Zinelandia: Night Flight talks with Joe Biel about “$100 & a T-Shirt,” his documentary about zines

By on April 7, 2017

$100 & a T-Shirt is a wonderful documentary about the world of self-published zines, focusing mostly on the Portland, Oregon area. It was directed by Joe Biel and first released on DVD in 2004, and you can now find it streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

Here’s what it says on the back of the DVD:

“In just under an hour, $100 & a T-shirt brings zine culture to life! Using broken and borrowed equipment, Joe illuminates the world of self-publishing. He gives us glimpses of the Zine Symposium, takes us on a zone-themed bicycle tour around Portland, and interviews local zinesters. The documentary answers a wide array of questions, including, “What are zines?,” “Why do people make zines?,” “Where did zines come from?,” “How do zine communities function?,” and What does the future hold for zines?”

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Joe Biel

Night Flight recently interviewed the film’s director, Joe Biel:

Night Flight: Let’s start with the $100 & a T-Shirt documentary first, and then we’ll backtrack and side-step into some other areas of interest after that. Your film chronicles the self-publishing zine culture in your hometown of Portland, Oregon, circa 2004. Do you think the Portland zine scene is unique in particular ways, and if so, how?

Joe Biel:​ I moved to Portland in 1998 after some flopping around the country and in many ways Portland’s zine scene was then at a point where it was expanding on the punk ideas and ethics that I had really latched ​onto as a teenager. There was a real feeling that we could change the world by comparing experiences and sharing ideas.

When I moved here, the Independent Publishing Resource Center was just getting legs under it and Reading Frenzy offered a place for everyone’s zines to be sold and discovered. Some friends and I founded the Portland Zine Symposium to have a way for all of the zinesters to meet each other. There was even a free copy center, Pinko’s, located in a church with a free brunch.

All of these factors resulted in hundreds of zines being published in city limits and people flocking to the city as a zine epicenter.

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NF: The title comes from something that Moe Bowstern of the zine Xtra Tuf talks about in the film, how she was told by her skipper — who wrote something for a publication called Pacific Fisherman — was paid “One hundred dollars and a T-shirt.” Did that title resonate with you for a particular reason?

JB:​ A question that every zinemaker faces relentlessly is “What is a zine?” I think Rebecca Gilbert does a great job of explaining this in the film and I think Moe Bowstern does a job great of making sense why some writers or artists see this as a lesser medium. Essentially, zines are a format that places community and connection over money.

As a result, when people merely ape the aesthetics of a zine their work feels more like a demo tape or a business card and it’s alienating. Moe connected these points in my mind for the first time when she offers her friend the same ‘$100 and a t-shirt’ that he gets to write for Pacific Fisherman to write for her zine. He still declined. This interaction resonated strongly with me.

That difference in motivations is what makes zines such a magical social ghetto until you run into its limitations. I’d much rather have meaningful relationships and meet people where I can relate and learn things than have a measly $100 and a t-shirt.

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NF: The zinesters in the film talk a lot about the process of putting together a zine, and they offer a lot of keen insight. It seems like quite a personal journey you have to undertake on your own if you get the idea to publish a zine. What do you think makes a good zine?

JB:​ We all have things inside of us that we either aren’t aware of without much personal exploration as well as things that we aren’t comfortable talking about with anyone in our immediate family or circle of friends.

I think a good zine explores those issues in depth. I think it works best as a love letter to our obsessions that raises a flag to other people with those interests; the things we can’t stop thinking about but don’t have a proper escape valve for that creativity. I think a zine is a way to do important soul searching work, like what most people get out of therapy or religion or other kinds of community.

I did not have any kind of proper education and so I learned about many subjects for the first time by reading zines about them, which led to greater exploration and research. Good zines teach me about subjects that I didn’t know I was interested in.

Often it’s someone passion and enthusiasm for a subject and the way that they write those feelings onto the page that makes me care.

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NF: We’ve read that as a filmmaker that you draw your “origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock.” What can you tell us about that?

JB:​ ​I grew up as an at-risk youth. My dad was severely disabled from a stroke and there was constant violence in our household. Nobody worked, we lived on public assistance, and I survived in fear daily.

I’m autistic and so it was difficult for me to learn social norms. Hardship taught me resolve and in many ways punk rock taught me values and proper ways of being in the world, how to develop analytical skills to read the news and figure out what is and is not being said, to find my politics, and to apply the idea that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

I meet so many “filmmakers” who never seem to make anything because they believe nothing is ever good enough. For better or worse, growing up within punk taught me that it’s more important to express yourself than to make it perfect. So in the case of this film, I just grabbed broken and borrowed equipment and then cobbled my way into learning any skills that I didn’t have.

