Inside Zine Fest Houston’s History and Lasting Legacy

The highly polished content gracing the glossy pages of a magazine is a far cry from what you’ll typically find within the folded pages of a self-published zine, which displays the voice of just one person unrestrained by the hands of an editorial department. Zines often consist only of a few well-xeroxed pages, usually handmade in small batches by upstart writers and artists, or maybe just someone who has a lot to say. They are distributed either directly by hand or dropped off unceremoniously on the counters of coffee shops, record stores, and other businesses that cater to an alternative crowd. Unbeholden to a publisher or advertisers, zines can feature just about anything within their gloriously DIY pages—from comics to political screeds to personal essays to collages to poetry—without their creators having to worry about too many repercussions.

Zine Fest Houston, happening this year at the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art on November 18, has been giving local fans of the art form—both those who make zines and those who simply consume them—an opportunity to meet, trade or purchase zines, and find a sense of community around the craft.

The lore of Zine Fest Houston has more folds than, well, a zine. Most trace its origin to a small gathering of zine makers in Hermann Park in 1993, where the festival’s eventual founder, the late Shane Patrick Boyle, was in attendance, although details of the setup, the other people involved, and the zines exchanged are scarce.

The event’s main co-organizers, María-Elisa Heg and Anastasia “Stacy” Kirages, consider that 1993 meeting to be the first iteration, even though it didn’t become an official festival until much later, in 2011. Throughout the early 2000s, Boyle regularly set up a table at the now-defunct Westheimer Street Festival, where he proffered zines to curious attendees. Eventually, local interest in the craft grew enough that Boyle started holding zine-centric events at small spaces across the city with new co-organizer Lindsey Simard, although little trace of when or where they took place exists today.

“It has a murky and unfortunately somewhat poorly documented history,” says Heg. Although Boyle and Simard handed over control of the festival to Heg and Kirages in 2013, Boyle remained involved as a consultant until his tragic death in 2017; he’d been rationing his insulin after losing his health insurance. The festival now has a scholarship for emerging zinesters in his honor.

Edwin Johnston, a longtime zinester, was a good friend of Boyle’s. The two met in the early ’90s while Boyle was a student at the University of Houston. They were both activists, drawn together through their antiwar endeavors during the Gulf War and their love of alternative publishing. Johnston remembers Boyle as someone who was always fascinated by comic books, graphic novels, and personal zines, and who always had a crowd around him. “He had a wide variety of friends and colleagues. He was friends with anybody and everybody,” says Johnston, a former offset printer who was heavily involved with underground, activist-leaning newspapers and magazines in Houston starting in the 1980s.

It’s no coincidence that current co-organizer Heg also has a background in activism. The Rice University grad, whose day job is as the digital content manager for the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, got on Boyle and Simard’s radar when she became involved with the Occupy Houston movement. The endeavor helped her develop experience with community organizing that she later segued into organizing around cultural and community creation. Heg, who is also an illustrator, tabled for the first time at Zine Fest Houston’s 2012 iteration, only a year before taking over the festival.

Heg likes to point to politically focused pieces of literature like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, published in the 18th and 16th centuries respectively, as early examples of the art form. She also considers more recent examples such as zines that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the works of early sci-fi authors and early feminists, as part of the birth of zine making. “It’s fundamentally about the ability to control the means of production of the printed matter and the content they’re in. It’s basically as old as the printing process,” she says. “Zines are self-published, self-distributed, and the content is not an end, it’s not self-censored. It’s very much the product of the author or authors’ voices without their voices being diluted through the publishing process.”

It’s an art form that Heg and fellow organizer Kirages say people are constantly rediscovering, although they’re both adamant that zines never went anywhere; we just might not have much evidence of old ones because not many people thought to preserve them. “A lot of them didn’t survive because they’re sort of the province of marginalized voices,” Heg says, noting that many universities across the country are now creating zine archives, including the University of Houston, which has an archive of Boyle’s expansive zine collection. “There is now this understanding of the historical value of the zine archive because there’s stuff contained in them that was never written anywhere else because either nobody wanted to write about it or because it was taboo and was actively suppressed.”

