Sarah Mirk is a visual journalist and author. She is a dynamic person who you’ll enjoy getting to know. She loves storytelling and has carved out a place for herself that allows her to do just that. I recently reviewed her engaging Year of Zines. In September, a new book edited by Mirk will come out, Guantanamo Voices (Abrams). Mirk, among her many accomplishments and activities, is a contributing editor at graphic journalism website The Nib. And, among her teaching positions, Mirk is an adjunct professor in Portland State University’s MFA program in Art and Social Practice. For this interview, we discuss many of the aspects of zines and how this modest home-made magazine can lead to bigger projects or be an essential work all to itself.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: So, let’s talk about zines and their wide potential. I love how you describe in your introduction to Year of Zines the zine you did for your high school chemistry class. I wish I’d been as inspired to do that in my own chemistry class. What can you tell us about the power of zines to make information accessible?
SARAH MIRK: For anyone not familiar with them, I define zines as any independently published multi-page work that is made primarily for passion and not for profit. “Zine” is short for “magazine.” It can be about anything. When I was a teenager, I loved making zines before I’d even heard of the word. I just loved combining images and text and making little publications for fun. The story in the introduction is that, for my high school chemistry class, we were supposed to create a timeline about chemistry through the ages. It was just supposed to be a line on one page. Instead, a friend and I spent an entire weekend creating an epic zine of us traveling through time meeting a bunch of chemists. Our teacher was perplexed but she accepted it.
From your experience, do you think turning in a zine as an assignment might not catch a teacher by surprise so much today?
I think, if you’re assigned a one-page report and you turn in a comic book, a teacher will be surprised. But zines are being used much more in classes than when I was a kid. A lot of teachers use zines and see them as a really great teaching tool. Zines allow people to engage with a topic and really make it their own. A form of zine that I started making ten years ago is the history comic. You research a topic and then you create a story from that piece of history as a little multi-page zine. The ones that I published are called, Oregon History Comics. We did a couple of workshops where students in junior high school researched a topic in their neighborhood and then drew up a comic about it. I think it’s always powerful to put pen to paper and see what happens. It’s a powerful statement that goes to show you don’t need to be a famous author with a big publisher. You have all the tools you need to create something on your own.
You give an excellent explanation of what is considered the classic zine format, the one where you keep folding a piece of letter-sized paper and end up with a booklet that doesn’t need staples. Can you talk about that format and how you can get the most from the limits it sets up? It basically features six small panels, and functions like a comic strip.
Exactly, it has a lot of the same feeling as a comic strip. When you think of comic strips, you think of panels in sequence. These little zines are just like that: a front and back cover and six interior pages with just enough room for one drawing per page, and a little bit of text. So, it’s just like comics. The key is to keep it short. Keep it brief. Keep it as succinct as possible on the text. With the zines that I make, I’m always trying to have the visuals tell the story and not cram the space with text. I want the visuals to tell the story. I love this format because it’s cheap and really easy to make anywhere. My tools are just a clipboard and a piece of copier paper. And a little bag of pens and pencils. That means I can take my supplies to the park. I can make a zine on the bus, on a train, in the backseat of a friend’s car, or on a hike. I can take it anywhere. I do all of it by hand and, if anyone wants a copy, I’ll scan it at home and send it out. Or I can photocopy it and mail it to them. Pretty much all the zines I make are freely available to anyone, especially teachers and educators. They can then print them out at home and use them in their classrooms or wherever they want to distribute them. It’s important to me to help get my zines out and let people know they don’t have to pay a lot of money to get them.
I have memories of making zines. On occasion, I might still make zines. But the whole scene of zines has changed so much. I think of going down to Kinko’s and you might see someone else also making a zine, amid all the copiers. And it used to be a massive amount of copiers at your typical store. Now, you’re lucky if there’s four at the most, but more like only two. It was a gradual change. FedEx bought out Kinko’s in 2004 and, back then, it was still a big scene. You didn’t feel a shift but now everything has shifted so much.