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NF: We’re mostly familiar with music-related zines — particularly the ones we wrote for in the ’80s and ’90s, like Vendetta (a few features from that zine can be found here) and didn’t even really consider that there were zines that covered other topics. What are some great examples of non-music related zines? Any particular favorites our readers should know about?

JB:​ ​The zines of the 1920s were superior versions of science fiction pulps and wrestling fanzines. From there the medium was harnessed by the beats and literary scenes, including a vibrant feminist science fiction community. Punk rockers swarmed it in the 70s, starting with Punk. And that blew up into homocore and riot grrrl and created the modern rubric that we think of with zines today.

Granted, you could look at a lot of publications created 200-500 years ago and realize that they were zines in hindsight, including a lot of Benjamin Franklin’s musings on medicine that he wrote for patients in hospitals. There are great zines like Cats Hate Cops, featuring real news clippings of cats attacking cops.

Many zines feature meditations on racial justice, vegan recipes, recalling experiences of sexual assault, documentation of exploring abandoned buildings, critiques of anarchist theory, or poking fun at popular culture.

Nowadays, I am most inspired when I see zines about a single topic where there is a lot of room to riff, like say “hair” or “shoes.” And these topics tap into the experiential narratives of each writer, about how their various marginal identities tie into that subject. Like with film or any good medium, the sky is your imagination.

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NF: There’s a lot of great zine titles too, what are some of your personal favorites?

JB:​ ​In 2000 I collaborated with my friend Zack Hyde on the zine Mediocre Punkhouse which was a riff on Better Homes & Gardens. I’m still pretty proud of that. Admittedly, I’ve often put tremendous thought into the titles of my zines from Perfect Mix Tape Segue to Take Off Your Fucking Dress and Go Bowling to The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting.

Other titles that I’ve always enjoyed include Shark Fear, Shark Awareness, Crap Hound, Life & Times of Butch Dykes, You are a Great & Powerful Wizard, and ANYONE can paint their nails because GENDER is imaginary EVERYTHING is meaningless LOVE is a myth SEX is gross we all DIE ALONE and our STUPID BODIES will soon return to THE DUST from whence they came How to Talk To Your Cat about Abstinence, and How Not To Kill Yourself.

It is only with mild shame that I finally admit that I often my zines long and ridiculous titles only for the amusement of watching reviewers print those titles in Factsheet Five.

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NF: The DVD was released in 2004, but it’ll still be new to some of our Night Flight Plus subscribers. What do you think has changed in the zine world in the past decade or so? Or has the internet and blogs and what-not killed off a lot of the culture?

JB:​ There are more zines being published today than at any point in history. This is the foundation of the 20th anniversary edition of Make a Zine: Start Your Own Publishing Revolution. I was interviewed for this feature in Time magazine in 2011 that hits on this and this New York Times article more or less brings things up to date as far as I see it.

Zines are more relevant than ever because news has been downsized to a series of memes and clickbait. Even before the current era of fake news sites, headlines were reduced to gotchas and substance was on the decline. As I wrote about extensively in the book, reading online is very bad for information retention and actually makes the reader react in a hostile way to the material.

Zines are the polar opposite of this where everyone is an equal and we can share from our experiences and learn from each other while tapping this information into deeper parts of our brain. It’s an immersive subculture where anyone can impact and change how this tiny microcosm operates.

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NF: We’ve read that you shot 64 hours of footage? Considering the film is just 128 minutes long, you certainly had to leave a lot out. Was there any content you shot that you’d like to have included or that we should know about?

JB:​ I’ve since read that the “average” feature documentary has a ratio of about 100:1 of cutting room floor versus final cut. My final cut is 71 minutes so that seems about right. Then I created short narratives and bonus material for another 57 minutes of material that I really liked and just didn’t fit into the main storyline.

Honestly, I still have my masters and had long planned to revisit the other 62 hours or footage and see if I could cut a separate film from that without any redundant footage. I had read about Trekkies doing that for Trekkies 2 which seemed so common sense to my brain.

I started fishing around to get some supplemental interviews in 2008 but whereas in 2002 when people were excited about being included, I didn’t get the same response the second time through. People were camera shy and insisted that they didn’t have anything to add; that they didn’t know very much.

I was focusing so hard on experiential narratives that I figured I could focus on the four or five strongest characters and create something more personality-based but then several of the people passed away and I moved on and started another feature documentary.

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NF: The version we’ve got streaming on Night Flight Plus is the third version of the film. You probably made some updates with some of the original footage you’d shot, editing out some other stuff, adding new footage. What are some of the updates you made to $100 & a T-Shirt for this new version?

