographs.

Ben Is Dead, like Flipside, covers underground youth culture in non-slick black and white.

"I never learned anything about how to put a magazine together. We're faking it all the way," says Romeo, who began publishing in 1988 after her father gave her his old computer. The name came from a dream she had that her soon-to-be ex-husband was dead.

The popular, though as yet unprofitable, local zine has its editorial offices in the Miracle Mile apartment Romeo shares with roommate/co-editor Kerin Morataya.

She started the publication, Romeo says, so she wouldn't have to pay for records or admission to clubs. "I was desperate and broke at the time." As a publisher, she gets into clubs free, and bands send her review copies of their records.

Each Ben Is Dead issue explores a theme. The glamour issue featured items like "Beauty-En-Mort," "Voodoo and You: Releasing the Beauty Within," "The Guide to the Perfect Car Crash," and other "service" pieces unlikely to be duplicated in the pages of Vogue.

Besides increasing circulation from 1,000 to 16,000 copies per issue and achieving a commensurate improvement in size and slickness--plus raising the price from free to $2.50--Ben Is Dead has even spun off a sister publication, The I Hate Brenda Newsletter, devoted to vicious gossip about Shannen Doherty of Fox TV's "Beverly Hills, 90210."

Gays and lesbians are another major zine-producing subculture, generating hundreds of what they call "queer zines."

Publishers of these zines have held two national conventions, the most recent of which, SPEW II, a sort of festival of networking, music and art, was held in February at the Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition (LACE).

This zine category includes such titles as Better Homos and Gardens, Su Madre, Teen Mom and the lesbian-oriented Screambox! The genre squarely tackles issues like gay-bashing and AIDS and also serves up the usual poetry, literature and countercultural news, usually accompanied with a heavier dollop of dark humor than found in the mainstream gay publications--such as the Disease Pariah News, published in Oakland.

"Zines are a rejection of mass popularity," says Dennis Cooper, novelist and SPEW II curator. "It's less about getting interested in numbers and is more about speaking the truth and finding comrades. The queer zines are the same. It's kind of organized in this weird subculture, finding the people who relate and seeing how many there are."

There's no defined audience or subject for the eccentric The Last Prom, a cheap ($1), pamphlet-sized repository for the esoteric whimsy of Burbank-based author/publisher Ralph Coon, whose editor's note says, "I will try to unearth as much arcane knowledge as I possibly can on the given topic. This isn't a radio station so don't write me requesting that I cover a certain subject. Start your own zine."

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