"Could you excuse me for a second?" David Shapiro says, moments after we begin talking. Then he melts into a crowd there for the launch of his new publication. Not a book. Not a magazine he's editing. Not even some hot new social media startup.
He's put out a zine. More specifically, The World's First Perfect Zine.
The zine's launch party was hosted by Other Music, itself a throwback kind of business—an independent CD and record shop in the East Village. But then there was another sponsor, the wildly popular blogging platform Tumblr, who brought the free wine and snacks. Several contributors took turns at the DJ decks, including Victor Vazquez (aka Kook A.D.) from white-hot rap crew Das Racist, the novelist Tao Lin, and New York Times writer Jenna Wortham, who wrote about the current zine resurgence last month, quoting The Runcible Spoon zine co-publisher and professional nonprofit social media coordinator Malaka Gharib as saying, "There's nothing more joyous than having a little publication in your hands."
In an increasingly social, digital, 140-character world, even those of us who weren't around to witness zines are rediscovering them. They're those handwritten or manual-typed, mimeographed odes to burgeoning bands and cultural movements. They're the retro-radical flipside to endless Tumblr scrolls and WYSIWYG WordPress-powered screeds. Zines only require guts and glue, and David Shapiro has both of those in spades.
He is pleasant to talk to and has the attentive eyes of a good listener—however, his attention this evening is divided among a tremendous group of people he has to greet, thank, and shop-talk. His elusiveness only works to preserve an aura of mystery cultivated over nearly the past two years, starting with the fact that his name is not David Shapiro.
Having a pseudonym ("I just picked a name that gets lost in Google") serves as a buffer between David’s music and culture writing online, and his other career at "a very conservative institution in downtown Manhattan." In addition to his third career as a neophyte screenwriter, David is also responsible for The World’s First Perfect Zine, a one-time publication he created with an impressive roster of collaborators from the worlds of music, film, literature, and both print and digital media. He is 23 years old.
Shapiro didn't just drop his zine and watch the adoring crowd at the launch event magically materialze. In fact, he got a dose of early attention the way many breakthrough writers do in the digital media era: with his blog, Pitchfork Reviews Reviews, which is hosted by Tumblr (and which is where you can order the zine). Starting in March of 2010, the site initially set about critiquing the incisive, bordering on snobby reviews of indie music bible, Pitchfork. He would write these dispatches from his BlackBerry in stolen moments from the job he’d just started and email them to a friend to post online. The site quickly garnered a devoted following.
Although the blog still bears its original name, David has abandoned the initial format and branched out into cultural reportage from the various almost impossibly hip NYC events he occasionally attends. These are posted either to his own site or online magazine, The Awl. These understated writings for The Awl bear the same trademark as his reviews do—a "Sent via BlackBerry" signature at the bottom, indicating what you’ve just read has been written on the fly, via furious thumbwork.
The unplanned foray into screenplay writing began inauspiciously enough last summer, after David read an autobiographical story at a reading for his fellow Internet and magazine writers. The following week he received one of those prank-sounding emails from someone who claimed to have attended the reading, asking whether David would be interested in writing a script based on the story. He was. According to David, the now-complete screenplay has found financing, cleared many major hurdles, and is slated to shoot next spring.
The "First Perfect" Contributors
1// Dylan Baldi
Sole songwriter and recording member in the band Cloud Nothings.
2// Rostam Batmanglij
Musician and songwriter in the bands Vampire Weekend and Discovery.
3// Joe Coscarelli
Assistant editor at New York Magazine’s Daily Intel blog.
4// Lena Dunham
Swedish pop group.
6// Tao Lin
7// Ryan O’Connell
An editor at Thought Catalog.
8// Maureen O’Connor
Staff writer at Gawker.
9// Choire Sicha
Co-editor of The Awl.
10// Himanshu Suri
Rapper in the band Das Racist.
11// Bucky Turco
Editor of Animal New York.
12// Victor Vazquez
Rapper in the band Das Racist.
13// Mike Vilensky
Staff writer at The Wall Street Journal.
14// Jenna Wortham
Staff writer at The New York Times.
Despite having a screenplay seemingly headed into production, The World’s First Perfect Zine may be David’s most ambitious project yet, if not his most obvious. Considering how much media most readers consume in digital form, and how much it’s shared on platforms like Tumblr, the idea of a Millennial writer putting out a zine is something of a retro curveball.
David’s awareness of zines stems from his devotion to music writing and a passing familiarity with punk and DIY culture. "One night last year I was reading the Cometbus zine compilation ... and I thought it was really amazing," David says. "It made me want to make a zine of my own." It’s doubtful that many other young writers with similar epiphanies would run into Pitchfork CEO Ryan Schreiber soon after and be able to pique his interest in helping, but this one did. In order to actually broker the deal, so to speak, David had to hustle.
First, he offered up Himanshu Suri from Das Racist and Tao Lin as contributors, in order to sweeten the deal for Ryan. It worked. Only then did he inform Suri and Lin that he was putting out a zine with the head of Pitchfork, and ask if them to lend a hand. "I suspect this sort of bluffing is how a lot of business gets done," David says.
Even though it eventually became clear that Ryan wouldn't be able to contribute, by then he’d found other willing collaborators, and it was too late to turn back. Some of the contributors are good friends who happen to be involved in media; others he reached out to for the first time. Most are somewhere in between. "I had to do a little convincing, even among the people closest to me," David says. "I think the most convincing factor for any of the contributors was who the rest of the contributors were."
"Probably I'm perverse, but it's so much more appealing and even flattering to be approached to contribute a piece for a one-off zine than a big fancy magazine," says co-editor of The Awl, Choire Sicha, who agreed to write a few pages for David. "Zines are put together on an "I like you, you like me!" basis entirely—and there's not even any publicists involved."
The contributors were instructed to submit anything they were interested in. "I hoped the material would be as risque as possible because there are only 500 copies of the zine and none of the writing will be on the Internet, and so it's not gonna follow the authors around for the rest of their lives," David says. "A lot of the contributors gave me their blue material."
This last point highlights one of the key differences between zines and Tumblr culture, the ease of the latter partly responsible for the continued scarcity of the former. The two concepts are similar in that they’re both empowering outlets for writers without a mainstream publication at their disposal, and that they lack the system of checks and balances that serves as creative filter for most media. However, zines are much more ephemeral—even though they may conceivably live on in someone’s dusty bookshelf for years.
Another major difference is that readers can’t curate and customize a zine the way they can with the firehose blast of content available on Tumblr. "Looking at your Tumblr dashboard is like looking into a reflecting pool," David says. "Tumblr doesn't force you to follow any blogs, so whatever you follow is what you want to follow, and whatever you think is wrong with what you see, you know, says something about you."
Since the two have a symbiotic relationship, it’s oddly fitting that David asked the staff at Tumblr if they would be willing to throw a release party with him, and that they agreed. The party was well attended, packed with curiosity seekers, musicians, and as many members of the young New York media militia likely to be found in one room all year. In other words, it was the perfect recruitment spot for a zine. "I have a dream list of contributors for the next one," David says, "but it's more likely to happen if the first one sells out, so go buy a copy and I'll make you another."
[Top image: tophercris.com]