Blogging & Zine-Making in a Post-NOCAZ World

When we first started this blog in January of 2015, I had no idea what I was doing. From a web design, self-promotion, and editorial standpoint, it’s arguable that’s still true in our fifth year of operation. Swampflix is still an exceedingly amateur blogging project – somewhat by choice. I do think we’ve come to properly contextualize what we’re doing as an amateur film criticism collective over time, but our initial months were purely run on impulse. It was a time when all my favorite professional critics were losing their staff jobs on dream projects like The Dissolve (R.I.P.) to enter into the nightmare world of writing freelance, so I had no ambitions to turn this into a lucrative profession. Mainly, I just wanted to write. A few years away from the college classroom (where I l earned a very useful degree in Poetry), I found that I was no longer writing anything creative without the impetus of deadlines or a community to share feedback with, so I created both stimuli as best as I could in Swampflix. After we were all simultaneously laid off from the same call-center job in late-2014, I banded together with James & Britnee to fill our sudden wealth of free time by putting into print what we were already doing on our work breaks: chatting about movies. I set arbitrary goals for myself: writing one new movie review a day for two consecutive years while pushing my collaborators to post as much as they could contribute and both editing & illustrating each post myself. While I can say for sure that my Sharpie-doodle illustrations have noticeably improved over time, I’m not sure the same is true for my writing. I feel like I’ve hit a personal plateau with the quality of my craft in the past couple years and have only continued to produce daily #content out of pure personal compulsion – both the compulsion to discuss & discover movies with a like-minded community and the compulsion to do something creative with my free time. Those early jobless months have gradually given way to a newfound bureaucratic routine that pays my bills, but at least I have a somewhat creative hobby on the side in Swampflix to keep myself sane & entertained.

Even if my personal increase in quality has stagnated in recent years, Swampflix has remained interesting & rewarding to me in how it’s evolved as a collaborative project. Over the years, we’ve expanded the one-movie-review-a-day template into a much more complex routine. A bi-monthly podcast, weekly film-screening bulletins, monthly conversations, recurring features on niche topics, film festival round-ups , and all sorts of collaborative projects have helped define the Swampflix ritual as our initial three-person team has included & cycled through eight contributing writers over five consecutive years of daily posts (with Boomer being our most consistent additional contributor since late in our first year). None of these sub-projects have been as revelatory & invigorating as making zines, which we were entirely inspired to undertake by attending NOCAZ. The first New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival was held in November of 2014, exactly at the time when the original Swampflix trio were about to be laid off & looking for a creative outlet. Without a doubt, I would have started a movie blog that following January even if I had not attended the first NOCAZ; I had already started writing movie reviews in unlikely venues like The Dissolve comment sections and – I kid you not – weekly newsletters Britnee organized & edited for our defunct call center job, so an official blog was somewhat inevitable. I might have even arrived at the zine-like, high-contrast Sharpie illustrations aesthetic without it, given my ancient past drawing up flyers to promote long-dead punk bands I was in a lifetime ago. One thing is for certain, though: there would be no Swampflix zines without NOCAZ. I attended the first NOCAZ fest as a customer, never having made a zine before in my life, and I dutifully distributed Swampflix zines at each subsequent year’s fest until 2019 – the fifth & final NOCAZ. Making movie fanzines for NOCAZ was an intensely rewarding, labor-intensive ritual both because there was a tangible product associated with the work that we obviously don’t get from blogging and because it helped contextualize everything we were doing as an amateur film criticism collective with no chance of ever going Legit. Basically, everything I know about blogging & online self-promotion I learned from physically tabling zines for NOCAZ in the real world.

Self-publishing in the digital hellscape of the 2010s often feels like shouting into the online void. We occasionally receive positive feedback from a reader (or, more often, an amateur filmmaker whose work we caught at a festival), but those exchanges maybe occur twice or thrice a year. Mostly, we publish movie reviews for their own sake – finding enjoyment in the act of writing and the impetus to analyze films on a deeper level than we would if we were watching them purely as passive entertainment. I’ve found the most joy in this project when collaborating with similarly-minded bloggers – We Love to Watch, Luddite Robot, Jean-Pod Van Damme, etc. – but even those exchanges are sparse, as we’re all doing this in our free time outside the jobs that actually pay our bills. What I get from attending NOCAZ every year is a concentrated, amplified macro-dose of my favorite parts of film blogging in a potent two-day span. The New Orleans Comics and Zines festival was an annual opportunity to spend an entire weekend in the nerd-sanctuary of the public library with an overwhelming influx of amateur & outsider artists. Comic, zines, art prints, and everything in-between lined labyrinths of tables in the exhibition room, fostering a powerful environment of pure creativity uninhibited by official publication gatekeepers or access to the means of production. Every year, NOCAZ had the ideal D.I.Y. punk effect on me, the exact spirit you hope to be infected with at any punk community event: it made me want to make art. A lot of work goes into making new zines & buttons for the festival every year on top of our daily blogging, making for the most needlessly labor-intensive form of self-promotion imaginable. Still, it’s a way for us to make sure a few more locals are aware that we exist every year and a way for us to enjoy our own work as a tangible product instead of a shout into the digital void. Most importantly, though, NOCAZ was invigorating & inspiring as a temporary community of artists encouraging each other to keep doing their thing and trading around samples of their wares in conversational creativity.

The fifth & final NOCAZ, held in April of 2019, was a major success for us. We distributed around 40 Swampflix zines, reconnected with zinesters we met at previous festivals like last year’s ALA Conference, and met a real-life fan of the podcast (who is somehow a real human being & not a bot). There was even a sense of accomplishment in finally selling out of some of the zines we made in 2015 for our first year tabling at the festival – bringing our time with NOCAZ full circle in a satisfactory way. I was honestly embarrassed to sell some of those older zines, as I felt like the quality of our work has greatly improved since that first year, but there was still something encouraging about people being intrigued about something we made so long ago. That validation made me want to make more & better art. Talking to strangers about movies all weekend made me want to make more & better art. Being around so many creative, actively engaged artists in such an intimate, real-world space made me want to make more & better art. The final NOCAZ left me feeling the same impulse as every year’s festival before it: the need to do more and to do better. According to their own mission statement, “NOCAZ [was] an attempt to make a space for self-published artists and thinkers to put their work out in the public sphere and be able to reach each other without the constraints and expense of the commercial publishing industry. Zines are a participatory format and we hope bringing multiple perspectives under one roof [created] dialogue and [inspired] more people to express themselves through print.” I can report that, at least for us, the short-lived festival was a resounding success on those terms. I also suspect we were far from the only attendees who started making zines for the first time after attending the fest. The festival ending has obviously sent me into a tailspin of self-reflection and reassessment of what we’ve been doing over the last five years, since so much of our own work has been directly inspired & guided by our NOCAZ experience. There were more than enough people in the library for this last fest to prove that there’s an interest in a new annual zine event to fill that void now that NOCAZ is gone. And believe me, it’s a massive void.

-Brandon Ledet

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