I’d love to read a punk history of Kinko’s. I grew up in the early ’90s. I’m 33 now. So, yeah, that high school chemistry zine I was telling you about, I made that at Kinko’s at two in the morning. The only other people there at that time were some sad office workers copying reports and punk kids making flyers and that kind of thing. These days, I mostly make my zines at a place here in Portland called The Independent Publishing Resource Center, or IPRC. It’s a collective studio space with all the tools you need to publish artwork. They have two photocopiers. It’s a pretty rad nonprofit version of Kinko’s. It’s wonderful. Since the quarantine has started, I went to Office Depot and bought a home photocopier printer so that I can still keep making zines while under quarantine.
Another factor in the changing scene is Instagram and that started in 2010. All the energy, all of the content, of a zine can fit on Instagram. I was looking over your Instagram and you know right away what I mean. And yet people still want a print version.
I think it’s important to be able to still have a physical copy that you can give to somebody and share, and through the mail. It’s just a different experience to be able to have a physical thing in your hand as opposed to having it on your phone. I post my zines on Instagram because it’s a great way to share and find other artists. But I feel conflicted using that as a platform because it’s a big tech company owned by Facebook. They don’t care about my privacy rights. They are basically mining my data. So I feel bad about creating a lot of content for a big tech company which is why I publish them in a bunch of different formats. I put them up on Instagram but I also send them out as PDFs for anyone who wants one. And I send them out in the mail. I sell them at zine conventions. So, there’s not just one way to get them.
Let’s talk about different aspects to zines. I think of them as being able to function as a vehicle to brainstorm. They can be the first step towards a bigger project. Or a zine can be a project all to itself.
Yeah, you really nailed it. I often use zines to help me process what I’m thinking throughout the day, whether it’s a big topic, small joke, or a little interaction. I’ll think: “If I turned this into a zine, how would that experience be turned into a narrative?” Sometimes I’ll make that into a zine and I’ll feel that I’m done or maybe I’ll feel that I have a lot more to say and I want to turn that into a big comic, another zine, or an essay. I find that zines are a great place for that kind of brainstorming, processing, and thinking through of what I’m experiencing–and then being able to share that with others in an accessible way.
Last year, I injured my wrist and I had to wear a wrist brace for three months. It was nice being able the share that experience in a zine format and be able to have people tell me about their experience with being injured. Or maybe they had chronic pain and could tell me about that. Sharing this experience with others helped me feel less alone. What could have been an alienating experience instead made me feel closer to friends and to strangers out in the world.
Zines don’t have to be just a starting point. Sometimes they’re a great encapsulation that stands alone. One of my favorite zines will be a complete story, something that is a bite-sized chunk but also really meaty.
Your wrist injury makes me think about a really bad fall that I experienced. It wasn’t my wrist but the palm of my hand. Once I was at urgent care, my hand was quickly sealed into a cast. I was on the verge of completing an installment to an ongoing comic series I was doing at the time, what became the graphic novel, Alice in New York. So, once that cast was on, I thought I was screwed. Luckily, my partner, Jennifer, finished some of the still incomplete panels. And my pal, Dalton, completed the rest. I remember that was the year I went to the MoCCA Arts Festival with my latest installment. I consider that a zine, although it’s definitely a comic.
I don’t get too hung up on the definitions. It can be pretty free-form. A zine could be a comic. A comic could be a zine. As long as it’s printed out on paper with multiple pages, I say it’s a zine. And, if people don’t want to identify that way, they can call it a pamphlet or a comic. The only thing that bothers me is when big companies publish an ad and call it a zine. Zines have a real spirit of being anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and anti-consumerist. Zines are about people making something that is authentic to them–and putting it out there in the world. It’s not to sell a product. It’s not to boost their own ego. It’s more a way to try to participate in the world. That’s the spirit of zine-making.
The corporate world will always find ways to harvest the counterculture.
That’s definitely true.
Talk to us about your Oregon History Comics, something that takes more planning than the type of zine that might be more impulsive.
