Recently a friend gave me a book called Burn Collector, reprinting the first nine issues of a zine of that title, by Al Burian. I opened it with casual interest — this wasn’t anything I’d read or known about back in the 90s, when it first came out — but it caught me emotionally off-guard: It was a book that almost hurt to read, the way it hurts to read the journal you kept when you were 17, something that reminds you of who you used to be, and who you thought you would become. I’ve never thought of myself as the product of a particular generation, let alone of the subculture of zines, but reading Burn Collector made me aware that I am, I totally am, in the same way that visiting your hometown reminds you of where you come from — the accent you lost, the faith you outgrew, the crush you never got over — and of what you’ve left behind.
Do I need to explain what zines were? They still exist, but their golden age was circa 1980s–90s, the eve of the internet. They were like blogs, except printed on paper and stapled, and cost like two dollars. I never had a zine; I published a minicomic, which was like a zine, except with cartoons instead of words. (A cartoon was like a meme, except done with pen and talent.) You’d buy them at independent bookstores, comic book shops, or record stores, and if you really liked one maybe you’d write the author a letter — on paper, sent via U.S. Postal Service — and a week or two later you’d actually get a note back. You might begin a correspondence this way, even a friendship. It was like radioing messages back and forth between star systems, a tenuously connected galaxy of isolated civilizations scattered among the heartless vacuum of mainstream culture.
I should also perhaps explain that, inasmuch as generational cohorts have any distinctive characteristics, one of my own, Generation X’s, was alienation from popular culture. Since we were demographically negligible, no one much bothered pandering to us. So as far as we were concerned, corporate entertainment — network sitcoms, Hollywood movies, Top 40 radio — was to be ignored, disdained, or derided as mass-produced, lowest-common-denominator crap for boring consumers, for Normals — what the kids now call “basic.” (My reaction, still, when young people are outraged that, e.g., the Oscar host’s jokes are sexist, is a kind of bemusement: Why the fuck are you watching the Oscars?) Some people got rid of their TVs. (Imagine, if you can, getting rid of your phone.) Instead we made up our own basement DIY subcultures (which inevitably got scarfed up by marketers and shat back out as brands called “alt” and “indie”), of which vanished civilization zines and minis are artifacts.
In his introduction, Burian remembers the initial inspiration to create Burn Collector: one of those synchronous run-ins with an old friend who was getting onto the subway just as he was getting off, when he wished he’d had a pre-printed pamphlet to hand off to the guy to fill him in on how he’d been. His capsule description of a personal zine — “a small, relatively recent accounting of yourself” — made me realize that no matter how artful or formally refined I try to make my essays, whether I think I’m modeling myself after E.B. White or H.L. Mencken, Seneca or Montaigne, they’re effectively just issues of my own personal zine: chatty letters to the reader, catching them up on my latest anecdotes, complaints, and third-round insights.
I got a similar jolt of recognition — one that felt almost like a pang of guilt — from another line in Burian’s introduction: “I was, and still am, happiest when I was doing a little bit of everything, and not taking any of it too seriously.” I set out to become a writer and accidentally got distracted into being a cartoonist for a decade before I found my way back to writing again — but “writer” and “cartoonist” are less descriptors of what I was actually doing than what I got to call myself when people asked at parties. You end up specializing and labeling yourself partly of necessity — if you want to be an artist rather than a dilettante, you need to devote yourself fully to your chosen art form — but also because the world forces you to. Tomi Ungerer, best known as the illustrator of beloved children’s books like The Three Robbers and lesser-known creator of fantastical S&M erotica, lamented: “In America, you are only allowed to be one thing.” My first collection of essays, which included some cartoons, got shelved, in some stores, under Humor, in others under Graphic Novels, so for my next book it was decided: no more cartoons. Seeing its lovely cover design, the first of my book covers I hadn‘t drawn myself, was like looking into a mirror and seeing a much handsomer stranger’s face, like the actor playing me in a biopic.
