The first issue of Broken Pencil was published in Toronto in June 1995 — incidentally, the same month I graduated from high school 100 miles south, in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. I say incidentally because I was also publishing a zine at the time, Mud, which was between issues 3 and 4 (of a total 8 between 1992 and 1997). Although I had heard about and occasionally read Factsheet Five, the American review digest of zines, Broken Pencil wasn’t on my radar for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
Flash forward 18 years later and I’m a c/r doctoral student at Syracuse, voluntarily writing reviews for BP in exchange for free copies of current issues.This makes looking at the print copy of #1 this week feel somewhat strangely nostalgic. Current issues of BP are slicker, the result of both cheaper printing costs and a wider circulation. For example:
While the covers have always been glossy, the early issues are marked by a 90s-like design, with several corny fonts and graphics overlaid on opaque images, and cheaper newsprint inside the cover. While I don’t know the circumstances of the BP’s early days — especially how it was bankrolled — I do know that it was founded by Hal Niedzviecki, a writer who was born in Canada, but schooled in the Washington DC suburbs and Bard in upstate NY (as near as I can tell, he received an MFA in creative writing from there not long before he started Broken Pencil). Although he’s written several books over the years and has freelanced for popular North American newspapers and magazines (including the New York Times Magazine, Playboy, Utne Reader, and more), at the time of BP’s launch, he was only 24 years old, and did not — again, as far as I can tell from a Proquest search — have any significant publications under his name. Niedzviecki edited BP until 2003, with #20 being is last issue before Emily Schultz takes the reigns. At some point he became the fiction editor. [Note: I am hopeful Niedzviecki will help fill in these gaps via interviews throughout my project.]
Editorially, the first year of Broken Pencil is marked by some hesitance, but it also sets forth an agenda for underground Canadian culture that sticks with the magazine throughout the next 19 years. The first issue, for example, included no feature stories — only an editorial, letters, interviews, excerpts, and reviews. But by #2, published 6 months later, two features were added. The first, written by Niedzviecki, focused on Canada’s law of legal deposit, a common copyright law that requires publishers to submit two copies of every publication to a cultural repository (the National Library in Canada’s case). The other feature, written by contributor Derek Winker, examines the free market impulses of “millennial colonists” of the early World Wide Web and sounds a jeremiad for zinesters to start taking control of it or suffer by watching its potential disappear. In #3, published in the summer of 1996, we see two more topical features. The first is article by Niedzviecki that draws a correlation between advancing technology and a shrinking of public money, suggesting that the independent artist is now code word for entrepreneur. As if they were paradoxically assisting in these advances, #3 also includes a short piece by Winkler on how to make a website for as little as $7.
The concerns articulated in these features make it clear that DIY, at least as far as Broken Pencil conceived it in the mid-90s, is about more than teaching each other how to make stuff (although there is a little of that with Winker’s website guide). For them, it is also about reflecting on the politics and agency of the underground within a larger consumer culture, thereby requiring a measurement of Canadian culture writ large. This is captured in the first words of the magazine, in #1’s editorial, written by Niedzviecki and his co-editor, Hillary Clark:
“…each new entry into the world of language is a potential wrong turn for some reader the danger of a blind corner is the pitfall of new ideas, undiluted view-points, radical and libertarian rants all produced by individuals who take it upon themselves to manufacture documents that have nothing to do with so-called market forces. So why do they do it? And why is it dangerous? We at Broken Pencil believe that the force of alternative publishing, from fringe ‘zines to little read literary journals to obscure chapbooks, is equal to any great manifesto that human ingenuity has sought to declare. Individually, these obscure publications may seem to not matter. But when considered as a collective unit, they are amazingly pervasive documents that insist on the sanctity of a life where independent creation is still possible in a society, a country, a world that might have it otherwise.” (1)
Of course only so much can be deduced from four articles written by two writers — Niedzviecki and Winkler — but many of the comments from early readers also suggest a preoccupation with Canadian culture, especially in reference to the United States. For example, in many of the letters published in these issues, there are allusions to BP being a newfound spokesperson and hub for Canada’s underground culture. Several letters thank BP for providing an alternative to Factsheet Five. Upon hearing about the initial creation of BP, early commenters in #1 wrote to say things like “it’s about time Canada had some type of zine guide” (5) and “Factsheet 5 tends to neglect zines in Canada, and see them in ‘Canadian Perspective’” (5). By #2, letters were already debating the shape and texture of the magazine, critiquing it for being too centered on Ontario or looking too much like Factsheet Five. One of the writers whose zine was excerpted in #1, Dave Cussword, wrote to remind the magazine that “as warden of Canadian pulp subculture,” they should “represent the non-conformity of its subject in design as well as content” (7). Likewise, “It’s Hip to Buy: The Evolution of Radical Culture in Canada,” Niedzviecki argues that “New Canadian culture is mean, marketable and looks a lot like the hipster ‘counter-culture’ of our Southern neighbors.” I’m not sure if this stays constant throughout the magazine’s history, but given the obvious US bias within zine culture, much of this makes sense. Defining the changing essence of Canadian culture, however, will require another layer of research for this diss.
The first year of BP also sees it move swiftly into a hybrid media; that is, it not only crafts a print and online presence but attempts to integrate the two. This occurs much earlier than I thought. Although the only real digital presence in first issue is an email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), by #2 there is an “E-Zines” section in the reviews section in addition to Winkler’s article about the Web, and in #3, a year after #1, they not only have a website counterpart ( www.io.org/-halpen/bpencil.html) to the print magazine, but a regular section called Zine of the Month, that features regular content on the website. Moreover in #3, Niedzviecki provides an email in the letters section, and one that is significantly cleaner than in #1 (email@example.com).
Questions/ideas moving forward:
- In terms of content, I’m most interested in the editorial, features, and letters sections since they make it easier to gauge the concerns of readers and editors than the reviews section. That said, I’m also wondering if I should trace metrics on other details — page count, # of reviews, etc.
- Much of the early life of the magazine is concerned with descriptors, especially “alternative” culture. It is an operating term in the editorial in #2 (“ Those enquiring into the nature of alternative publishing — already a cumbersome, self -perpetuating and almost meaningless term — insist on generalizations”). The tagline for the magazine begins with “The Guide to Alternative Publications in Canada,” which runs through #9. Moreover, in a 2000 interview about his book Hello I’m Special, Niedzviecki shied away from the description his publisher’s publicity team described as “alternative culture guru,” preferring the term “underground culture guru.” I wonder if tension is visible in the next 4-5 issues.
- Early issues shuttle between playing the role of sponsor and critic — excerpting certain zines, but also slamming others in the reviews section. Feature stories about topics of concern, continue, but so do interview with people or makers. I wonder if (1) this is always the case, and (2) if this role is unique to a textroom or a magazine like BP.
- How else does the BP continue to function as a hybrid media?