In that vein, Zine Fest Houston puts together a compilation issue every year and solicits submissions from zinesters, and this year they’re creating an anthology of all their compilations from 2012 to 2022. “It’s a celebration of how long we’ve been around,” says Kirages, a collage artist who started tabling at the festival in 2011 before becoming a co-organizer a couple of years later. Seasoned zinesters like Edwin Johnston are quick to point out that the festival has undergone quite a bit of a transformation since the duo took the reins from Boyle, from the yearly compilations to programming and scholarships. “When Maria and Stacy took it over, they really professionalized it,” Johnston says. “It was a real amateur thing when Shane was doing it. Now they have a variety of events during the festival.”

For the past few years, Zine Fest, sponsored partially by Fresh Arts since 2017, has indeed increased its programming, which oftentimes follows its yearly themes. These have included anything from wrestling to high school homecoming—complete with mums and a kazoo marching band—to cuisine. 

For last year’s medieval theme, Heg and Kirages invited the Monarch Chamber Players for medieval tunes and Dagorath, a local live-action role playing group that brought foam combat weapons and makeshift armor for attendees to have faux sparring matches off to the side of the main festival. For the wrestling theme, the festival brought in amateur group Doomsday Wrestling for some onsite entertainment. For the food theme, the event hosted a lecture by Marlon Hall, an artist and anthropologist who once ran Eat Gallery, a now-defunct Houston food incubator space. 

The festival also once hosted a workshop by the Democratic Socialists of America, holding true to the activist tendencies of both Boyle and the festival’s new organizers.

“The themes open us up to bringing in people who are doing different versions of activism and community building, people who have found the niche they want to be in to improve the world,” Heg says. “It’s been a really interesting process to connect with those people through the festival.”

In 2013, when Heg and Kirages took over the festival, they moved it from Super Happy Fun Land, a very DIY space in the East End, to the Printing Museum, then to the Lawndale Art Center in 2016, and finally to its current location at the Orange Show in 2021, after growing too big for all its previous digs. The festival now takes place in the center’s large, covered patio space overlooking Smither Park. On Zine Fest day, tables stacked with zines, art, and stickers form several neat rows packing the entire building. There’s always an information area near the front that also supplies beer, and there’s usually multiple food trucks parked off to the side.

Zine makers wanting to table at the festival go through a strict submission process ahead of time. Those selected must have at least 50 percent of the items on their tables be zines, and their submission material must be substantial enough to warrant them getting a table. Heg and Kirages say their stringent admission requirements make sure the festival stays as true to its roots as possible. “We’re preserving what makes us different from a comic con. We’re not an artist alley, we are a zine fest,” Heg says. “That’s what sets us apart.”

Local middle school art teacher Christopher Arce began tabling at the festival in 2016. Arce was really into comic books as a kid, but in his late teens he started getting into indie books and personal comics about people’s lives. While his own comics originally drew thematically from his personal life, they eventually gave way to other characters like Bigfoot, a character the illustrator has centered multiple zines around. In addition to selling his work yearly at Zine Fest Houston, Arce has a well-stocked Etsy store where he sells his highly personal creations. 

“Zines are really important because there are no limitations on how you can make them, how you distribute them, or what you make them about,” Arce says. “When you go to these zine events, you’re seeing what matters most to these people in these little booklets they’re selling.”

Arce is eager to pass his love of zines onto the next generation, so every year he teaches a short unit on zine making to his art students. The eight-page projects his students come up with always put a smile on his face. “They just do such creative things,” he says. “I mean, really wild stuff that you never think to make a zine about.” He’s seen a handful of his students in attendance at the festival, making their first entry into a world that Arce thinks speaks to Houston itself.

“The zine scene in Houston is so completely inclusive, so diverse,” he says. “The artists are happy, the crowd is happy, and everyone is there with an open mind and just trying to enjoy the events. I think that’s what makes Zine Fest Houston so special, it’s such a good reflection of the spirit and the attitude of the city.”

The theme for this year’s Zine Fest is its 30th anniversary. In keeping with that, Heg and Kirages are hard at work trying to create a defined history of the festival, a process that has been difficult due to the ephemeral nature of both the art form and the event’s history. While some say Zine Fest Houston should only be celebrating its 13th anniversary this year, Heg and Kirages are adamant about not erasing the groundwork laid by Boyle during the festival’s pre-official years.

“We say we started in 1993 because our founder started in 1993, and he kept it alive,” Heg says. “We want to keep it alive, too, by codifying that history and saying that we will not allow it to be lost. It’s important for us to be extremely intentional about that because it is his legacy, and I think that everybody who is a part of this community deserves to share in it.” 

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