Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine?

Angi Brzycki, Senior Librarian, Digitization & Special Collections,
Artist and Zine-Maker Esther Pearl Watson
Artist and Zine-Maker Esther Pearl Watson

Meet Esther Pearl Watson, a Los Angeles based artist, illustrator, children’s book author and zine maker. Esther and her partner, Mark Todd, published a book on zines called, Whatcha Mean, What’s a Zine in 2006; We've been following her career ever since. The library's collection of Esther's books includes Watcha Mean, as well as many others, such as her comic, Tammy Pierce is Unlovable, her children's books, The Adventures of Jules & GertieTrouble at Sugar Dip Well, and of course her zines; CatnipBlood Lady Commandos!, and The Byronic Hero. Esther recently agreed to talk about zines with us for the LAPL Blog. 

When did you first hear about zines?

EPW: Mark and I were editorial illustrators in NYC in the mid-1990s. Mark made zines as promo samples of his illustration work. There were several art directors in NY who also had other little artist-made books. It wasn't until we moved out to the LA area that I really started paying attention to self-publishing. We went around publishing backwards, starting with mainstream publications and then moving into underground self-publishing.

What was the first zine you made?

EPW: Unlovable was my first zine. Mark made zines in the mid-1990s, but I thought I would be copying his unique promo idea if I made a zine. Then in 2003 I met this whole world of zine makers and realized it was this whole subculture.

What was the first zine you bought or traded?

EPW: Our first zine was Ron Rege Jr's Andy Remembers. It was given to us by the photo editor of Entertainment Weekly. She made a pirated copy because she didn't know if she could find another copy anywhere. I loved the idea that fans kept work in print.

Do you have a zine collection? What's in it? How many? What are some of the more interesting topics?

EPW: I have a huge zine collection that I started in 2005. They are mostly mini-comics and artist zines. Who knows how many, but there are a ton of boxes. I go into my local comic shop and buy boards and bags to keep them safe. I also share them with students at school. There are zines by artists like Chris Johansen, Megan Whitmarsh, and Harry Dodge. There are zines by John Porcellino, Paper Rad, and Eleanor Davis. The smallest zine is by Souther Salazar and is the size of a quarter.

You and Mark Todd published a book, Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine in 2006. The book breaks down every aspect of a zine from its history, how to make it, types of formats, what to say in it, where to sell/trade it, and other resources. What was the inspiration for the book?

EPW: Actually, Mark and I would do a lot of zine workshops in libraries! We were teaching a publishing class at Art Center College of Design and decided to use our notes to put together a book proposal. We thought we could show our students the steps to creating a book dummy and pitching it to a publisher.

You have some pretty awesome contributors; Eric Nakamura (Giant Robot), Artist Ron Rege Jr., Raina Lee, Paper Rad, John Porcellino, and so many more. Was there a "zine scene?" Did you reach out to them to contribute? Was it an open call? What was the collaborative process like for this book?

EPW: Interesting. They were just a bunch of like-minded people we met through zine-making. Looking back, that did feel like a special time and a unique group! We had zines by everyone and asked them for a specific skill. For example, Saelee Oh sewed on her work sometimes, so we asked her to teach how to sew the binding of a zine. The only rule was we wanted it to be a single page or a spread. It was important that it would be carried in school libraries, so we did have to adjust the content of one piece.

Do you think the book made zines "mainstream" and/or accessible to a wider audience? In what ways did it or did it not?

EPW: Well, I don't think our book did much to make zines mainstream—that would be the internet that brought more visibility to a secret world that traded zines by P.O. Box. I do know a lot of school teachers use our book to help create fun ways to get writing published. The internet helps so many with zine formats, distribution, and community building. Another really great book is Stolen Sharpie Revolution. Their website is very useful to zine makers.

The book is now 14 years old? In what ways do you think zine culture has changed?

EPW: There are still many people who ask what it is and how to pronounce it. But there are also many wonderful tabling events with new faces and new zines. There are all kinds of subjects and reasons people make zines that have changed over the years. More artists and designers use a Risograph machine. There are tons of amazing per-zines (personal zines).

You are a successful artist, a published children's book author, illustrator, and comic. Do you still make zines?

EPW: Sure! Not as many as I used to. It’s nice to make a super-fast zine at an office supply store copy machine as a challenge. I bring some writing and tons of images I found in discard books. Sometimes I'll do a small print run to give to the members of my writing group. I've made books about The Brontes Bookshelf, and another one about blurred people in paintings and photos.

Or plan a zine out a bit more and work with a printer. It's nicer to hand someone a gift for visiting my studio or to trade.

What is your zine-making process compared to your process for children's books and graphic novels/comics?

EPW: Zines can be more experimental. I don't have to worry about an editor, art director, or the marketing department making suggestions. Graphic novels and children's books can take a long time before I know if it is accepted for print. It's nice to have short term projects as motivation for long term projects.

What advice do you have for artists/zines makers that want to get their work more widely known? Get published?

EPW: Just make them and put them out there. Your zines don't do any good in a box in your room. Mark and I used to take a shoebox of zines to our favorite comic/zine shops. Sometimes they buy it on the spot and other times they contact us asking for more.

What do you think of LAPL having a circulating zine collection instead of an archive?

EPW: There are advantages to both. It’s great to take a zine home and spend time with it, look at how it is constructed and make your own! It is also nice that there are places preserving zines for future research and reference.

What do you think the future of zines looks like?

EPW: As publishing gets more affordable and there are various ways to print...I predict there will be many niche art zines. Their value is certainly being recognized and priced at more respectable prices. I also predict in the zine world the barter system will still be alive and well.

Further Reading

Book cover for The Byronic Hero
The Byronic Hero
Watson, Esther Pearl

Book cover for Catnip
Watson, Esther Pearl

Book cover for Blood Lady Commandos!
Blood Lady Commandos!
Watson, Esther Pearl.

Book cover for Tammy Pierce is Unlovable
Tammy Pierce is Unlovable
Watson, Esther Pearl, 1973-

Book cover for The Adventures of Jules & Gertie
The Adventures of Jules & Gertie
Watson, Esther Pearl, 1973-

Book cover for Trouble at Sugar Dip Well
Trouble at Sugar Dip Well
Watson, Esther Pearl, 1973-

Book cover for Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine?: The Art of Making Zines and Mini Comics
Whatcha Mean, What's a Zine?: The Art of Making Zines and Mini Comics
Todd, Mark, 1970-

Book cover for Broadheds
Todd, Mark

Book cover for Bad Asses
Bad Asses
Todd, Mark