Milwaukee Zine Fest Reflections

Books & Literature Jun 3, 2023

by Michelle Sharp

The Milwaukee Zine Fest celebrated its 15th anniversary on April 22, 2023. This event, like so many other zine fests around the world, champions the media focused on sharing, self-publishing, and DIY. From MZF’s page, a zine is

“a self-published, non-commercial print-work that is typically produced in small, limited batches...often by...photocopying, folding...into simple pamphlets....The main rule is that there are no rules!”

The folks who make zines (zinesters) are typically writing, printing, drawing, or otherwise creating about what they know and are passionate about, truly whatever moves them in whatever medium moves them. Zines tend to be very low cost, to both produce and purchase, or acquired by trading. Every zinester I know has a library of zines they have traded for or purchased from other zinesters.

I parked in a city lot 2 blocks away ($25.50 for the day, a steal) to hike my overstuffed backpack and file tote up the hill to the Milwaukee Public Library Central Branch. It’s a magnificent building: historic and looming with grand stairs, corinthian columns, and window arches. The building had just opened and was still very quiet inside. Staff had arranged the event tables but check-in had not quite started. The dome in the rotunda created a cathedral-like ambiance, soft shadows and gentle echoes. The holiness of books and socialism was palpable. By the time I checked all my text messages received during the drive, a volunteer was ready to check-in the few of us who had accumulated with our wares.

My half-table was in the Rare Books Room, auratically dimmed shelves beyond glass partitions. The library had pulled collected zines for the occasion. After I set up my display and oogled what lay beyond the glass, I took a lap of the other artists and organizations following suit. They expected 114 of us. Small-publishers, UW- Special Collections, Woodland Pattern, local creative spaces, independent artists, and collaboratives scurrying to arrange their 3-feet of surface space just so, trying to capitalize on vertical spaces created by flat-fold shelves.

For a lottery selection process of artists, a good amount of diversity was represented. Lots of non-binary and queer makers were in attendance, as well as several POC creatives. Luckily the event staff, made of folks from The Bindery, had published a vendor list ahead of time and I sought out the people I wanted to connect with during my few laps around the event. A handful of folks from the Fox Valley and Green Bay were represented, including Dead Tooth, SAGE, and Boom-whappa- thappa. Event staff worked with the library to make sure there were non-gendered bathrooms for the day, set forth a compassionate policy regarding masking, and addressed zines as a medium for self-expression with the fest being a safe space but mixed-age event. Every email leading up to the day-of highlighted how to contact event staff for your ADA and disability needs.

Eventually, the bulk of us were settled in. The fest staff and volunteers had worked double time to get everyone checked in as the vendor line wound around the entrance space. Tables filled with zines, buttons, hand-bound books, handmade paper, stickers, and all variety of wonderful punk and diy creations. By 11am the fest was in full fray. The rotunda was booming, people were ‘just sneakin’ past’ each other between crowded tables, and the button-making workshop was well underway. In short, the vibe was impeccable. Folks who had intentionally come to collect zines, library patrons who just happened in the building that day, and unsuspecting security staff interacted with me. This ranged from folks who had no idea what zines are to folks who had been making since the 80’s. I was very lucky to meet people in my geographical community as well as studios from farther afield. My booth neighbor, Murphyao Ink, had trekked from Chicago and put my display to shame with her abundance of zines, buttons, stickers, snail-mail accoutrement, typewritten poetry, DIY Zine kits, and more expertly crowded onto her share of table. Clearly not her first zine rodeo, it was inspiring to watch her go out of the way to trade and share with the folks she connected with.

One pleasant surprise was the number of comic artists in attendance. Milwaukee has recently begun hosting MILK: the Milwaukee Indie and Local [K]Comic Fest. Not only are they making themselves visible, they’re embracing the physical comic when so many are publishing for a world that consumes art digitally. Not to disparage comic creators who rely on digital means; web comics are amazingly accessible, just a very different experience from holding the work in your hands. I collected several zines from these artists and have my eyes peeled for updates on the MILK social media. The most intriguing zine form I picked up that day was from comic duo Kyle O’Connell and Beth Hetland. This piece, created by cutting 4 sheets of paper into circles and assembling into a flat triangle, allows for a different narrative depending on which way you orient and open the zine. It ultimately folds out into a nearly spherical shape. Beth and Kyle made use of every single white space and left no nook un-inked, resulting in a fascinating little book that demands re-readings and sculptural manipulation. I’m smitten.

In addition to the button making workshop, there were several other events throughout the day: free printmaking, screenprinting demos, a form and folding drop-in, and a panel discussion. Though I was disappointed to miss the panel discussion of top tips and tricks by established book artists, I was able to make up

for it my attending the after-party at Lion’s Tooth bookstore and connecting with creative friends I had made while attending MIAD. Lion’s Tooth is an independent bookstore in Bay View run by Cris Siqueira (moderator of the panel discussion) and Shelly McClone-Carriere. It is filled with a huge selection of local authors, ‘underground and radical publications’ per their website, and so much small press. As soon as I went up to the bar to get a drink, they asked me if I brought zines they could buy. Their cozy shop filled up with folks who hadn’t had a chance to really stop and talk earlier in the day; I was lucky to catch up on friends’ new projects, experience a pop-up museum by Justin Kern, and learn about Lion Tooth’s brand- new Dandelion Comics Residency in partnership with risograph team BearBear and MILK Comic Fest. I snagged a copy of resident Casey “K.C.” Harrison’s How a Flower is Born, impeccably designed and beautifully understated. She is also a lovely person.

Eventually, it was time to drive back and digest all the zines, knowledge, and feelings I had acquired. I am baffled that I only recently discovered this annual and long-standing event. Though I have regrets about missing out for so long, vending reinvigorated my lust for bookmaking arts and affirmed my practice. In a strange way, this was really a homecoming. It was only when I spoke the words to an attendee, that I realized I have been making Small Quick Books (my eternal gratitude to Leslie Fedorchuk for offering the class by that name) since 2011. Regardless of if I ever win the vendor lottery again, the MZF will be on my annual calendar to attend for perpetuity.

Now, how do I get a Fox Cities Zine Fest going?