Busy Fools zine

Wanted: A Vac-Zine for our times

As people grapple with the impacts of a pandemic, the immediacy and frankness of ArtZines is proving to be a creative, effective, mental health tool

First published in issue 3 of SOLVE magazine, 2021

Dr Jac Batey was never comfortable in the prescriptive world of commercial illustration. “I couldn’t cope with being told what to draw,” she says of her early career illustrating book covers and magazines.

She was also commuting an hour-and-a-half each way by train to a second job, and one she loved: teaching at the University of Portsmouth. To pass the time she equipped herself with a bag of felt-tipped pens and paper and started drawing what was happening around her.

From overheard phone conversations to reimagined tabloid headlines, satirical scenes of everyday life began to fill her sketchbook – scenes that would become the genesis for her internationally celebrated zine, Future Fantasteek!, and motivate a shift in career focus that would see her create Zineopolis, the UK’s most significant collection of ArtZines.

Born in 2007 “out of necessity” to ensure her growing collection of works self-published by students, artists and colleagues didn’t “disappear”, Zineopolis is now home to thousands of eclectic artefacts by creators worldwide.

Cultural treasure

Housed at the University of Portsmouth and in a blog online, the collection has been archived by the British Library and the Library of Congress in Washington DC in recognition of its significance as a cultural record and resource.

Zines are small (usually A5) self-published magazines photocopied for limited print runs that cover a gamut of topics from food, football or music to politics, poetry or pop culture – whatever the creator chooses. In ArtZines, the narrative is driven by visual content: illustration, photography and the like. Often deeply personal, unfiltered and raw, “like seeing directly inside the head of the creator”, says Dr Batey, zines are often produced quickly and seldom for profit.

Because of their immediacy, they are an ideal vehicle to capture the world around us at the precise moment it is unfolding, she says. From Brexit to royal babies, the credit crunch and now COVID-19, zines document the issues and language of our times as they morph. Today’s zines, for instance, feature a lot of content around the pandemic – anxiety, self-isolation, debates about masks and doomscrolling – all foreign concepts not so long ago.

“Doomscrolling (that act of obsessively consuming negative news online) I had never heard of until this year,” Dr Batey says. “I love how language changes so quickly with people as incidents happen. Zines can capture that.”

As a collection, Zineopolis serves as an effective eyewitness social record of our quickly changing times from the grassroots community rather than a “flat” mass-mediated perspective.

“You’ll get a very personal angle rather than a corporate or government angle,” Dr Batey says.

Jac Batey’s zines (images 1 and 2) explore commuting and doomscrolling, while Riley James’s zine Panic (image 3) demystifies panic attacks.

From the heart

This authenticity, says Dr Batey, is what makes zines such an effective communication tool, particularly for young people who are often cut out of traditional publishing. Through zines, creators speak directly to their audience without mediation from editors or publishers with other agendas.

“It’s liberating”, she says, for young people to express themselves in the public domain around issues that are important to them, such as climate change, sexuality or animal welfare, through a medium without censorship.

“It’s grown-up on one hand, but also quite radical in that you change the narrative about how you’re seen around things like LGBTQI issues or mental health,” she says. “People can tell a story that’s not so familiar in ‘mainstream’ communications.”

That said, the mainstream is picking up on the power of zines to connect with young people, particularly regarding issues such as mental health. The Time to Change campaign supported by the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, for example, is using illustrations from Panic, a zine by Riley James when he was a student of Dr Batey about post-traumatic stress disorder, to help reduce stigma around mental health.

Depicting a visual narrative through a panic attack, it provides insights such as how hard it is to use a smartphone with hands too sweaty to activate the touch button and vision too blurred to type in a code.

Dr Batey says it’s important for people living with mental health challenges to hear the authentic voice of the zine maker who has shared a common experience. “I think it is probably our most valuable asset.”

And ArtZines, which use images over words to convey their messages, are particularly relatable in this space, she says. “Otherwise all you’ve got is medical information and hospital leaflets. And that’s really telling people what to do, not necessarily connecting them with their emotional experiences.”

Medicinal art

The role of graphic medicine and visual narratives through zines around mental health is being explored more seriously in research and in practice, Dr Batey says. It’s a topic she is working on with researchers at the University of Central Lancashire, defining the new territory of MadZines that illustrate people’s personal journeys with mental health.

Her own zine Future Fantasteek! is being used by psychologists to help patients verbalise and understand the pressures of modern life – particularly around burnout and our vexed relationship with technology. “One illustration that proved popular was a character being hit by Google Gmail icons – running and yelling as the icons are falling,” she says.

Dr Batey is fascinated with the way humour can be used to explain emotions, especially in relation to mental wellbeing and issues around stress or burnout.

“Using elements of humour can take the alarm out of a situation and give people a different coping mechanism,” she says. “Used carefully it can make people feel more in control.”

And, she says, because zines are created to be shared, people know they are not alone in their feelings.

A VacZine anyone?

A shared – and sometimes satirical – response to the stresses of the pandemic is evident in the emergence of QuaranZines around the world, including one from the Shetland Islands that brought the community together to publish it, says Dr Batey. “And I haven’t seen one yet, but I’m fairly sure there’ll be a ‘VacZine’ coming out somewhere or other.”

Zines often work to connect communities, and, in turn, the Zineopolis collection connects a community around zines by establishing a permanent resource for researchers, students and consumers. Not only does the collection preserve an otherwise ephemeral product, it also helps secure the future of zines by building an audience, awareness and opportunities to participate.

“There’s a very strong network of people supporting zines and storing zines, working with them as researchers, but also as practitioners making and sharing them as well,” says Dr Batey, whose own work can be found in more than 80 collections around the world. “It’s a really delightful community to be part of.”