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A look into Bristol’s underground comic and zine culture

bristol zine fair feature

Freaks, Punks & Zinsters

The city of Bristol has always been coloured with a rebellious streak. For centuries, the city has been the hotbed for political dissent, riots, and divergent thinking. This spirit of defiance is the beating heart of Bristol’s cultural identity; a spirit of diversity that continuously flows through its streets, clubs, cafés, shops and venues. It unites together all kinds of misfits, outcasts and outsiders; from street artists to anarchist punks, from hippies to Rastafarians, all of them have mixed and intermingled in the city throughout the years, spreading and exchanging radical ideas on art, culture and politics.

‘The zine can be a powerful tool to give voice to those without a voice. It’s a medium that celebrates the amateur, the untutored, and the unapologetic.’

The ways in which these ideas can be shared and exchanged are as varied as the people themselves; In the 21st century the most popular methods are through the internet; through blogs, chatrooms, social media etc. However, despite all this technological advancement, there still remains a humble media form that has endured as the voice of the underground for many decades and continues to grow in influence and provide people with a way to speak their minds: the zine. The zine can be a powerful creative tool to give voice to those without a voice. It’s a medium that celebrates the amateur, the untutored, and the unapologetic. Zines can be about anything; they can often be as bold, funny, tragic and strange as anything found in mainstream media, oftentimes more so. Zines can foster genuine connectivity with like-minded and creative talent, and there’s no better place this spirit can be seen than in Bristol.


A zine (pronounced ‘zeen’) is an abbreviated term for magazine or fanzine. A zine is most commonly a self-published booklet that is independently made and cheaply produced (usually via a photocopier) for a limited print number, within a small reading circulation. This circulation usually reflects a niche audience who gravitate to a particular interest, i.e. music genres, left-wing politics, fanfiction etc.

bristol zine fair feature


Although the term ‘zine’ wouldn’t appear until the 1940’s, the practice of producing cheap-to-make, independently published booklets has existed in Europe and America for centuries.
Since the invention of the printing press, the opportunity for dissenters and the ostracised people of society to express their views have been utilised in the form of ‘chapbooks’ or pamphlets. These cheaply-made alternative media forms were much like people use zines today; they contained stories, poetry, illustrations, and religious and political tracts. Often pamphlets were used by radical dissidents to stir-up discontent among the common people and could often incite revolution. They were a widely-used means of communicating news, ideas and politics the American and French revolutions.

The zine as we know it today was founded during the genesis of the underground press in the 1960’s and would become vital in the late ‘70’s as a part of the burgeoning punk music culture happening in the UK and the US. It provided a means that communities could keep in touch, exchange ideas, promote up-and-coming bands, provide social commentary and review punk albums. Many famous zines were created during this era like SNIFFIN’ GLUE and PUNK (which helped associate the genre term ‘punk’ with the bands of that era). Zines continued their popularity well into the ‘90’s where it became the mainstay of Riot Grrrl movement, which combined the ideas of punk rock with Third-Wave Feminism. Now in the digital age, the zine has undergone a resurgence in popularity. The alternative media has eagerly adapted to the possibilities of the internet, existing as e-zines and popularised through websites and blogs such as tumblr. Some zines have evolved to become monumentally popular websites in their own right, such as Boing Boing, which started life in the 1980’s as a cyberpunk zine.

Modern zines are inspired by the DIY ethos of punk, which advocates that absolutely anyone can create art regardless of expertise or training, and that anyone can express their viewpoint via printing with whatever they have to hand, without major financial or corporate backing. It is this ethos that continues to propel the immense energy of the Bristol scene today; from poetry to comics to handwritten text and cut-n-paste stories, the zine culture in Bristol thrives and grows every year, constantly producing exciting, fresh, innovative content that provides a perfect antidote to the mundane restrictions of mainstream media.

“We had a choice between several names that were put forward by our group. One was ‘Trucker’s Arsehole’…I wasn’t keen on that one “



Though zines have existed in Bristol for many years, more recently there has been a huge surge in the sub-culture’s popularity and influence. This is down in part to the work of Bear Pit Zine, a collective of various artists and illustrators from different creative backgrounds, living in the city. Now on their tenth issue, Bear Pit Zine typically centres its issues around abstract themes, such as ‘Line’, ‘Space’, ‘Compulsion’ and ‘Attachment’, all of these have a unifying theme of being related to the city of Bristol itself. The result of this is a wonderfully diverse feast of visual styles and talent, sharing stories both imaginary and personal that can often be funny, intriguing and touching.

