Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 180,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
You must be logged in to read full text of reviews.
> Logged-in users can make lists, save searches, e-mail, and more!
> Click My Profile to create a username & password
> Try a free trial or subscribe today
February 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
Find more Another Look at
Born out of punk rock, feminism, fringe communities, and the wide availability of copy shops and home printing, zines—self-published, DIY magazines—might seem like relics of a pre-Internet era. After all, why leave a stack of folded and stapled confessional poetry and doodles at your local record shop when you can just start a blog?
It’s true that the Internet makes distributing amateur writing and art much easier today, but there’s something about the tangible, experimental quality of a printed zine that has enduring appeal. That’s probably why zines are still alive and kicking: zine festivals appear in many cities, and today’s libraries sometimes feature local zine displays. Even ALA conferences often include a zine pavilion. At least two 2017 novels, too, have featured zines—Jennifer Mathieu’s Moxie and Celia C. Perez’s The First Rule of Punk—though both approach the topic in the context of 1980s and ’90s nostalgia.
Naturally, YA authors tackled the topic of zines during their heyday, and two novels in particular—Ellen Wittlinger’s Hard Love (1999) and Virginia Walter and Katrina Roeckelein’s Making Up Megaboy (1998)—examine the trend, both by exploring zinester communities and by demonstrating why zines are so powerful.
Wittlinger’s novel follows John, an emotionally hardened high-school junior, who idolizes a zinester named Marisol. He’s electrified by her raw, honest, and direct writing: “I feel like I’m looking down more deeply inside this person I don’t even know than I’ve ever looked inside myself. I want to write like that too. Maybe I even want to be like that. And I sure as hell want to meet her.” Her style is a far cry from John’s zine, Bananafish, which is filled with sarcasm and aloof humor. When they finally do meet, John and Marisol strike up an easy friendship centered around sharing their writing. But as John learns how to open up, he falls for Marisol, hard. Marisol, however, has always been open about her homosexuality, and their friendship fractures right when John needs it most.
It’s true that some of Wittlinger’s novel now feels a bit dated, particularly the somewhat stereotypical depictions of gay people, and it’s hard not to cringe at John’s sometimes dismissive attitudes about the women in his life, like his friend’s girlfriend or flirtatious girls in his class. Even his attitudes about writing seem a bit gendered: “This crap about writing down my feelings was a crock. Like girls keeping a diary or something. That wasn’t what a zine was about. Not mine.”
But Wittlinger plays up that last bit cleverly: as John writes more, especially under the tutelage of Marisol, he begins to cultivate the honest self-discovery and emotional vulnerability he so loved in Marisol’s writing, and feelings are at the heart of his growth. It’s telling that John—so tough and emotionless in the first half of the novel—is most drawn to zines written by women powerfully in touch with their emotions and with strong senses of identity. The “crap about writing down my feelings” is precisely what John gains from writing and participating in the zine community. For John, writing is essential for truly knowing himself, which leads to a stronger, more healthy engagement in his own life, and zines and zinesters are essential to that process.
Walter and Roeckelein’s novella, written in the form of a zine, engages with similar themes, but it’s an entirely different beast. When 13-year-old Robbie Jones shoots Korean shop-owner Mr. Koh, their small town is blindsided and becomes obsessed with finding answers. Only Robbie isn’t saying a word. Instead, Walter and Roeckelein offer snippets of interviews, news reports, and official documents, all artfully designed in an unmistakably 1990s aesthetic, and readers must put together the pieces assembled here, which paint a woefully incomplete picture.
A few things emerge: his father might have been cruel; Robbie harbored an unrequited crush on a classmate; and he loved writing and drawing a comic, called Megaboy, with his best friend, Ruben. Although we see plenty of Robbie’s drawings of Megaboy, his voice is noticeably absent for the majority of the novel, except for one story about Megaboy and a new character, Humanchild, who’s trapped on an unfamiliar planet. Even these, however, are couched in the realm of fantasy, and any answers we might glean are still pure speculation.
Coupled with Roeckelein’s haunting designs—encompassing collage, photography, and drawing—Walter’s evocative narrative gambit is captivating and unsettling in its lack of conclusive answers. Additionally, some of the novel’s topics seem especially pertinent today, particularly given national conversations about race, violence, and how the news covers crime. Mrs. Koh grows frustrated that the focus of the reports about the shooting are mostly on Robbie and how such a nice, white, middle-class kid could do something so senseless, instead of remembering or honoring her working-class, Korean husband.
Perhaps the most striking spread in the book speaks to that frustration. Amid jostling, crowded pages, one solemnly stands out, quiet as a tombstone: a crisp white page with just Mr. Koh’s name, in Korean characters, above his life span. That page reminds readers they should be troubled that so much attention is given to the killer, even while we’re simultaneously called on to treat Robbie with compassion. It’s an uncomfortable tension, but a realistic one.
We can’t know, really, what Robbie was thinking based solely on his drawings and others’ impressions of his character, but it’s tempting to believe that his art holds the key to unlocking the truth. The raw, unpolished quality of zines suggests a sort of authentic presentation, but Walter and Roeckelein upend that idea by demonstrating just how difficult it is to know people through their artwork, or at least their artwork alone.
Like writing does for John, art seems to offer Robbie a way to tap into something deeper or ineffable in himself—his final story about Megaboy hints at how much he feels trapped and misunderstood. Of course, without Robbie’s own voice, it’s impossible to truly know what Megaboy means, but as outsiders looking in, we can gain a glimpse into the heart of a troubled individual. But that minute glimpse is all we, as readers and consumers of art, can expect to gain, and to presume we understand misses the point.
Both of these novels address how art can offer a window into an artist’s internal life, but some windows are foggier than others. That was true during the heyday of zines, and it’s still true now, particularly given how easy sharing art and writing in a variety of contexts is on the Internet. Both Hard Love and Making Up Megaboy presciently touch on the double-edged sword of social media—yes, sharing writing and art and forming community are two of the most empowering things about Internet culture, but it’s just as easy to wrongly assume we can fully understand a person by what that person chooses to share.
> Try a free trial or subscribe today