The concept of “selling out” was still very much a part of the zeitgeist in the 1990s. Like many of our dearest values, it was somewhat ill-defined. Essentially, it meant compromising or betraying your principles, prostituting your talents in the service of commerce — letting yourself be co-opted by the mainstream. (My cartoonist friends and I had our own idiom for it: “going cat book.”) Burian remembers talking to a young punk who, on learning that one member of his favorite band was now teaching sociology, “shook his head and scowled, as if that were the most tragically disappointing outcome he could have imagined.” I’m not sure what outcome he would’ve approved of: living in a tent in his sixties, like Alex Chilton? There was a movement called “voluntary simplicity,” which was a lot like being poor, but on purpose. When my friend Tom Hart (a fellow cartoonist I met through the mail in the 90s) was asked in an interview how he reconciled the life of an artist with the demands of family, he answered: “Well, you can always be poor.” It remains a perfectly viable, if unpopular, option. There’s also a phenomenon called “downward mobility,” which is less voluntary, and lacks the imprimatur of a philosophy. Mine was the first postwar American generation to be downwardly mobile, but Millennials were the first to know they were, one factor that must account for their endemic air of gloom.
I think the concept of “selling out” may now be not only extinct but unthinkable, in the same sense that concepts like “freedom” became literally un-thinkable in Orwell’s Newspeak: There’s no longer any frame of reference for it. What could it even mean now? The whole point of everything, whether you’re a blogger or a podcaster, a YouTuber or an Influencer, is to monetize your content, to market your brand. In a recent essay on utopianism, Bonnie Johnson writes: “I believe that the most treacherous success of neoliberal hegemony has been our cognitive privatization.” She’s talking about capitalism drafting us into a war of all against all instead of working for a collective good, but I’d also interpret it to mean turning us all, in our own minds, into products instead of people.
But these are all probably less differences between the 1980s and the 2010s, or Generations X and Z, than between being young and being old. I imagine everyone undergoes these occasional referenda on our present selves at the hands of our younger ones — idealistic hardasses all, to whom we must inevitably seem failures and traitors. Years ago a cartoonist friend of mine liked to present his friends with a gedankenexperiment: If your 16-year-old self could see you now, what would they think of you? (His own answer: “He would smother me with a pillow, and I would let him.”) I think my younger self would be disappointed by how preoccupied I am with money, but he’d be impressed that I still don’t have a job — not realizing that these are both functions of the same thing.
I’m not sure the opinion of your adolescent self is the surest moral polestar. You make most of the biggest decisions in life, the ones that’ll determine its trajectory for the next decades — what you want to do, where you’ll go to college, who you’ll marry — when you have the least amount of data to base them on, and not the vaguest understanding of what their real-life implications will be. Later, you get so lost in the thicket of complications, compromises, and forfeitures that the memory of what you thought you wanted when you were 12 is often your only clue to who you really are, like an ice core sample from a thousand centuries ago, before there was a particle of pollutant in the virgin sky. Herman Melville kept a quote from Schiller over his desk: “Stay true to the dreams of thy youth.” Whether this advice worked out for Melville depends, I guess, on your priorities: He left behind one of the most cryptic and astonishing monuments in world literature, but ended his days stuck in a crappy day job he hated.
An old friend and colleague of mine and I were talking about how short the time gets in middle age — not just because it’s finite and you start calculating how much is left, but because you suddenly have all these obligations to family and career, and the hours and days evaporate. When you’re in your twenties and thirties it seems like you’re just goofing off until your real life starts, but once your real life does start, it turns out to take up all your goddamn time, and you yearn for the goofing off. Last summer I made a conscious effort to spend some afternoons doing what I used to devote most of my time to when I was young — writing long, thoughtful letters to friends. It was one of the few things I’d done in recent years that felt really voluntary, lazy, free. It was such a pleasure it felt like procrastination — just as it did in my twenties, come to think of it. I used to think I should really be working on my novel instead, not realizing that those letters were my novel. They were what made me a writer. Friendship and goofing off were always my real vocation; writing was just a by-product, one that now, luckily, makes me a little money. Maybe all of literature is just what Burian described: a note hastily handed off to someone as you pass in transit, some stray observations and a few fleeting thoughts, before you have to go.