In addition to the zine, Bear Pit is responsible for one of the biggest annual zine events in the UK, The Bristol Comic and Zine Fair. Now in it’s 5th year, the BCZF attracts artists from all over the country, to display and sell their work to a wider audience. I spoke to Nick Soucek, one of the founders of BPZ about the origins and aims of Bear Pit and their role as the forefront of Bristol’s zine culture.

Alex: Just for some historical clarity, why’s it called the Bear Pit?

Nick: ‘It is named after the St James Market roundabout space, but we had a choice between several names that were put forward by our group. One was ‘Trucker’s Arsehole’ and I wasn’t keen on that one. I quite liked the idea of something more specific than Bristol, and uh, less offensive. And ‘Truckers Arsehole’ has that kind of punk thing. We’re not punks, but it was more about the philosophy and ethos.’

Alex: Like the DIY kind of thing?

Nick: ‘Yes, it certainly was very DIY – I’ve got very good at stapling; getting it right in the middle, and learning desktop publishing, as well as overcoming practical issues of how to print, like the perspex cover on issue 3. I worked out that if I printed it on the back it wouldn’t rub off.  This works really well. The more you explore, the more ideas you have.’

The genesis of BPZ happened when University of Bristol students Nick Soucek and Simon Morton met fellow artist Dave Lando at Thought Bubble, an ongoing fair dedicated to underground commix, narrative illustration and zines.  Disappointed by the lack of representation for this type of creative outlet in Bristol, the trio decided to form their own collaborative zine that would give a voice to many aspiring artists in the city. Nick explains:  ‘We were wondering well why aren’t there more of our kind of events in Bristol? Why are we bumping to each other in Leeds, but not Bristol? There had been zine events and publications like that in the city before we got into it, but they had ceased to exist. And so from chatting to Dave in Leeds we came up with the two aims of Bear Pit; the publication and the zine fair.’

Alex: So the two started at the same time?

Nick: ‘Tied into the same project; they’re both under the Bear Pit banner. We got back to Bristol and found some likeminded people. We started issue 1 by just putting a call out to people we knew, and on our blog. “We’re putting together a zine, please contribute”. Simon and I were doing our post graduate studies at the time at the University of Bristol, and we both had access photocopiers, so printing was very affordable – it allowed us to sell issue #1 for a pound a copy. We got a good response to a lot our call to submissions, and we’ve always tried to put everything in there –make sure it’s not an exclusionary thing. It’s a forum for ALL Bristol-based comic and zine artists and talent, and that is what continued happening through all these different issues.’

Alex: But it’s not just the zines, you also hold regular meet-ups as well, don’t you?

Nick: ‘Yes, holding regular meetings in connection with choosing the themes for and distributing the zines has helped similar minded people to meet each other and, we hope, work with each other on other new projects. We’ve done ten issues; we’ve been doing this now for four years, and featured many hundreds of pages of work predominantly Bristol-based artists.
People have responded to the publication/zine very positively, both artists and readers. Artists have used it as a way of building their confidence in getting stuff published, and many have gone off to do other things themselves, and that was always the idea of it being a kind of springboard. There’s a lot of great stuff in there, there’s also a lot of stuff of people just starting out and finding their feet, and it was about supporting published and unpublished artists. We’ve tried to accommodate everything when we can, so there has to be some kind of editorial process, but with a philosophy of being very open. If we were trying to kind of produce something that was really high-end that had kind of really refined art, it would be a different kind of project, so that would be not what we were wanting to do.’

Alex: So it’s about giving a voice to people living in Bristol?

Nick: ‘Yes. While we want to have everyone interested in this sort of thing involved, in Bear Pit Zines, of course it is one project in amongst others. We kind of want it to be as open as possible, but we’ve never claimed to be representative of everyone, but we don’t exclude anyone.
There’s a lot of people who do illustration stuff who are into words, pictures and narratives. It’s a really good way of getting something published and on paper without having to do an entire zine oneself, because that can be a daunting prospect. It has achieved what it set out to do, which is help people go into making zines with more confidence. And seeing their stuff on paper makes them think, cool, yeah I can do this.’

Alex: With Bear Pit Zine the focus is on local artists, but with the fair, it’s like a more international kind of feel to it. Or is it still very much trying to encourage local, Bristol artists to it?

“In the zine context, we have helped to put Bristol on the map.”