That project, which I started ten years ago, was a series of ten little mini-comics or zines. Each of them focuses on an overlooked or marginalized story from Oregon’s past. I researched and wrote all of them and each is illustrated by a different artist. Each page is just one or two lines of text and a drawing. So there’s these pretty big topics but told very succinctly, not too many words, super-easy to read and super-accessible. And it’s sold together as a box set. You can buy all ten. It was originally a fundraiser for a civic education nonprofit, Know Your City. So they distributed them and sold them and used the money to fund programs around the city related to getting to know Portland and its community.
I thought it was going to be really simple. I definitely underestimated how complicated it would be. At the time, I was working as a reporter for a newspaper here in town. I was thinking, “I write articles all the time. How hard can it be to write a comic? It’s basically the same thing, right?” It was a massive undertaking that took years and wound up involving over 150 people in terms of donors and workshops we did at schools and people who helped fold, staple and glue the final product–and then mail it out. And all the artists involved. It taught me about how to do a really big project that took a long time to plan, to make and complete.
I’ve taken that experience and applied it to the rest of my work. I’ve just completed a big book, Guantánamo Voices, an oral history of Guantanamo Bay told through comics. Similar to Oregon History Comics, there are ten different artists involved with this book. I’ve been working up the skills to take on such a project and do it well.
Creating something like a really worthwhile graphic novel is years in the making. I totally appreciate where you’re coming from. In your introduction, you talk about how creating a zine each day helped you with working on Guantanamo Voices. I’ve heard that from other creators, that they work best when they’re juggling more than one project. Can you talk about that?
I’m pretty bad at just doing one thing at a time. So, writing a book is a really hard process no matter what the topic is. It’s going to take years. No one is going to see it for a long time. You’re at your desk every day, doing research, reading other books for material. You’re working on this thing but you can’t share it. That, for me, is really hard–to be working on a years-long project and not have anything to show for it. And I think that isolation is compounded when the subject is pretty dark. It’s about Guantanamo Bay prison from many perspectives: lawyers, service members, former prisoners. That topic is really hard to face every day: reading about torture, violence, finding all these loose ends, and finding all these questions that we don’t have answers for. That’s the kind of mess I was wading through every day. So, I really wanted to have something that was just for fun and just for me–that I could publish every day, have an outlet for all those feelings I was going through from working on the book, good or bad. I really believe that making the daily zines was like building a scaffold to keep me sane.
I read a wonderful piece entitled Secret Life of Gitmo’s Women that you did with cartoonist Lucy Bellwood. Is that pretty much the starting point for what led to Guantánamo Voices?
I’m so glad you found that. This project started for me in 2008 when I met someone who was a veteran who had served at Guantanamo. They were actually making a zine at the IPRC, The Independent Publishing Resource Center, that I mentioned earlier. I just struck up a conversation. It turned out to be a zine about when they had worked as guard at Guantanamo Bay. This person had all these tattoos, a full punk, and didn’t look like someone I’d think had served in the military. I didn’t know anything about Guantanamo Bay and meeting this former guard, whose name is Chris Arendt, really blew my mind.
Chris was invited to go on a speaking tour around England, along with former prisoners. Former Guantanamo prisoners had formed an advocacy group called, Caged, which advocates for former prisoners from the U.S. war of terror. I knew I had to go along. I asked for permission to join them and they agreed. I went with them and kept a blog of the trip that I called, Guantánamo Voices. That was January 2009. At that time, President Obama was determined to close down Guantanamo Bay. That was the atmosphere we were all in during that tour. I had always planned to do something else with my blog entries but I honestly didn’t know how to. At 22, I didn’t really have the skills then to write a book about it or even embark upon such a project. And I didn’t know, emotionally, how to deal with all of those feelings. How do you, as journalist, present that level of drama and complexity of history?