JB:​ The biggest change was that I tightened up the whole film to be punchier. ​I think the original cut was around 16 minutes longer and I feel like it flows better without losing any content. I re-mastered all of the audio, which was one of the things I had really screwed up with the original release.

I shot and added some b-roll to smooth over some particularly rough spots or scenes where the original b-roll wasn’t working or to explain a few scenes where the dialogue is unclear what they are talking about. I wasn’t trying to change or adjust it as much as better allowing it to stand on its own feet.

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NF: $100 & a T-Shirt was your first foray into filmmaking, wasn’t it? Any plans to do any more documentaries soon?

JB:​ I had shot bands in the 90s and worked intensively on a collaborative narrative feature in 2002.

​I had made one short documentary while I was buckling down on $100 & a T-Shirt to get my feet wet. I’ve since made three more feature documentaries, Aftermass: How Portland Become North America’s #1 Cycling Mecca (2014), If It Ain’t Cheap, It Ain’t Punk (2009) [NOTE: we’ve also got If It Ain’t Cheap in our documentary section on Night Flight Plus], and Of Dice & Men (2006).

After making five feature films in twelve years, I needed a break from four-year projects and have instead focused on making hundreds of short films.

Honestly, I feel like $100 & a T-Shirt was my worst film in just about every way but it’s by far my most popular…so what do I know? At the same time, I’ve watched the pay scale for documentary film just plummet over those past 15 years as the market is flooded with new films.

So instead Elly Blue and I received funding to create a series of short films, Groundswell, about grassroots social justice movements that we took on our Dinner & Bikes tour for seven years.

We’ve got a handful more in production still but are winding down that project…to create a news organization where we create decentralized video reporting ​on these incidents that can then broadcast to a bigger audience!

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NF: Tell us about the Portland Zine Symposium, which is seen in the film. You were one of the original co-founders?

JB:​ In 2001 I had just quit drinking and was centering myself around more positive things to be involved in. I wanted to create an event for zines like the punk festivals that I had grown up attending. Fortunately, I had some very organized and inspiring friends with similar ideas and visions who did quite a bit of the groundwork to make it into a real thing.

There wasn’t anything quite like what we had envisioned and it became very successful and is still an annual event seventeen years later. When he was Mayor of Portland, Sam Adams even gave an award to the event and honored it during a city council session in 2010!

Many other people put on “Zine Symposiums” all over the world now which is hugely flattering!

I am really proud that we created this institution where the founders could quit one-by-one and the event carries on, led by new people inspired by what zines and community mean to them!

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NF: What other U.S. cities have had a good zine scene? Do they still exist? Have you been to any other zine symposiums?

JB:​ Before Portland, San Francisco was the epicenter in the mid-90s. There were other pockets as well. Seattle and Chicago have vibrant scenes and now many cities have variations of Zine Symposiums or smaller zine fests.

I’ve attended about a hundred other zine events over the years but it began to feel like a bubble; like I was spinning my wheels and gradually I spent more of my effort trying to grow various zine communities rather than revel in the ones that exist. Nonetheless, I had really great experiences at zine fests in Detroit, Milwaukee, Halifax, San Francisco, Boston, and Bowling Green.

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NF: You’ve also combined some of your other interests, including riding your bike — the film features a zine bicycle tour of Portland? Tell us a little about your interest in bicycle riding.

JB:​ I made an entire film about how Portland became the bic​yclin​g capitol that there are quite a few interviews about as well.

When I was 18 and 19 I was involved in two very serious car crashes that were both life-threatening. Around the same time I had read an article in a zine titled “How to save $7,000 per year” about giving up your car. Once my car was declared to be a total loss, I took the money and declared driving unsafe. I bought a fancy bike and felt that it was my punk rock moral obligation to ride a bike as an act of personal independence.

And over 20 years later, it’s meaningful to me for different reasons that have more to do with experience, community, and fun than obligation or responsibility.

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NF: Tell us about your publishing company Microcosm.

JB: ​Microcosm exists to empower readers to change their lives and the world around them. ​Growing up in Cleveland in the 70s and 80s and learning of radical politics​ in the 90s, my abusive upbringing, absent education, and young mentors in the punk scene quickly led​ me​ to Harvey Pekar, the Dead Boys, The Pagans, Dennis Kucinich, and a long union history of corporate hegemony versus public power.

Soon thereafter, I began creating the kind of resources that I needed as a child about gender, mental health, grassroots organizing, history, political power, race and class, and analytical skills. And 21 years later, not much has changed. The issues are shockingly just as relevant as they were in the 90s and my heart gets more invested as my developmental senses improve.