Nick: ‘The zine is a way for publishing local artists work, the zine fair is very much about a different kind of platform to promote local artists. The event has gradually gotten bigger and bigger. We’re going on now into our third year at the firestation (5th year in total), and we have space for 60+ artists. We do get people from outside of Bristol now, because part of supporting local artists isn’t just giving them a platform to sell their stuff to the Bristol public, but is also meeting people doing similar things in other parts of the country and providing a forum and a space for that to happen in Bristol.
In the zine context, we have helped to put Bristol on the map; it’s a very well regarded event, about which people have been very positive. And it’s gone strength-to-strength. I don’t know the percentage of people who table at the event are from Bristol, but I think people in Bristol who do this kind of stuff are very much aware of the event and will either be tabling there or at least attend to meet up with people, chat and see the kind of cool and interesting kind of stuff that others are up to. This is partly how we got involved into doing the zine fair; we went to other zine fairs and comic events and saw how they were run and thought, actually we could do that to and there was a need for something like that in Bristol, and we found that niche, and we started small, built it up a little bit. And learnt how to do an event, learnt how to put one on. And we wanted other people to see that it is possible, it’s very doable, and that it’s not that hard to do, I mean it’s time consuming, but it’s not that difficult, and that there is a demand for that sort of thing. So that’s great.’


“…people have got something to say, which they might piss someone off with”

The influence of Bear Pit Zine and the BCZF has helped popularise the scene in the city and has put Bristol on the map as being the forefront of underground comic and zine culture. Bear Pit in turn has inspired a great deal of other zine fairs and collectives in the city which have become significant in their own right, such as Shake, a Bristol-based independent art fair run by artist, Max Kemp. Shake started life as an arts event in Falmouth, called Baby Teeth. Wanting to carry on something similar after moving to Bristol, Max, along with Lize Meddings, creator of the zine ‘Sad Ghost Club’, and Robyn Pullford, created Shake, a zine fair inspired by the obnoxiousness and energy of punk rock, that aims to build a community for outsiders.

Alex: A thing I’ve been noticed with zines and their history is how alternative it is; it’s always been a really underground sort of thing, with a kind of rebellious streak to it. Have you at Shake ever felt that presence in the stuff you guys do or zines in general?

Max: Well I first got into zines through punk zines, like the first zine I got was ‘Lucida Console’ by a guy called Hamish, from a band called Bangers. It’s still my favourite zine; he’s very blunt and very honest. And it’s essentially a punk kid writing a zine about whatever he felt, and I got that. I remember ordering a few from the internet back when it was a case of you send a quid in the post and they send you a copy back. And I got that zine of Hamish’s and then was given things from friends in America and from around the world. And there’s this one called ‘Back on the Bins’ and it’s by a guy in Kent called Max which is about the hardcore scene, he’s a big hardcore head. And again that’s great. And it’s all very much like about being straight edge and being in a punk band and touring the world and putting on shows and things. And a huge draw in, is that it’s the whole thing, of you can literally make a zine in a day. I quite like cut-and-paste zines, which I’ve not done as an adult (GCSE Art inspired by the Dead Kennedys record covers was close), but I quite like the idea of cutting and pasting and putting it together.

It’s quite a romantic idea really. It’s like going back to records and tapes and stuff that you physically have to admire, things with character. I’ve got quite a lot of zines in my collection, I’ve got a lot of stuff where someone’s stuck it together and photocopied it in a copy shop and there’s only 20 of it. If you slept on getting a copy, you missed out, kinda deal. And that’s something I find quite cool. Although personally, I’ve got more of a designer-ish type of background, so I tend to lay stuff considerably clean & more thought through. But I really like the whole cut-and-paste, getting-your-hands-dirty, people have got something to say, which they might piss someone off with, kinda vibe that the cut ‘n’ paste ‘zine has. And what I do with Shake is an extension of that, because what we’re trying to do is make a different crowd for a comic-type zine crowd.

Events similar to Shake tend to have quite a heavy ‘nerdy’ and socially awkward vibe about them, and so outsiders to that kinda thing might dismiss it. People tend to perceive it as being this kind of reserved, nerdy crowd (myself included, we’re all in this!) and it doesn’t have to be, especially now when we all have it at our fingertips. And now especially with comics – comics aren’t a thing that adult are embarrassed to say they like now, thanks to Huge Franchises such as Marvel and DC. We always put ‘no dweebs allowed’ on the poster as a kind of joke because I want people to realise that they’re not the nerds and that they’re not the lame ones, and that the guys and girls with no interests other than going out and getting smashed every Friday till Sunday are the real nerds and dweebs; people with no interests or hobbies. And the ones previously considered to be ‘nerds’ or whatever, that are sitting at home all day drawing and reading, that actually have something to say and feel the need to do something more; that’s what Shake’s for.