I didn’t do anything with it for a few years until another former veteran, Laura Sandow, contacted me because she’d read my blog, Guantánamo Voices. And she wanted to talk to me about how to process what she’d experienced at Guantanamo. And we decided to form a project where I’d interview her and she and I would interview another female veteran who had also served at Guantanamo. And we’d turn this into a comic. It wound up being really powerful, Laura taking her raw feelings and being able to turn that into a narrative that made sense and was something you could share. It resonated with readers. From there, I thought it would be great to do more of these kind of pieces, to illustrate more of these kind of interviews. And that took another six or seven years before all of that happened. It just takes a long time to get these kind of projects together.
I really needed a publisher to put this out. I’m a big advocate of self-publishing. Obviously, I love making zines and comics. But, for a project of this scale, I needed a publisher who would distribute it world-wide and be able to make it a big deal and be able to pay people. We needed to pay the artists a fair rate to be able to do this and that required the money from a publisher. It wasn’t something that I could just do on my own. And it took a long time to find an agent, write a book pitch, get a publisher to buy it. Now, the book is coming out into the world.
That’s the power of the right publisher. Would you recommend keeping the book out of view until you’ve secured a publisher–or an agent?
No, I’d give the opposite advice. I think it’s totally fine to publish stories about a topic and build on that toward a book. I had the blog that was out in the world. And then the comic that was published. I could take that to a publisher and show them proof of concept, show them why it was powerful. It’s pretty hard, especially with comics, to tell a publisher what you intend to do without any actual work to show for it yet, to just say, “Imagine the images that would go here.” It’s pretty impossible to get a publisher on board with that. I would say put all your work out there in the world and build on it to pitch to a publisher if that’s what you want to do with your project. I don’t think every book project requires a publisher. Often, it’s not the way to go. But, if you have a project that requires a lot of money, legitimacy and global distribution, then a publisher can often be necessary. And a publisher wants to be able to see what you’ve already done. So, you can have some work that you can send them and say, “It’s just like this–but more. Give me some money.”
How are things going for you as contributing editor to The Nib?
At The Nib, we publish nonfiction and political comics. We were previously funded by Medium.com. And then Medium pivoted and disrupted their industry and we were cut loose. Then we became part of First Book Media, another big media company funded by an eccentric billionaire. Last year, they pivoted; we were cut loose. So, now The Nib is an independent publication with a super-small staff of one, which is Matt Bors, who runs it and the rest of us are freelancers who do editing, and also the people who write and draw for the print magazine. It’s actually going pretty well. We have a lot in the works despite having a limited budget. We’ve got a lot of subscribers who back the magazine and the site. We have a lot going on. In addition to publishing five new comics per week at least, we have an upcoming new print issue called, Power, that comes out in July. And two books coming out over the next two years, one is a queer comics collection called Be Gay, Do Comics, that’s an anthology by all LGBTQIA creators. And the other is called Greetings from the Wasteland by a bunch of creators during the Trump era. It’s really cool to be a part of The Nib.
You are an adjunct professor at Portland State University. What can you tell us about what you might expect from your students and what students might expect from you? From this vantage point, what do you see coming from a new crop of storytellers?
At Portland State University, I teach in a MFA program called “Art and Social Practice,” which is for people who are artists and working on socially engaged art of some kind. And they’re super creative and innovative and creating work that explores different mediums. So, they’re not all just working in print or online. They’re working in both. And out in the community. I’m excited about the work they’re doing. They’re nothing if not adaptable. They’re all about how people are engaging with work and how to reach them in different and interesting ways.
I also teach at Portland Community College. I teach a Media Studies class there. Most of the students are 19 to 25 years-old. And they’re awesome. I love them. They’re super political. And they’re really anti-capitalist. Every student in my class is an avowed anti-capitalist! I didn’t even make them that way. That’s how they came into the class. I have great admiration for the 19-year-old of today. Their politics are pretty cool. And they’re really engaged with the world in an inspiring way. I’m like, Let’s all give power to the teens!
Any final thoughts?
I always tell people that, if they want to be a writer or an artist, to just start writing and drawing.
Yeah, it’s a lifetime adventure. Thank you, Sarah.
Thank you, Henry.
Guantanamo Voices is a 208-page fully illustrated hardcover, available as of September 8, 2020, published by Abrams.
Keep up with Sarah Mirk right here.