Denver underground publishers choose print over digital
Since the invention of the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century, underground publishers have naturally latched on to technological advancements that help move information from one place to another with ease and economy.
From Thomas Paine’s self-published “Common Sense” pamphlet igniting demand for U.S. independence from Great Britain, to xerox machines affording punk rock outcasts the ability to produce large numbers of stapled zines throughout the 1980s and 90s, the medium has always gone hand in hand with the message.
The Internet has presaged over the most recent development in this tradition, and in its short life span has had a massive impact on everything from the arts to politics. It’s possible that the recent comedy revolution never would have reached as many people without podcasting, and Twitter played a huge role in galvanizing people around the Arab Spring of 2010.
Yet in response to this Matrix-like netherworld of mass information, we are witnessing a hunger for a return to more physical mediums.
Like the recent resurgence of vinyl, a slew of new, independent, print-based publications currently appearing in Denver serves as evidence of this trend.
“In our age of short attention spans, the medium becomes very important,” Esmé Patterson, co-creator of the poetry and short-fiction quarterly Zephyr Press and vocalist with the Colorado indie-folk band Paper Bird, says. “Just as music can be a vehicle for poetry, the material of our books is very important. I’m so connected to the shape and feeling of a book, I think it has a different effect on you. It’s a companion. We’re not going to put any of these poems or stories online.”
Patterson, who worked at the Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver before becoming a professional musician, says she and the co-creators of Zephyr spend hours selecting paper stock. Her team favors a more subdued aesthetic as opposed to the loud, attention grabbing publications often found on shelves today.
“We looked at other journals, and they were all so busy and graphically stunning,” Patterson says. “We wanted ours to be quiet. We wanted to use a lot of space and silence around the words.”
Similar to the continuing tenacity of vinyl records in a digital age, a publication that snubs the Web in favor of hand-held paper can be viewed by some as reactionary stubbornness, pushing against the inevitable tide of technology.
Brian Polk -- co-editor of Suspect Press, which launched its quarterly magazine of fiction and culture essays last December -- insists that his publication is not a nostalgia trip.
“We have an online presence, but it’s only there to draw people to the zine,” Polk says. “I’m not a luddite. I think technology is great. But this is different. I can actually hand someone a zine, instead of a card with an address on it.”
A decade ago, Polk had a successful run with the monthly publication Yellow Rake, a newsprint zine that mirrored Suspect Press with its freewheeling content and target-specific audience. The zine found its way into many coffee shops, dive bars, bookstores and record shops in the Denver metro area.
After putting Yellow Rake on hiatus while he focused on drumming for punk band Joy Subtraction, Polk has now returned to independent publishing. He teamed up with author and restaurateur Dan Landes, and coach of the youth poetry organization Minor Disturbance, Ken Arkind, to produce Suspect Press.
Polk has stuck with the same brown newsprint paper for Suspect Press that he used with Yellow Rake years earlier. His publications retain a look and feel that is often associated with the past when held by 21st century hands.
“It ain't easy to make a buck with words,” Landes says. “But we have day jobs, so we can say what we want because we don't care if an advertiser pulls out. We can produce this magazine for our friends and community, give an outlet for writers and feel good about it. It’s an entrepreneurial endeavor that is in the true DIY spirit, where we said ‘screw it, let's do it ourselves.’"
After a decade of observing patrons in his City O’ City and Watercourse restaurants, Landes says being seen reading a physical book or zine in a bar is a way to form instant connections with people.
“Computer or phone screens are talk-blockers," Landes says. "There is no poetic segue into sparking a conversation with someone absorbed by their screen.”
Over the last few years, Landes has become something of an arts philanthropist in Denver, turning the rooms above City O’ City into a collection of artist studios, a donation-based yoga space and Deer Pile, a free admission comedy and music venue.
From that Capitol Hill community has sprung the monthly magazine Birdy, a glossy collection of stories and essays that launched only a few weeks after Suspect Press.
Landes remains the co-editor of Suspect Press, and is a sponsor of Birdy.
While Birdy produces eccentric and counterculture-steeped content, the foundational aesthetic is more in line with contemporary glossy magazines.
Yet the design and artwork of Birdy -- created by the Denver-based event poster artist Michael King -- takes vivid and challenging turns, mixing macabre imagery of zombies and abstract horror with a pop-art wit that could be considered alienating to mainstream readers.
Despite the recent uptick on the Denver zine scene, the popularization of blogs and social media in the early 2000s has eroded the importance of indie publishing.
Many of the underground print publishers have moved their stories online. Such is the case with the celebrated cyberpunk zine Boing Boing. The publication once had a circulation of 17,000 issues. In 1996, the publication transferred its operations to the Web. (Some of its founders eventually wound up working for Wired magazine.)
Yet just when Colorado’s underground communities were becoming more connected digitally than with handmade pamphlets, local residents banded together in 2003 to form the Denver Zine Library, cataloging and celebrating a piece of history often overlooked by museums and universities.
Having celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, the Denver Zine Library boasts a collection of 15,000 titles, making it one of the largest repositories of small print publications in the world.
In addition to offering a plethora of self-published materials donated from writers around the globe, the space is often used for hosting music shows and literary readings.
“Everyone thinks these projects can only thrive on the coasts -that was my attitude when I moved here,” Kelly Shortandqueer, co-founder of the Denver Zine Library, says. “But there are amazing resources here in Colorado. Being in the middle of the country, we can host other writers, musicians and artists when they’re on tour.”
Shortandqueer is both the Zine Library founder’s moniker and the name of the zine he’s been producing since 2004. The name reflects his transgender orientation and identity within the queer counterculture, which has made zines their staple of communication since the 1990s.
“With zines, writers can put things out there that other publishers or editors don’t want to be associated with,” Shortandqueer says. “It’s a way for people to tell their own stories and have their own voices.”
Josiah Hesse is an entertainment and pop culture journalist whose work has appeared in Westword, Out Front Colorado, and comedy blogs Laugh Spin, Splitsider and The Spit Take. Follow him on twitter at @JosiahMHesse.