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Offline And On Paper: Chicago Teens Make Zines In An Ephemeral World

Twice a week, students in the zine club at Chicago’s North-Grand High School meet in Katy Jung’s algebra classroom after school to draw and write whatever they want. It’s a place where the teacher doesn’t tell them what to do. 

“We have kids who come in and say, ‘What do you guys do here?’” Jung said. “We say, ‘What are you interested in?’” 

Jung’s next question to students: Why not make a book about it?

The kids in this program have grown up in a world where they can publish just about anything online, at any time, and get hundreds or even thousands of social media views. In spite of that — or maybe because of it — making 30 zines by hand, and then pushing them into the world, can be surprisingly alluring. 

“I feel like it’s solid, it’s something that you have in your hand,” said North-Grand senior Wendy Akane Nuñez. “Instead of Snapchat, for instance, that only lasts for a day or only for a few seconds.”

North-Grand High School students create zines, like 'The Zodiak Book,' in their after-school club.

Plus, posting online isn’t always fun. “There’s a lot of critics, there’s a lot of people on that social media that decide just to hate on it,” Wendy said. “So I feel like … an actual publication is completely different.”

North-Grand students have created zines about boys, emotions, food and — why not? — epic battles between heaven and hell. Their finished products are not fancy, and that’s part of the DIY charm and zine ethos. Everything is hand-drawn and hand-written. Booklets are made of copy paper and stapled right in the classroom. Card-stock covers are about as extravagant as things get.

Twice a week, artist Marc Fischer, renowned for his own publications, guides students in the creation of their zines. The program is funded by the Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education, a 25-year-old group whose goal is to pair artists with teachers in schools. 

The zine club kids aren’t hipsters. Their Chicago public high school, named for the nearest major intersection, North and Grand avenues, draws kids from Northwest Side immigrant and working-class neighborhoods.

The club took a field trip recently to Chicago Zine Fest 2017, where more than 200 zine artists gathered to show off their creations and buy, sell and barter their work. The North-Grand High School zines were a hit; students traded the little booklets they’d made in the algebra classroom for other artists’ drawings, buttons, bookmarks and zines.

“It’s all building up to this sharing event,” Jung said. “Not only are they sharing their ideas, but they’re in a venue where lots of other people are interested in their ideas.”

Meet some of the members of North-Grand High School’s publications club:

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Her Zine Fest trading style: Abidalys held an 8-inch-high stack of zines, obtained by aggressively trading her own work. “I’m willing to trade for anything. It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just if a person is willing to trade a part of themselves or part of their publication and their work.” After an hour on the Zine Fest floor, she hugged an assortment of heroine-centered comics and booklet about headaches — “It’s a visual representation of how migraines feel,” the artist told her. “I did find some goddess of war, some Roman mythology, so whatever I could relate to,” Abidalys said. She traded away all the copies she’d made of her own publication, which is “about my emotions and how I feel through high school.” 

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What she brought to Zine Fest: Ink-jet printouts of drawings she made in Advanced Placement art class, many of them studies in body image. “It’s just something that mattered to me,” she said. “I drew a girl sitting down in her bra and underwear. She’s not skinny, but she’s not necessarily fat, either. She’s, like, decently proportioned, I guess. I drew all her curves, and I shadowed and everything to show a realistic body type. Not something that the media wants — something that’s real and true and beautiful by itself.”

Biggest find at Zine Fest: A bookmark featuring Lapis, a character from one of her favorite cartoons, Steven Universe. “She’s a crystal gem. They’re like aliens that come and colonize different planets. She got trapped inside of a mirror and was released with a cracked gem.” The bookmark is “kind of like metallic and glittery looking. Everything’s like different kinds of blues and purples.”

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First zine: “My first publication was called, The Smile Book. It’s just a lot of inspirational quotes and silly sayings, little drawings to cheer somebody up, to help them feel like they’re not alone, or just something a little funny, so they could at least have a smile or little giggle or chuckle.”

Greatest hit: Wendy collaborated on Food Boys, the North-Grand zine club’s biggest hit so far. A synopsis from the back of the zine recommends that heartbroken readers use the booklet to “find the description of the boy you just broke up with, and eat that food to make you feel better.”

'Food Boys' advises eating noodles to get over a boy who has a lot of 'problems.'

Wendy drew Noodle Boy and Popsicle Boy. Fischer, the teaching artist who guides North-Grand’s publications club, said they sold so many copies of the booklet, they were able to fund an extra field trip. “We ate an enormous amount of deep-dish pizza and then went to see the Kerry James Marshall exhibit at the MCA,” Fischer said.

Coolest use for one of her zines: The Smile Book has a permanent home in the North-Grand counselor’s office. “Students will grab it and read it either while they’re waiting to see us and/or sometimes they don’t want to talk,” said school counselor Arturo Fuentes. “They’re going through a rough time, but they’re not ready to speak yet, so we give them this and it helps them kind of calm down and de-stress. It just really helps them keep a positive mind,” Fuentes said. The Chicago Public Library also bought four copies of Food Boys.

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What he created: A Death Ritual is a gory, 24-page comic-book-style story featuring copious amounts of blood and guts, drawn originally on notebook paper with colored pencil and reproduced on glossy paper. It’s meant to be read while listening to a list of songs. (Toleko provides URLs.) The first tune “is like a happy song, but what happens within the scene is just the complete opposite,” Toleko said. The song features cheerful ukulele music about falling in love; the corresponding illustrations show the main character’s eye being gouged out. “It gets worse,” Toleko warned.

An illustration from 'Death Ritual,' featuring lyrics from Tally Hall's 'The Whole World And You.'

When he’s not at school: Toleko is on chapter 24 of the book he’s writing. His zine is just a preview, he said. 

Biggest Fan: Freshman Juan Perez. Juan has made fan art based on Toleko’s work, and he spent most of his time at the Zine Fest promoting Toleko. Juan’s an aspiring author himself, and visiting Zine Fest made him realize there’s no sense in waiting to publish. “I always imagined that creating my own book would be serious. … I always try to make it complicated. So I decided, ‘Why not try to go a little bit simpler?’”

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Best souvenir from Zine Fest: “I got a Cheeto pin!” Rosy also brought home a zine. “I got this book of radical self-love. It talks about how to love yourself and why, and how you should be proud of who you are.” Rosy said she was walking around when she saw a Trump comic that caught her eye. “And then right next to it was some books about how to love yourself and all that stuff.” She made the $5 investment. “My own money,” she said.

Linda Lutton covers education for WBEZ. Follow her at @WBEZeducation.

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