​Because ​ I am autistic, ​I love the stimulation of the changing landscape of publishing. I now understand the role of my own meaning and purpose and see suffering as opportunity instead of pain.​ I wrote a book about this, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Autism, and w​e made a comic about this tale, with the publishing industry portrayed as dinosaurs and ourselves as rats.

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Joe Biel

NF: It would be pretty much impossible to list everything you’ve done, but you’re also an author of several books, and in the next month or so you’ll have the 20th Anniversary edition of your book Make A Zine: Start Your Own Publishing Revolution available for readers. You’ve given us an excerpt from the book’s Foreward, which highlights some of the same stuff that your film is about, thanks for that. What else can you tell us about the book?

JB: Make a Zine ​is the written compliment to $100 & a T-Shirt. ​ It explores the same various questions about zines and why they flourish now and notably, the new edition explores the concept of community within zines.

Rather than looking at the limitations, I interview some people who felt frustrated by existing zine bubbles and pushed through to create their own bigger success stories of creating new networks rather than walking away with their tale between their legs. It’s a major beauty of zines that anyone can have a bigger impact and reshape the way that the communities operate. This was the first book that I had written and I was always somewhat dissatisfied with it.

The co-author passed away in 2012 and there was a tremendous amount of new interest in zines over the past two years — especially after the election — so I finally got to create the book that best fits my vision of what zines can and should represent.

I added a lot of jokes, especially about the history of zines, since there were so many white guys with wigs making zines before technology made the medium more democratic. There’s a huge era where witches were considered such a threat that the church made anti-witching zines and distributed them all over Europe. I explain which zines started wars. This stuff is just so ripe for humor.

The new book makes me really happy. You can check out all of my various works at my nerd supply store/website.

NF: Finally, we have to ask, what’s your opinion of the TV show “Portlandia”? Their last season airs in 2018, we think you should be a part of the show somehow.

JB:​ I watched the first season in 2012 and felt like Portland is actually much weirder than “Portlandia.” The first few seasons felt like they could make fun of us better but it has grown with time.

I happened to have a pink cycling cap during the era of the “Cars, why?” skit and the parallels between Fred’s character and myself were pointed out by dozens of people but, to me, that skit felt like it was set in New York City.

I enjoy Fred and Carrie generally and I feel like they get an unfair amount of blame for the tremendously increased cost of living in Portland, particularly since Carrie left for L.A. I think “Portlandia” has grown the myth of Portland and drawn new expectations of the city.

As Mayor Sam Adams put it “it’s a TV show for a city without TVs.” I do feel that I am treated much more like a human circus show by tourists and that is part of the show’s influence. They did include some of our books on the show twice which has been really incredible, including Fred reading one in bed this season which I had serendipitously drawn the cover for while watching “Portlandia” in 2012!

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(Fred Armisen above, not Joe)

Thanks, Joe!

Here’s an excerpt from the Foreward to the 20th Anniversary edition of Joe Biel’s Make A Zine: Start Your Own Publishing Revolution (published by Microcosm Publishing; 3 edition; May 23, 2017):

A zine is a love letter about the author’s obsessions, despite its obfuscated word origin in the 1920s. Zines have more in common with books than magazines and can be as off-the-cuff as they can be bereft of highfalutin ideas. A zine showcases the subject that you just can’t stop thinking about. The editor’s enthusiasm and unique worldview is so genuine and infectious that readers become hooked on topics that that they didn’t know they were interested in.

A zine offers a window into someone else’s fascinations without the clinical or academic distance that often comes in books or the newspaper. While zines were originally ways for fans to elaborate on their science fiction and wrestling fandom, they were later embraced by DIY subcultures such as the beat poets, punk rock, and street art.

Zines are beautifully unique creatures like dinosaurs or unicorns, only limited by our imaginations. They are a product of lived experiences and culture without the limitations of having to compete in a commercial marketplace. If someone tried to copy someone else’s form or style, they simply couldn’t make something as interesting or with the same levels of authenticity.

Each zine comes uniquely from the person whose mind created it. Everything is distinct in its viewpoints from Quitter Quarterly to Brown People for Black Power to Motorbooty, a zine about population control…for bands!

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Joe Biel (photo by Sprocket Podcast)

Joe Biel is also the director of the documentaries Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, If It Ain’t Cheap, It Ain’t Punk, Of Dice & Men, and the Groundswell film series. His work can be found here.

Watch $100 & a T-Shirt, If It Ain’t Cheap, It Ain’t Punk and other great documentaries, over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.