We try to make it more fun and with music, we try to be less clinical and cold and have more of a warm, social vibe. So we encourage people to come along and meet each other. I sometimes get stall holders that are quite awkward and we’re thoughtful with pairing them up, so obviously, we pair them up with someone who is a bit more of a character, almost as an ice-breaker because there is a lot of people that are very socially-awkward within what we do, which is I guess why they put it to paper, instead of talking about it face to face.
I think it’s nice now that loads of people have met each other. There’s a few stall holders that I’ve had at shake that seem to have a little bit of trouble with talking to people and that try to hide away a lot, but they’re great people, and we get them to come and stall and everyone has a great time and meets loads of like-minded people. And that for us at Shake, Robyn and I, is what we want to do. It’s so satisfying and we’re stoked to be able to do this!  And then we’ve got a lovely girl (I won’t mention names, just in case they aren’t into it), who, like a lot of us, has got her fair share of difficulties and stuff and we’ve drawn her in and she’s been going to Shake from the beginning. She comes in on her own from Cheltenham, and it’s really cool that she always comes to Shake, and Robyn and I have spoken about it and said, that’s essentially what we set out to do; someone’s felt like they can have a good, safe time, and they might not get other humans all the time, but they come along and have the best time. She came along loads and eventually we got her to stall at two events! We love her, she’s great, and amongst many others, we are lucky to have had the pleasure of meeting her through this. Everyone’s really stoked and having a good time and no-one’s judging each other and that stems back to what I was talking about way back, we’re trying to come from a different angle than a lot of other comic and zine kinda events. It tends to be a lot of big, cold halls, head down, not talking to anybody.  At Shake you don’t have to buy, you can just come along, eat a dinner, have a drink and make some friends. For us, the social aspect is as important as the artists stalling.

Max (on Shake):

‘Shake basically is really obnoxious…it’s got the punk mentality’

Basically we made it to make friends and hang out. I love Bear Pit Zines, and I love the Bristol Comic and Zine fair, it’s been a great help to me. Ours is different from theirs, because theirs is a big, almost formal deal; you can tell a lot of organisation goes into it. But Shake basically is really obnoxious, it’s like the obnoxious younger brother of Bear Pit.

Alex: A bit more punk?

Max: Yeah, essentially it’s got the punk mentality. It’s basically that; a comic and zine fair with an attitude. Even though currently at Start the Bus, we haven’t had our own music, when we did it at the Stag and Hounds, we had the speakers to ourselves and I made a Shake playlist. So with Shake, I know what I want with it all, essentially even down to the music, so we want to have a DJ at the next one, or the next one after that, with the music that we’ve chosen so that it seals the deal. The full Shake package!

Alex: So you want to make it into an event?

Max: Yeah, I wanted to make it into its own entity. Before, when I was sorting it through someone else, who was sorting out a DJ, it was nice, but it was very much just background music, like hip-hop 101. But with the playlist we wanted was a lot of punk, very Descendants, American, fast, punk rock. And then a lot of Soul, Mo-town, Jazz and then stuff like psychobilly. We wanted to get the whole thing, where you walk in and there’s no mistaking it; you know what it is. We’ve got a lot we are working on, we’ve got a lot of ideas and we’re building and building it. One year down is a big milestone, but we want to keep doing it, and we want it bigger. We want it to get to the size of Bear Pit Zines Comic and zine fair! And we want to do other stuff, we don’t want to be limited to just that, and want to take it to other towns eventually, I really want to do one in Falmouth, and we want to do little tiny workshops as well as little tiny events here and there. There’s a lovely place called The Phoenix café which is a little non-for profit café, and they’ve said that we can do stuff there, so maybe we’ll start a night where creatives can meet up or something. So many Ideas, always!

With all I had learned about the city’s connection to art and the underground, I asked Max if he thought that Bristol had a certain special something to it that attracts and unites creatively minded people to it:

Max: Yeah, well judging from the people we sort of meet at the moment, almost daily, I would say so. I mean UWE having a very good illustration course is a big factor. But then, I didn’t move here because of the university, I just moved here, because it just seemed like a good place to nurture your creativity. I mean, you can just go down the street and see art everywhere, there’s eccentric people everywhere. And even down to food; you can look anywhere and find any kind of food that you want, at a reasonable price, and there’s affordable housing. So it’s a place where you can nurture your creativity. People can come here and be whatever they want to be. You’ve got music everywhere, you’ve got loads of exhibitions, there are loads of little workshops everywhere, and small art studios. In the UK, it’s the only place you can do it without having to work 40 hours and week and having to get a tube for 2 hours a day. I wouldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the UK.

Words by Alex Screen


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